Something seems incongruous about the contexts in which Huntington Bancshares gets mentioned.

One was a list of "companies leading the industry's transformation" compiled last year by Tom Brown, the influential securities analyst from Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette. Huntington, the second-biggest banking company in Columbus, Ohio, made the cut with Citicorp and Wells Fargo, First Bank System and Norwest, and the credit card banks Capital One, First USA, and MBNA.

Banc One, which historically has overshadowed its Columbus rival, was not on the list.

When the Financial Services Technology Consortium was forming in 1993 and 1994, a collective move by many of the biggest U.S. banking companies to get up to speed on advanced developments of mutual interest, Huntington was among the first to heed the call of the group's initial organizer, Citicorp, a company 10 times its size.

When the Bankers Roundtable, an elite trade group for the most senior executives of 125 big holding companies, formed a committee for high-level discussions of emerging technology and payment-system issues, it appointed as chairman Frank Wobst, Huntington's chairman and chief executive officer - who was outspoken last year in calling for action on those matters.

Huntington comes by the recognition honestly, if not by dint of its relatively modest $20 billion of assets. It has been in the forefront of such high-tech innovations as telephone banking, automated branching, and the Internet. On the wholesale side, it has been a leader in the movement toward electronic methods of check presentment and more radical forms of paperless commerce.

Huntington is also making a move on smart cards in a joint venture with Battelle Memorial Institute and Sallie Mae, their sights initially set on payment and identification systems for colleges and universities.

Mr. Wobst's close adviser and in-house technology advocate, William M. Randle, hints there may still be a future for the patented screen-phone technology that Huntington put on the shelf a few years ago after deciding the innovation was "ahead of its time."

If it all sounds just a little off the charts of tradition-bound midwestern community banking, then Mr. Wobst and Mr. Randle would say they are accomplishing exactly what they set out to do. They don't want to sound like bankers.

"The invention of the chip is to our time what the steam engine was earlier, but its impact is more rapid," Mr. Wobst said in a recent interview.

"We are uncertain about some of the answers, but certain things are clear: Our historical protections are going away." Customer "loyalties are changing. We have to find different ways to deliver services to customers."

"It's not about asset size any more," Mr. Randle said. "It's about finding a unique way to deploy information technology."

Mr. Randle said he admires - and ultimately would like to achieve something like - what Fifth Third Bancorp did with Midwest Payment Systems. The payment processing subsidiary has grown into a veritable money machine, a major factor in the greater-than-average price-earnings multiple on the Cincinnati bank's stock.

Analysts other than DLJ's Mr. Brown tend to be less impressed with "new things."

Michael Granger of Fox-Pitt Kelton said Huntington's "technical excellence (is) very good and interesting" and may make it more efficient but that he doesn't see it as much of a performance factor. There are concerns Huntington is "spending too much, given the size of the company."

Still, Mr. Granger has rated the stock a "hold." What problems it has had, he noted, were in mortgage banking and auto finance, unrelated to electronics.

If not quite in Fifth Third's league, Huntington is profitable enough (second-quarter return on average assets, 1.32%; return on equity, 17.56%) to do an unusual amount of research and development - and to buy back stock, Mr. Granger pointed out.

Huntington is able to assert its independence with a market-to-book premium well above 2.0 (Fifth Third's is closer to 3.0) and, among other "assets," a nice paper profit on its $2 million of seed money for one of the year's IPO sensations, the Internet banking enterprise Security First Network Bank.

"The way this business is going," Mr. Randle said, "you have to be very damn big or very damn smart, or your fate is pretty much sealed."

He has spent the last six years at Huntington pushing "smart," which to him means a reinvention of banking. To underscore his sense of urgency, he warns that Microsoft Corp. and other technology-rich outsiders have designs on the banking business. Even if other bankers don't want to listen, Mr. Randle vows to fight the invasion.

