Even though he presides over one of the most aggressive electronic banking strategies, Frank Wobst does not believe the new media are for everyone.
The chairman and chief executive officer of Huntington Bancshares said he assumes a "dual system" of banking will persist for several years, with banks providing automated teller machine, telephone, and Internet services while maintaining brick-and-mortar branches.
"Seven percent of customer transactions are being done electronically," Mr. Wobst said. "That means 93% are being done the old way."
Technology can have a downside, making it difficult for one institution to distinguish itself among the crowd.
"What we need to watch out for as an industry is that we don't become a commodity," said Mr. Wobst, who has led the Columbus-based company for 16 years.
"Once you get this whole country wired and people become more comfortable with it, we're going to come to a point where you can bring up a screen to determine who pays the highest interest" on a $10,000 certificate of deposit, he said. "Then you push a few buttons and you've finished a transaction."
That vision of the future has the CEO worried. His solution is to differentiate Huntington by establishing a strong brand identity; promoting personal service, even if over a video monitor or telephone; stepping up the sales effort; and offering nontraditional, uninsured products such as securities.
Technology cannot be the only answer because as much as Huntington or anyone else might pioneer, others quickly come up to speed.
"They were ahead of the curve in technology," said Michael Mayo, an analyst with Credit Suisse First Boston. "Now it seems the world has caught up with them."
"Electronic commerce has come an awful, awful long way," said Mr. Wobst, who gained industrywide prominence as head of the Bankers Roundtable committee on technology and chairman of its Banking Industry Technology Secretariat. But technology has not replaced the traditional way of banking.
"The industry has been talking for the last 25 years about a cashless society and checkless society," Mr. Wobst said. But he also sees a demand for products delivered electronically.
Huntington's automated teller network is in the midst of growing from 381 machines two years ago to an anticipated 1,200 by yearend. Company officials expect to add another 200 to 400 by the end of 1998.
Calls to the telephone banking center-one of the first designed to handle a branchless "direct banking" service as well as routine inquiries and telemarketing-doubled to eight million from 1995 to 1996, and the company expects to take nearly 12 million calls this year.
Huntington also is rapidly expanding in Internet banking. The company has 30,000 subscribers, but Mr. Wobst's goal is 100,000 by Dec. 31. That would be well below Wells Fargo & Co.'s 340,000 on-line base, a majority of which comes in through the Internet, but Huntington is only one-fifth the size of Wells.
Huntington wants to be in the Internet big leagues; even the biggest U.S. bank, Chase Manhattan Corp., is not yet doing full-scale transactional banking on the World Wide Web.
If Huntington succeeds, "they'll be heroes among banks their size," said Mr. Mayo. "If they don't succeed, they'll end up throwing away resources."
Huntington doesn't look at technology solely as a way to keep costs down. The company anticipates increasing electronic banking revenue from a meager $2 million in 1995 to more than $20 million this year. It is expected to book more than $1 billion of total revenue for 1997, analysts said, and most of that is still from such traditional sources as consumer, auto, and mortgage loans.
Executives said they can squeeze more revenue out of the growing ATM network. George A. Jeffers, vice president of electronic banking, said Huntington is exploring ways to advertise and distribute coupons for other companies through its ATMs. It also competes for exclusive contracts to install machines in retail and convenience stores and other nonbanking locations.
Mr. Wobst said he believes in both traditional and electronic ways to grow. The company operates in Ohio, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, and West Virginia. Though it continues to make acquisitions, it also is adding completely automated banking sites, called Access offices.
At those facilities, customers can talk to bank representatives via a video monitor, get any amount of cash through teller machines, and do virtually any transaction over a phone. Huntington is using this model for its new supermarket offices, another growth area for the company.
Huntington on Sept. 30 completed the acquisition of First Michigan Bank Corp., Holland. Only a few of the target's 90 offices are scheduled to close, because there is almost no overlap with Huntington's small presence in the eastern part of Michigan; First Michigan is primarily on the western side of the state.
Merger-related cost savings of 15% are projected, but they will not come at the expense of the branches, bank officials said. Huntington still sees potential in the branches to sell more lucrative trust and investment products, while steering customers to machines to perform their more mundane bank transactions.
"Think of the brokerage and insurance companies that would kill for the customer traffic coming through those branches," said Peter E. Geier, vice chairman.
Mr. Wobst said he is interested in more acquisitions, primarily in markets where Huntington already has a presence. NationsBank Corp.'s planned divestiture of branches related to its acquisition of Barnett Banks Inc. could provide an expansion opportunity in Florida, Mr. Wobst said.
One state where Mr. Wobst would like Huntington to expand is Virginia, where he started his banking career at the former Fidelity National Bank in Lynchburg. Because Huntington had announced its deal to acquire First Michigan in May, it was not in a position to bid on any of the Virginia banks that agreed to be sold in June and July. Wachovia Corp. agreed to buy Jefferson Bancshares of Charlottesville and Central Fidelity Banks Inc. of Richmond, while First Union Corp. agreed to aquire Signet Banking Corp. of Richmond.
Zuheir Sofia, Huntington's president and chief operating officer, who heads acquisition strategy, said the company is also eyeing several fee businesses for acquisition. Among the possibilities are small insurance agencies, brokerages, asset managers, and perhaps consumer finance companies.
There has been much speculation about Huntington's own independence, but analysts said the stock is expensive and the company is performing well enough to control its destiny-at least for now.
"It's a solidly performing bank and a well-managed company," said analyst Fred Cummings of McDonald & Company Securities. "It's not a stellar performer, but a solid performer."
"If they execute on (First Michigan) that will give them an advantage to do future acquisitions," he added.
Mr. Wobst, 63, has begun to prepare for his succession. Mr. Geier, who oversees the branches and all retail operations, and Ronald J. Sieffert, who heads operational and product development, were promoted from executive vice president to vice chairman last December. It is believed that one of these two would succeed Mr. Wobst, who has not given his retirement timetable.
As for staying independent, Mr. Wobst said, "In today's environment, you cannot ignore (selling) as an option. At the same time, we've done pretty good for our shareholders. As long as we feel we can do that, we do not feel we need to sell."