FleetBoston Financial Corp.'s expansion within New York City has generally been aimed at providing better access to its existing regional customers, many of whom commute to Manhattan, and gaining more business from them.

That expansion got its latest addition on Monday as Fleet opened a flagship office in the city, a 2,500-square-foot combination facility at the MetLife Building - which also happens to be right at Grand Central Terminal. The choice echoes Fleet's presence in a number of commuter hubs, including the midtown Port Authority bus terminal, Penn Station, and the World Trade Center in New York.

The Grand Central facility, however, is unique in that it features six banking and brokerage representatives who provide banking, lending, and investment services, including products through Quick & Reilly Inc., Fleet's brokerage firm. Customers can access their accounts using six online investment and banking stations and six automatic teller machines, and can complete routine banking transactions, apply for consumer and small business loans, and make stock trades.

"The opening of our new Fleet investment center shows our intent on being a progressive player in New York City," said Bradford H. Warner, vice chairman of Fleet's consumer business group. "It is a premier location, designed to serve the estimated 2.3 million people - many of them commuters - who work in Manhattan each day."

Though Fleet welcomes a chance to reach new customers, its main goals seem to be putting a better foot forward on the customer service front and gaining wallet share from its customer base in the process.

Speaking at a conference hosted by Merrill Lynch in New York, Charles K. Gifford, Fleet's president and chief operating officer, discussed that very topic - one he has cited as Fleet's top priority and which he referred to on Monday as a "crusade." Specifically, Fleet is looking to reduce its customer attrition rate to 12%, down from 18% in the fourth quarter 2000.

After a decade of consolidation in which the company has merged eight of the largest 10 banks in New England into Fleet, it had lost sight of customer service, he said. "When you get in an environment like that you don't think of the customers, you think conversion and cost deadlines," Mr. Gifford said.

Mr. Gifford said that management is focused on penetrating its extensive customer base and strengthening its business lines. On the consumer side, he said he sees opportunities to increase online adoption, deepen credit card relationships, and expand Quick & Reilly relationships.

On the corporate side, cross-selling opportunities continue to pay off, as product revenues for corporate banking increased 28%, to $225 million in the second quarter from a year earlier, the company noted in its presentation.

Still, FleetBoston's stock has suffered as a result of the company's slow commercial loan growth, a sluggish capital market, and the economic trouble in Argentina, where the company derives about 3% of its earnings. But Mr. Gifford said the company is looking to Latin America for future earnings.

"Normally, we like to invest where you can predictably grow your earnings," he said. "Latin America for the past decade has been the most predictable double-digit grower," he said, adding that a company invested in Argentina and Brazil has "tremendous opportunity."

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