Through speaking engagements - increasingly frequent in the "alternative delivery" frenzy of the last few years - and activity in the Bankers Roundtable, Bank Administration Institute, and Bank Marketing Association, Mr. Randle has become a respected, if controversial, visionary. To some, he is reminiscent of John Fisher, a champion orator and technology provocateur from the 1960s through the 1980s who happened to work down the street at Banc One. (See page 7A.) Mr. Randle is softer-spoken but equally plain- speaking.

He toiled more than 20 years to get into this limelight.

Leaving the Navy in 1969, he landed at Atlantic Bancorp. in Jacksonville, Fla., in its brand-new credit card department. That nontraditional point of entry was to color - or jaundice - Mr. Randle's view of his industry.

By the early 1980s, after he had climbed to a senior retail banking post by way of credit cards and marketing, statewide branching had come to Florida. Midsize banks like Atlantic scrambled for ways to serve broader areas more efficiently, while weighing the longer-term question of whether to merge into a larger organization.

Among Mr. Randle's responses was a central facility to serve Individual Retirement Accounts. And out of that grew his first attempt at a "direct bank," one that deals with customers by telephone, ATM, or other branchless means. Influenced by his personal experience with United Services Automobile Association, the insurance company for military officers that pioneered agentless, mail-telephone relationships, he created a direct banking operation at an Atlantic branch in 1984.

First Union Corp. acquired Atlantic in 1985, and Mr. Randle got broader assignments, moving to the Charlotte, N.C., headquarters in 1987 as senior vice president of marketing. The direct branch didn't survive.

Mr. Randle said he was never able to win the support from chairman Edward Crutchfield and president John Georgius that First Union executive vice president Fred Winkler has gained in recent years to assemble one of banking's most aggressive electronic commerce strategies.

Mr. Wobst came calling with what Mr. Randle saw as a winning proposition. His current notoriety notwithstanding, Mr. Randle is no Svengali in this relationship. Mr. Wobst created the platform for Mr. Randle, for Huntington's reasons. And Mr. Randle is clearly serving them.

Huntington's president from 1974 - he had previously spent 18 years at Fidelity National Bank in Lynchburg, Va. - and chief executive of the holding company since 1981, Mr. Wobst in the 1980s arrived at similar conclusions about banking's failure to keep up with competitive and technological change. His Bankers Roundtable work stems from a conviction that some collective action will be necessary for banks to keep control of customer relationships.

"Look at our branches," said Mr. Wobst, now 62 and expecting to remain chairman several more years. "That type of utilization of fixed assets in any business other than banking leads to failure."

Convinced that that logic was catching up to his own business, Mr. Wobst said he needed a change agent: "somebody not involved in the day-to-day operation of the company, open-minded, a free thinker."

Mr. Randle, 56, filled the bill. He arrived in 1990, obviously confident he had support at the top. But that didn't mean free sailing.

As senior vice president of marketing and strategic planning, Mr. Randle was a member of the corporate staff. He had to win over line managers to the grand vision of a far less labor- and capital-intensive approach to service delivery. Mr. Wobst knew from his own dealings with senior executives that pitched battles lay ahead.

Mr. Randle "was staff and had to sell," Mr. Wobst said. "The matrix management system relies on persuasion. It can be very difficult in the short run, but in the long run you get the buy-in that you need.

"I'm pleased to say that the need for change, that frame of mind, is now accepted by 80% to 90% of the senior management - and 100% of those who count," Mr. Wobst said.

By turning Mr. Randle loose internally and on the lecture circuit, Mr. Wobst invited a spotlight on his bank and its bias toward change and technology.

A press release in early 1991 may have seemed to come out of nowhere: Huntington said it would be the first bank with a two-way video system for customer service, called "Talk to the Expert." This was actually a step toward Personal Touch, a self-service kiosk with video capability. It has become a fixture in many branch locations, including the 13 Access branches that are replete with advanced-function ATMs and other machinery available 24 hours a day, with a concierge-like employee on site during business hours.

Huntington opened its first Access facility in October 1994, converting a traditional branch in the lobby of Nationwide Insurance's headquarters in Columbus.

That was just part of a building-block approach to higher-tech delivery, with Huntington Direct, the branchless bank, at its foundation. The video customer-service calls, like all telephone calls from customers, go to the Huntington Direct area of the operations center.

