International Business Machines Corp.'s financial services marketing group seemed in disarray when two high-level executives departed in the same week last January.

One, Robert Howe, headed a combined banking, finance, and securities division, before moving on to head a Silicon Valley start-up. Anette Kolenda, who reported to Mr. Howe as general manager for North America, joined Optimark Technologies Inc., a transaction services company in Colorado.

Jerry Cole, 47, came quickly into the breach. Since 1994 he had been general manager for the global travel and transportation industry, based in London.

Mr. Cole occupies Mr. Howe's old position in White Plains, N.Y., overseeing IBM's global sales and marketing to the financial services industry, including retail and wholesale banking and capital markets.

Wirt Cook, 50, who was head of core banking solutions on the West Coast, came into Ms. Kolenda's job.

Spending nearly nine years in London provided a "terrific global view of business in general," Mr. Cole said.

In addition, as a senior executive at American Express from 1986- starting in corporate strategy and business development in New York, then moving to London where his responsibilities included information technology for the international division-"I developed a much greater global perspective," he said.

Mr. Cole, who has a bachelor's degree in industrial administration from the General Motors Institute and a master's in business administration from the University of Michigan, also worked from 1976 to 1986 as a partner at Booz-Allen & Hamilton, the New York-based consulting firm. "All those learnings were directly transferable to my job at IBM," he said.

Banking the world over "is increasingly the same," Mr. Cole observed. "Capital is fairly fungible, electronic funds transfers happen at the speed of light, and the industry is increasingly global."

Chief executive officers of top financial institutions, he said, have the same concerns of customer relationship management, productivity and cost reduction, distribution channels, and globalization.

In keeping with his background and IBM's heritage, Mr. Cole emphasizes the computer industry giant's global reach, which extends to 4,500 financial institutions in 180 countries.

"When more financial institutions seek to have fast and effective implementation of a standardized system in all their locations around the world, IBM is relatively unique in its ability to accommodate such customer needs," he said.

Mr. Cole also touts IBM as much more than a hardware vendor. He said it is an outsourcer, integrator, and more-an end-to-end service provider.

"One point of competitive difference is our range of capabilities, from basic research to systems integration, to managing operations, financing, services, software, and everything in between," Mr. Cole said. "We're really a full integrator of information technology."

IBM's banking, finance, and securities division is the largest of its 11 industry segments, accounting for $14 billion of revenue last year, or 17% of the total. Mr. Cole said, "1997 was our best year ever, and we have aggressive growth plans for this year and beyond."

IBM, an 87-year-old institution that floundered in the 1980s, has been revitalized since Louis V. Gerstner Jr. came from RJR Nabisco to become chairman and chief executive officer in 1993. IBM's share price quadrupled in four years, to $104.625 at yearend 1997. A loss of $8 billion in 1993 turned into a profit of $6 billion by 1997, on $79 billion of revenue.

"Lou has driven more research and development into IBM's solutions," said Mr. Howe, the former general manager of worldwide banking, finance, and securities, in an interview before his departure in January.

"As a company, IBM is acting more like a leader," said Steven M. Milunovich, managing director at Merrill Lynch equity research. "Gerstner put a real focus back on the customer. In the last few years we've seen a real belief in IBM. The difference is customers now trust IBM once again."

"Lou has given us all a much stronger customer-driven culture," Mr. Cole said of the CEO, who had previously worked for McKinsey & Co. and American Express. "Having been a customer for so many years himself, he continues to lead with the customer view of what our priorities should be and how we should operate."

Despite IBM's recovery and its continuing status as the leading provider of technology to the financial industry, some competitors are making inroads. Microsoft Corp. is pushing into IBM's back-office stronghold with the Windows NT operating system, challenging Big Blue's OS/2.

A recent study by Mentis Corp., Durham, N.C., showed that while 18% of financial institutions with more than $1 billion of deposits run Windows NT on their server computers, 55% expect to use it by 1999. It said 21% of those banks run OS/2 but only 7% expect to be using it by the end of 1999.

But it is no longer either-or for the industry's longtime standard bearer.

"Our hardware is fully compatible with the NT operating system," Mr. Cole said. "It's a matter of customer choice, and we'll support the implementation in line with our customers' stated strategy and IT standard."

M. Arthur Gillis, an influential technology consultant and president of Dallas-based Computer Based Solutions Inc., said IBM should get aggressive.

"IBM has always played the weak sister," he said. "It wants to be everyone's friend but commit to no one."

He views IBM as too much of a generalist to be admitted to a bank technology club that includes banking-specific service companies like Fiserv Inc., Alltel Information Services Inc., Electronic Data Systems Corp., and M&I Data Services.

"Bankers say, 'Show us what you know and do,' and IBM never did," Mr. Gillis said.

Mr. Gillis said one way to rectify that was to acquire a bank technology company, which IBM did in 1986 by buying 5% of Hogan Systems Inc. It sold that share in 1993 and "never demonstrated a willingness to put its money or commitment into the banking industry."

IBM has more recently acquired smaller companies to help it round out its software offerings. In May 1995 it acquired Footprint Software Inc., a Canadian company with sales management software for branches and call centers. Later that year it bought Early Cloud & Co. of Newport, R.I., which sold software for large-scale call center automation.

An ongoing analysis of technology and business opportunities led IBM to play a key role in the September 1996 formation of Integrion Financial Network, putting it squarely in the middle of the home banking battleground.

Integrion is owned by IBM, 17 major banks with 60 million North American customers, and Visa U.S.A. It relies for infrastructure on the IBM Global Network.

"The member banks were quite keen to protect their own brand and their own customer data with respect to their retail customers," Mr. Cole said. "Integrion supports the bank's branding rather than any form of disintermediation."

Integrion pilots, he said, are moving ahead on schedule. Banc One Corp. and NationsBank Corp. were the first to do home banking pilots, and last month Banc One announced that it would be the first to take advantage of newly available bill presentment capabilities.

In January, PNC Bank Corp., First Chicago NBD Corp., and Michigan National Corp. also began piloting Integrion, and further pilots are pending.

IBM is in discussions with 10 to 20 major financial institutions in the Asia-Pacific area and 16 others in Europe to put other consortia together, similar to Integrion. When announcements come, perhaps within six to nine months, there could also be the establishment of a global Integrion board with representatives from each region.

Mr. Cole said his short-term priorities are "strong revenue, profit growth, ever-improving customer satisfaction, and employee morale," achievable by "helping our customers translate the power of information technology into tangible business value and competitive advantage."

He said he views technology by itself as interesting but not particularly useful. The application to real business problems requires a "solutions provider or IT partner." He said that is "the role we seek to play."

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