A bank about to join the Internet fray is trying something different.
Atlanta-based Ebank.com Inc. will focus primarily on small-business customers when it opens on June 30. And though it will exist primarily on the Web, it plans to open 24 branch offices over the next two years.
Its targeting of the small-business market distinguishes it from the Internet-only institutions that focus on consumers. These include Net.Bank Inc. of Atlanta and Telebanc Financial Corp. of Arlington, Va., which has agreed to be acquired by E-Trade Group.
"If you are going to be on the Internet, you've got to carve out niches," said Richard A. Parlontieri, chairman and chief executive officer of Ebank.com. "We saw our strength as lending to small businesses."
Analysts expect that market to expand its use of the Internet dramatically over the next few years. PSI Global, a Tampa-based research firm, said 63% of small businesses are now using the Internet for a variety of tasks, including purchasing. That percentage has nearly doubled in two years.
In opening physical "centers" around the country, Ebank.com is acknowledging that the lack of a branch network may handicap account growth at virtual banks.
By leasing space in office parks and eliminating teller and safe deposit functions, the Ebank.com centers will cost significantly less than full- fledged branches, the company said.
They will be staffed by loan officers who will visit customers as necessary.
The combination of low-cost facilities and a focus on small businesses is novel, said Christopher Musto, senior analyst at Gomez Advisors Inc. in Concord, Mass.
He called it a "sober recognition that small-business (owners) still want to sit down and talk with bank representatives and make sure they understand each other."
Ebank.com will offer all of its products, including sweep checking accounts, lines of credit, term loans, and real estate loans, over the Internet, allowing customers to apply on-line. Loan officers will make "house calls" when signatures are required on documents.
As a new bank, Ebank.com enjoys the advantage of not having to integrate older core systems with Web technology. It installed a client/server system from Phoenix International of Orlando.
Ebank.com has its origins in Southeast Commerce Holding Co., which was formed last August under a unitary thrift. Though the holding company has been renamed Ebank.com, a brick-and-mortar branch in Atlanta called Commerce Bank will continue to operate under that name.
Commerce Bank has $29.1 million of assets and $18.8 million of loans. It expects to be profitable by yearend.
Larger banks do provide small-business services on-line. KeyCorp and Fleet Financial Group, for example, offer Web-based loans, credit lines, and other services.
Other major banks have similar plans, said Mr. Musto.