Huntington Bancshares, a pioneer in telephone banking, has begun using 24-hour telephone banking services as a marketing draw in Florida, a state where it has a limited branch presence.

Huntington, which is based in Columbus, Ohio, recently began offering a product called "Huntington Access Account" in Orlando and Tampa, where the bank has 30 branches and $1.2 billion of assets.

The account, which comes with a $5 monthly fee, combines some fairly typical incentives, such as free checks and low fees, with access to Huntington's telephone banking center in Columbus.

"It's one of the first true tests of going into an area where you have a very limited physical presence and leveraging a pure, nonbranch value proposition," said Peter Geier, an executive vice president at Huntington. "It is clearly a new customer acquisition strategy."

Mr. Geier stressed, however, that telephone banking is not a substitute for branches. He said Huntington still would "selectively expand" its Florida branch network.

Huntington is generally considered a pioneer in telephone banking in the United States, having established a 24-hour call center in 1992 that was modeled after England's First Direct Bank.

In the years since, Huntington has been reducing its branch network dramatically in favor of increased emphasis on telephone and PC-based services.

Through the call center, which is reached on an "800" number, Huntington customers can check their account balances, transfer funds between accounts, acquire a credit card, set up an individual retirement account, or apply for a personal loan.

Some of Huntington's competitors in Florida disputed the claim that its 24-hour telephone banking is unique in the state.

Jacksonville-based Barnett Banks Inc. has operated a telephone call center for several years and graduated to 24-hour service Feb. 23, according to spokeswoman Jeri Franz.

"We don't have that account they're offering, but we have a banker available 24 hours a day if a customer calls and needs to talk to a banker," Ms. Franz said.

First Union Corp., which operates the second-largest bank in Florida, has offered 24-hour telephone banking since April 1995, according to spokesman Kenneth Darby.

Huntington, which has $20 billion of assets, entered Florida in 1985 when its trust company opened an office in Naples.

A thrift in Sebring, bought in 1988, established a base, and Huntington later added several community banks to it.

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