Though banks of all sizes have recently rushed to set up business-to-business Internet marketplaces, some banks are taking a pass, figuring that these services may turn out to be a fad, or something the bank does not need to offer.
"We are in a wait-and-see mode," said Jeffrey Cross, a senior vice president at $16 billion-asset Hibernia National Bank. "The landscape is uncertain, and a bank my size can't be everything to everyone." Mr. Cross added, "The people who predict that business-to-business will shoot up are the same people who said we would be a cashless society in 2000, and that ATMs would reduce traffic in branches."
Mr. Cross said many of his small-business customers have fewer than four employees, and the owners are not interesting in moving their purchasing activities to the Internet. "When we talk to customers about B-to-B, it can be on the bottom of their needs," Mr. Cross said. "They want good customer service and consistency first."
Hibernia is not the only bank sitting on the sidelines, but the banks that have moved forward with B-to-B shopping services have gotten a lot of attention. Just a little more than a year ago the term "business-to-business marketplace" began slipping into the vocabularies of bank technology executives, and soon the concept was forming the foundation of numerous banks' corporate Internet strategies.
In rapid succession early last year, banks including Citigroup Inc., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., and Bank of America Corp. announced their intentions to build and sponsor online areas where their corporate customers could buy and sell goods. Banks deem themselves natural providers of such services because they can neatly tie all purchasing and accounting activities back into the cash management programs they already operate on behalf of clients.
But a session at the Bank Administration Institute's B-to-B eCommerce conference in Miami last week showed that the industry's rush to build digital marketplaces has not affected all banks in the same way. While Hibernia is shunning the trend, Bank One Corp. is moving headlong into business-to-business electronic commerce.
The relative sizes of Bank One and Hibernia and their corporate cash management businesses may go a long way toward explaining the different attitudes they have toward online marketplaces. Cash management generates $1.8 billion in gross revenue at $273 billion-asset Bank One, compared to $75 million at Hibernia.
But even banks much smaller than Hibernia have chosen to hop onto the marketplace bandwagon. More than 1,800 have joined eScout.com, an online marketplace formed by $9 billion-asset UMB Financial that connects banks' small-business customers.
Hibernia's customers do not have much capital to spend on the infrastructure necessary to do business on the Internet, Mr. Cross said. "Most of our customers still use a green ledger and then cut a check," he said.
Nor is the ability to retain customers that might otherwise leave the bank a strong enough reason for Hibernia to make the large investment in business-to-business electronic commerce. "Is customer retention enough?" Mr. Cross asked. "If a customer is so willing to leave us because of a B-to-B exchange, I don't know if they are a good customer."
Hibernia is waiting for its customers to answer two questions before it takes the plunge into digital marketplaces, Mr. Cross said. "Will they participate, and will they pay for it?"
Bank One, meanwhile, is convinced its customers are ready. In August it dedicated 14 employees to determine the best way to promote business-to-business electronic commerce to its 55,000 corporate clients.
"We don't build anything, we talk to our customers and understand what they are working on to decide how we should aim at the space," said William McKnight Farrow 3d, a senior vice president at Bank One.
Its customers range from small businesses to large corporations, and it is devising solutions for each end of the spectrum, Mr. Farrow said.
"There is an opportunity in small-business, but it looks different," he said. "We have to respect the stickiness from the advantage of intimacy."
Mr. Farrow said he realizes customers may change their routines slowly. "Our customers don't necessarily want to change their business processes. They only take components and change it a piece at a time," he said.
Finding excess capital to invest in the infrastructure necessary to support electronic commerce is also an obstacle at Bank One, Mr. Farrow said. But he estimates that Bank One can cut $20 million from its expenses by bringing business-to-business transactions online.
Bank One is also emboldened by rosy predictions about business interest in electronic commerce, such as one from American Management Systems Inc., that estimates almost one in ten businesses conducts electronic commerce with its customers.
"When this gets velocity, it will take off," Mr. Farrow said, "and you are either in or you are not."