Banctec Systems Inc., has launched an office workflow system that it hopes will enable it to tap into a quickly growing document management market.

The system, called ImageFirst Office, is a document image management package designed to streamline the flow of documents in an office by replacing paper with digitized images that can be exchanged over computer networks.

ImageFirst Office is expected to be unveiled today at the Bank Administration Institute's annual check processing conference in Atlanta.

Like most of Banctec's check image processing systems, ImageFirst Office is designed to help smaller institutions compete with larger rivals.

The system enhances customer service and increases employee productivity, according to Banctec officials.

"We've been leaning towards understanding the customer's business requirements and what they need in the community bank environment to be competitive with the money-center institutions," said Foster Cooper, a vice president with Dallas-based Banctec.

Experts see document management systems as an important first step toward a paperless environment. The systems allow employees to retrieve, annotate, and route document images throughout the organization.

Banks use these systems to access a wide array of documents, including loan applications, signature cards, and stock certificates.

"It's an internal product for customer service," said Joe Petruzella, a vice president with Banctec. "We are finding out from a lot of institutions that there is a tremendous demand for internal personnel files, accounts payable, and contracts."

Banctec is targeting community banks for the relatively low-cost system. Eventually, it would like to add nonfinancial companies to its list of clients, thereby enhancing its position in a market that has been predicted to more than double over the next few years.

Studies performed by BIS Strategic Decisions, a Norwell, Mass.-based research and consulting company, predict that by 1998 total revenues for document management companies will exceed $7.5 billion, up from 1994's market of $2.9 billion.

"Document management really took off in 1994," said Connie Moore, a director with BIS. "There is tremendous interest in looking at ways to integrate (document) management products with other products that are complementary."

"Our focus was to go after the market in the second- and third-tier accounts," Mr. Petruzella said, noting that other system providers have a virtual lock on contracts with first-tier banking companies.

"We believe there is 10 times as much opportunity in that market than there is with bigger accounts," Mr. Petruzella said.

The second phase of marketing will aim for utility and telephone companies and institutions such as insurers, small hospitals, and medical clinics.

"It's a system that is pretty applicable for the market they are targeting," said David Medeiros, an analyst with the Tower Group, a Wellesley, Mass.-based technology consultancy.

"The workflow is more informal and user-initiated. There aren't any formal or rigid review sequences that a document has to go through," Mr. Medeiros said.

Banctec for 20 years has supplied technology systems for conventional and image-based remittance processing systems. In recent years it has been expanding product offerings beyond core processing business lines through several acquisitions.

Two recent acquisitions by Banctec led to ImageFirst Office: the U.K.- based ImageSolve International Ltd. in 1993, and Terminal Data Corp., Moorpark, Calif., last year.

ImageSolve is a document image processing system with about 200 installations in the United Kingdom but is little used in the United States.

Using so-called open systems architecture, the system combines document image processing, document management, and computer output to laser disk in a Microsoft Windows environment. It stores up to 1.5 million business documents in a single optical disk jukebox.

Banctec, with over 2,000 employees, uses the system for its own office functions, and the company is running tests of the system at an undisclosed community bank. The system costs between $75,000 and $200,000, depending on the number of workstations.

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