Huntington Bancshares, well known for its high-tech prowess, is counting on computers to boost retail sales of mutual funds and annuities.

The first step of the banking company's splashy technology-driven strategy frees platform workers to sell investment products by encouraging customers to help themselves to more traditional services.

Customers can now apply for loans or credit cards - even open checking accounts - by using an expanding network of advanced ATM machines or by telephone.

The second step of the strategy provides powerful financial planning and selling tools to platform workers.

"We're trying to leverage what's already there: a network of offices and the people who work there," said Richard "Skip" Blythe Jr., president of Huntington Investment Co., the bank's broker-dealer.

By placing computerized financial planning and investment product information on the desktops of the 383 platform employees licensed to sell mutual funds, the Columbus, Ohio, bank plays its technological edge to full advantage, executives said.

Huntington relies on regional teams of platform workers guided by 30 brokers to sell mutual funds and annuities at its affiliate banks in the Midwest, Appalachia, and Florida.

The bank's mutual fund product line includes its own Monitor funds plus offerings from AIM, Colonial, Kemper, Fidelity Adviser, Federated, and Van Kampen American.

A bank executive declined to give dollar totals, but said mutual funds accounted for 60% and annuities 40% of investment sales last year.

The bank's reliance on computer technology has translated into more income from platform employees' sales of investment products, bank executives said. "They are not spending so much time on stuff that is reactive," said Mr. Blythe. "Now they can be focused on revenue."

Thus far, the bank's faith in the platform - and computers -seems to be paying off.

"Our investment (sales) revenues, in general, are triple what they were in 1990 and 1991," Mr. Blythe said. "Part of this is positioning within the bank," he acknowledged, explaining that in 1990, the bank had only eight retail sales people.

Income from retail sales of investment product surpassed $8.1 million in 1995, up 22% from the previous year, according to a bank spokeswoman. While that may be a healthy jump, overall sales revenue remains below its $9 million high in 1993.

For this year, the bank forecasts income from retail investment product sales to hit $8.8 million.

Despite Huntington's devotion to technology, mutual fund and annuity sales don't take place without at least a "virtual" personal touch.

Even a customer at one of the bank's 12 Access banks, which feature interactive ATMs with video links to bankers at branch offices, can connect with an investment adviser by video conference.

"There's a button that says investments, and pressing it puts you in touch with a human being," explained Paula G. Jurcenko, assistant vice president for investment product marketing.

Despite all its technological firepower, at least one expert doubts that even Huntington's video link to a human face will yield significant investment product sales.

"It's all about a personal relationship, not a video screen," said John Philip Sousa 4th, president of Investment Program Marketing, a consulting firm based in Henderson, Nev.

"What makes a good sales person is the relationship, whether they're selling aluminum siding, or investment products in a bank," he said.

But others give Huntington high marks for at least trying technological ways of delivering investment products.

"It's in its infancy and they're just getting rolling," said Ronald Petnuch, senior vice president and director of client service for Federated Service Co., administrator and distributor for Huntington's Monitor funds.

"Instead of sitting back and watching what's happening, they're out conducting the experiment."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.