Year after year, banks come up with new ways to attract investment customers and expand their presence in the mutual fund business. Here are some of the bright ideas that caught our attention during the past 12 months:

*** *Take a stake: Convinced that community banks will want to sell investments for years to come, First American Corp. ($9.9 billion assets, Nashville) bought Invest Financial Corp., a top provider of brokerage services. *Break from the pack: NationsBank Corp. ($192.3 billion assets, Charlotte, N.C.) created a class of no-load funds - rare at banks - for customers who don't seek a broker's advice. *Ask for what you want: Firstar Corp. ($18.8 billion assets, Milwaukee) got regulatory clearance to offer perks such as free checking and safe deposit boxes to mutual fund investors. *Watch the calendar: Tax season was a roaring success for Dreyfus Corp., a unit of Mellon Bank Corp. ($42.8 billion assets, Pittsburgh), which offered kits for "emergency" individual retirement account investments via America Online. *Go for star quality: Prospective investors turned out in droves to hear public broadcasting television personality and market guru Louis Rukeyser at a seminar sponsored by Signet Bank ($11.5 billion assets, Richmond, Va.). *Get visual: People's Bank ($7.4 billion assets, Bridgeport, Conn.) expanded its investment sales presence without adding staff by creating video links between 15 branches and its brokerage office. *Look the part: A brokerage office smartly outfitted in mahogany and leather helped Bank Center First ($100 million, Bismarck, N.D.) reap 10% of its profits from investment sales. *Do-it-yourself: James Litton, CEO of First Mineola Corp. ($36 million assets, Mineola, Tex.), doubles as the bank's investment sales representative. *Perk up: Sterling Bank and Trust ($950 million assets, San Francisco) serves up free coffee along with investment products and advice at a "cafe branch" staffed by four employees. *Pick a niche: Dauphin Deposit Bank and Trust Co. ($5.5 billion assets, Harrisburg, Pa.) focuses on funds for employee benefit plans, no retail customers. *Blaze a trail: Wells Fargo & Co. ($108.6 billion assets, San Francisco) became the first bank to let customers sign up for money market mutual funds via the Internet. *Think events: BankAmerica Corp.'s Bank of America Washington unit ($17.3 billion assets, Seattle) stretches its advertising dollars by sponsoring seminars such as a personal finance expo that drew 1,500. *Fly high: Star Bank Corp. ($9.6 billion assets, Cincinnati) rewards investors in its mutual funds with frequent-flier miles. *Reach out: PNC Bank Corp. ($72.1 billion assets, Pittsburgh) inked deals to sell its funds through several big-name brokerage firms.

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