WASHINGTON — Peering ambitiously into the future, the American Bankers Association is hosting a two-week online “conference” to explore what the banking business may look like in 2021.

If the diversity of the first few days’ responses is any indication, there will be no consensus. While BB&T chairman and chief executive officer John A. Allison 4th sees a business dominated by 30 huge firms, Harris Simmons, president and CEO of Zions Bancorp. in Salt Lake City, expects nearly the opposite.

“The scale economies in our industry are way overblown and are often … offset by the scale diseconomies and bureaucracies and politics … in large organizations,” Mr. Simmons said. Success in the future “is not going to be about size, but about the quality of management.”

Each of the conference’s 10 days is devoted to a particular aspect of the industry’s future; it kicked off June 4 with a look at marketing and sales practices and will conclude June 15 with a focus on technology. Each day’s theme is tackled by 10 to 22 different “speakers” — from bankers to regulators to consultants — and their 175 presentations are available free at www.aba.-usbanking2001.com.

The conference also includes a number of big names, Mr. Allison and Mr. Simmons among them, talking more broadly about the business.

Winston-Salem, N.C.-based BB&T, which has assets of $60 billion, is no stranger to consolidation — the first of five forces Mr. Allison said will continue to shape the industry. The other four he named were technological improvements, nonbank competition, regulation, and risk management. But one factor trumps all these agents of change. “We are in a very good growth business,” he said. “Wealth is increasing on the planet, and as wealth increases people need more financial services.”

Of the 25 to 30 firms he expects to dominate the financial services business within 10 years, a few will operate globally and a few nationwide, Mr. Allison said. The rest will be “high-performing regional institutions that have large market shares in their region,” he said.

“All the survivors will be focused. This is not about being big — it’s about being good.”

But it is at least partly about being big.

“Community bankers do face the challenge of being able to invest in technology, develop the products, and most importantly to attract and retain the type of people they need to be successful,” Mr. Allison said. “Not that there won’t be some winners, but the share of the market going to community banks may be diminished.”

Mr. Allison predicted community banks will no longer enjoy an influx of customers when big banks merge. “Consolidators,” he said, “are going to get better at what they do and there is going to be less free benefit going to their competitors.”

Maybe because Zions, with $22 billion of assets, is smaller, Mr. Simmons disagreed with Mr. Allison on what’s ahead for community banks. “I am actually a believer that there is a great future for a lot of smaller institutions,” Mr. Simmons said. Community banking “is an incredibly powerful niche that has kind of disappeared with the consolidation of the industry in a lot of markets.”

The two bankers did agree that staffing will remain a challenge.

“Finding good credit people is going to be increasingly a challenge in the industry,” Mr. Simmons said. “We used to have a lot of farm teams in the regional banks in this industry. You don’t have those anymore.”

Mr. Simmons predicted that banks will use their technological expertise and their roles as trusted fiduciaries to do new things for customers, such as manage companies’ accounts payable or other financial departments.

Keynote speakers scheduled for this week include Sandy Kemper, a former banker and founder of eScout, an e-commerce network for businesses, and a Federal Reserve Board Vice Chairman Roger Ferguson Jr.

Roughly 7,000 people registered for the conference last week, according to Mike ter Maat, the ABA’s director of information products and programs. “This is a breakthrough event for us,” Mr. ter Maat said in an interview Friday.

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