Technology guru William Randle of Huntington Bankshares is spreading the word that his company can catapult banks into the electronic age.
The latest brochure from William Randle, Huntington Bancshares' top marketing officer and apostle of technological change, packs more than the usual wallop.
It is less a sales pitch than a revolutionary manifesto.
It is Mr. Randle's attempt to jolt the banking industry into the mainstream of interactive information technology, a job for which he believes Huntington is uniquely prepared, and from which it could profit handsomely.
The slick brochure, which Mr. Randle has been passing around to some of the nation's bigger financial institutions and transaction processing organizations, is nominally about E-Bank. Huntington's "strategic platform" for putting banks onto the information superhighway.
But underlying the "propaganda" is some very real, highly advanced telecommunications technology that Huntington inherited from its ill-fated partnership with AT&T Corp. to create a sophisticated SmartPhone in the early 1990s.
Mr. Randle is saying that banks have an opportunity, and now the technological means, to control their destiny in a world that most observers have assumed will be ruled by software giants like Microsoft and media-entertainment conglomerates like Time Warner.
The concept is so radical, so un-banklike -- and, some say, so presumptuous for a mere Ohio-based superregional -- that Mr. Randle has run up against a good deal of skepticism.
With his E-Bank publicity, Mr. Randle is taking the wraps off of what he and his current systems partner, Network Programs Inc., have been building on the former AT&T platform for the past two years. He calls their capability "computerized telephony," and says boldly, "Nobody else has this."
Now he is confronting the question: Will anybody buy it?
With MasterCard and Visa signing financial institutions by the dozen to use their "gateways" into home banking and related information services, and the pending Microsoft-Intuit merger concentrating some of those same energies outside the industry, a $16 billion-asset banking company in Columbus, Ohio, clearly seems out of its league.
Also, most bankers believe that control of the information highway will rest with others, and that banks' energies are best channeled to holding on to their customer relationships amid the confusion.
Mr. Randle includes the card associations, Microsoft, and several banking industry vendors and networks among the forward-thinking elite who understand where the technology is headed. But he criticizes the card groups for being "card-centric" in their thinking, or for steering their members down limited paths, as exemplified by Visa's acquisition of a specific bill payment technology from U.S. Order.
He also believes too many bank executives either are ignoring the business opportunities or are in denial about how fast their world is going to change. Obviously not in that group would be Huntington Bancshares chairman Frank Wobst and other top executives who have supported several million dollars of research and development dating back to the AT&T SmartPhone project.
"There isn't another bank in the country where I could be doing this," said Mr. Randle, a senior vice president, who has pushed the holding company into such alternative delivery systems as a telephone-based "direct bank" and a fully automated "virtual branch." "Banking does not have to sit passively by and be a bystander," Mr. Randle said in a recent interview.
"With the base technology from AT&T and advanced systems software, we have something for every bank in the world that is looking for a gateway solution for its customers."
As the brochure puts it: "The E-Bank strategic platform is the right solution for any bank. This unique fault-tolerant, sealable, distributed computing environment puts the most advanced technology available today directly into the control of your bank simply and quickly -- yet with the same plug-and-play efficiency of the third-party option."
Addressing the concern that nonbank competitors might usurp consumer financial relationships, the brochure added, "You are not just a name on a screen or a logo on a plastic card. You are the actual provider of financial services and, if you wish, your customer's branded gateway to the whole world of electronic services."
The control issue has been similarly articulated by MasterCard, Visa, and by Interactive Transaction Partners, the last a joint venture of Electronic Data Systems Corp., U S West, and France Telecom.
Visa and ITP both struck an alliance with Block Financial Corp. to make the Managing Your Money software available through their home banking programs. All three organizations were wary of the competing Microsoft Money and Intuit Quicken strategies. Similar criticisms have been aimed at Checkfree Corp., a dominant brand in electronic bill paying, but not from MasterCard, with which Checkfree is allied.
Huntington, which does not dismiss any potential alliance ideas, claims that its technology, including some key patents. sets it apart.
Huntington took ownership when AT&T was unable to meet its contractual obligation to deliver the SmartPhone in 1992. In the settlement, Huntington got for a song a product of one of the corporate world's top research and development entities.
Mr. Randle is taking the system to the next level with Network Programs, a partnership of AT&T veterans and telecommunications innovators Philip Wilkinson, B. Gopinath, and David Kurshan, They are assembling technology pieces that include asynchronous transfer mode switches, synchronous optical network (Sonet) high-speed data transmission, data encryption, "video dial tone," and client-server architecture all of which can be demonstrated at their Piscataway, N.J., laboratory.
The digital capacity, or bandwidth, is so great that the cost of a simple voice telephone call becomes trivial, The system can support any access device, from the basic telephone to personal computers to set-top boxes for interactive video. A new generation of intelligent screen phones, named for Huntington's SmarTel business unit, will be another option.
Crucial to Mr. Randle's pitch is that E-Bank puts a bank, which can be of any size, in the driver's seat. Its products and brands are in the forefront, and it serves as the gateway to outside services and networks. While Huntington provides the "platform," and presumably collects royalties, it could actually be delivered by a credit card association, data or transaction processor, or systems integrator. Mr. Randle is spending much of his time trying to interest such entities.
"If you can't play in that game," Mr. Randle said of the assembled technologies, "you're always going to be somebody else's customer."
One of the skeptics is William P. Anderson, president of Block Financial, the Visa and ITP software partner. He doubts that banks can play the gateway role well, because it requires merchandising skills they may not have.
And to do well as a merchandiser, "a bank may have to be willing to dilute its image of trust with the customer," Mr. Anderson said.
But he called those behind E-Bank "smart people" and pointed out that "in this brave new world, everybody is empowered."
Mr. Wilkinson of Network Programs said his work on a "full-service gateway for interactive multimedia" indicates how imminent and economical the technology is.
"The biggest risk is doing nothing, whether you're a bank or a telephone company," said Mr. Wilkinson, who at AT&T worked on the original SmartPhone project. "Wait too long and you won't be able to recover."