The full-service direct bank opened in 1992, modeled after the USAA idea that also influenced Midland Bank's million-customer First Direct offshoot in London. (Huntington executives spent time at both institutions learning the ropes; now, they entertain visitors from abroad.)

Huntington Direct has about 170 employees working in round-the-clock shifts every day of the year. Besides doing customer service and off- loading business from conventional branches, they sell.

"Our call-to-sale ratio is 12% to 15%," at least twice the average, said Peter E. Geier, executive vice president for consumer services, whom Mr. Randle calls one of the "heroes" of his revolution. He also cited David R. Owen, senior vice president and head of Huntington National Bank's central Ohio retail business, which integrated the Access branches right into its strategy rather than waiting for feedback from isolated pilots away from the home region.

Mr. Owen pointed out that Huntington is still a bank, with many customers older than 55 it does not want to forsake. Those desiring and willing to pay for personal service get it through a network of highly trained personal counselors.

Meanwhile, Huntington Direct and the Access branches are having the desired effect, Mr. Owen said. His Columbus branches employed 270 full- time-equivalent tellers and 185 sales associates in 1992 - and 217 and 144, respectively, in 1995. But more products were sold in 1995 - 124,000, up from 73,000 - and the average sales associate sold 861, up from 395.

Revenues per employee and sales associate almost doubled during the three years. Paper-based transactions, measured by the number of items returned with statements, declined 10%, thanks to the direct bank and Huntington's bill payment service, which is transmitting 60% of 100,000 monthly requests electronically.

Several Columbus locations that were converted into Access branches have maintained their historical transaction volumes while, by definition, reducing teller transactions to zero. At some full-service locations, now aligned in a "hub and spoke" configuration, ATM transactions equal those of customer service representatives.

"It works," Mr. Owen said. "By freeing them from service and transaction responsibilities, which can be handled by the direct bank, our people can focus on selling and relationship banking, which is what we are all about."

Looking at the growing number of callers to the direct banking center, Mr. Owen added, "I'd hate to think what would happen if they came into the bank."

None of this would have been possible without an even more fundamental building-block - the customer data base that Huntington began assembling in 1986. It was also integrated into the Internet banking service launched in June with the Security First technology.

"It would have been difficult to launch the Web bank without the direct bank as backbone," Mr. Randle said.

The Ohio bank is keeping early results close to its vest, but they are said to be strong. Mr. Randle claimed that the system's functionality compares favorably with that of Wells Fargo Bank, widely regarded as an Internet banking pacesetter.

Though closely tied to Security First, Huntington's Web bank has a deliberately different "look and feel" because it is a known quantity, at least in the six states where it has branches, said Internet banking director Elizabeth C. Markwood.

"We are continually revising and reevaluating the site," she said. "We are looking at both customer retention and new-customer acquisition. The Web customer is more affluent and higher educated than average, and we have gotten some private banking clients."

Though convinced they are on the right track, the Huntington bankers have learned to live with the ambiguity that is the norm on the farther reaches of the information highway.

Even with his positive results, Mr. Owen conceded the Access branches are "not perfect. We have to get more deposits through them and would like to do more loans."

Mr. Geier, who represents Huntington on the Security First board, said, "The Internet is too big to ignore," but he is under no illusions about a quick or easily measurable return.

"You can't look at any one piece" of the delivery system, he said. "It's a holistic picture. You can argue all day about whether the direct bank is profitable. Like the Access offices, it is a piece of the puzzle. It all has to work together."

As his colleagues work on the Access and virtual-banking details, Mr. Randle says he continues to push the envelope, exploring technology's potential for "mass customization" and "transforming this industry into something very different."

Looking at the Columbus results, CEO Wobst said, "Distribution costs are down. The challenge will be to achieve the same thing elsewhere - to increase market share in places where we are not as big, where we don't have the brick-and-mortar infrastructure."

One such testing ground is Florida, where Huntington introduced "Access banking" in March.

"We've created a team here that is not afraid to take some risks," Mr. Geier said. "The bigger risk would be to do nothing."

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