Dazed by the growing number of options and confused by high-pressure sales pitches, some community bankers are turning to technology consultants.

"Hiring a consultant provides the necessary hand-holding, or courage, needed to make tough technology choices," said Keith Chambers, chief financial officer at Austin Bancorp Inc. of Jacksonville, Tex.

Consultants typically will first assess what a bank can accomplish with the software and hardware it already owns.

"We had invested a ton of money in technology, but we weren't utilizing it," said Robert W. Daigle, president and chief executive officer of Camden (Maine) National Bank, part of a two-bank holding company with $650 million of assets.

Camden National hired ViTEX Inc. of Mooresville, N.C., last summer to develop a three-year technology plan and get the bank's computers ready for 2000. Total tab: $75,000-far less than the cost of hiring a technology staff.

"What we got was a technology plan that's a working document-no fluff," Mr. Daigle said.

Camden National has overhauled its loan processing system, making it faster and more accurate; has introduced cash management services for commercial customers; and has begun on-line banking for retail customers.

At $480 million-asset Austin Bancorp, Mr. Chambers said consultants helped design a debit card program and hire a vendor, replace the bank's internal phone system, and research other ideas.

Firms like ViTEX and its major competitor in the Southeast, Brintech Inc., do not sell software or hardware and do not get fees from vendors for pushing their products. "They've got no bias," Mr. Daigle said. "They're truly an independent resource."

Because they have experience negotiating contracts with vendors, consultants can help banks get a better deal. One banker attending the National Conference for Community Bankers here this week said consultants helped his bank save 30% on the purchase of some customer relationship management software.

"They paid for themselves," the unidentified banker said during a session at the American Bankers Association's conference.

Some community banks hire consultants because it is hard to find and retain employees with the necessary skills, said Harold Brewer, CEO of Brintech in New Smyrna Beach, Fla.

"They look to us to improve their return on technology investments," he said. "They also get a cohesive long-term strategy for buying and implementing technology."

Mr. Brewer, a former community banker in Georgia, founded Brintech in 1993 with Randall A. Roth, an 18-year veteran of IBM. After two years, the men split and Mr. Roth founded ViTEX. Both firms have about 25 employees and more than 100 community bank clients. The cost of a technology assessment and three-year plan runs about $35,000, according to both firms. Most clients opt to keep the consultants on retainer, paying roughly $1,000 a month for ongoing advice.

Beyond integrating existing networks, community bankers are most interested in check imaging and home banking, the consultants said. Both advised against buying a check imaging system unless a bank's existing equipment is failing. They were more excited about the potential of Internet banking.

A bank's Web site can be the community's door to the rest of the Internet, Mr. Brewer said. Brintech helped United Bank Corp. in Barnesville, Ga., set up a Web site that links customers to everything from local media outlets to weather reports to stock quotes. "We've never had anything that sets us apart like this service," said United president J. Joseph Edwards.

The $415 million-asset bank hired Brintech in 1996 to help it chart the future. "It's a changing river we're fishing in," Mr. Edwards said. "The problem is not finding technology products; the problem is finding the right ones."

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