If banking technology were a race, Allen J. Gula would feel comfortable in the middle of the pack-at least for now.
The chairman and chief executive officer of Key Services Corp., KeyCorp's information technology and support unit, said establishing the company as a technological pacesetter ranks low on his list of priorities.
"I'd rather be last-then leapfrog and end up with something better," he said.
In an era when strategists and technologists tend to emphasize product- development speed and "time to market," Mr. Gula's is a voice of caution. Although development speed is important, he said, "I want to make sure that I have the infrastructure in place, the right product sets, the right kinds of solutions before I introduce" a service.
That attitude attracts criticism.
Jay Tejera, managing director and bank analyst at Dain Bosworth Inc. in Minneapolis, said banks "need to be on the leading edge or near it because when there is a breakthrough it will involve a significant change of market share."
Aggressively rolling out alternative delivery products, he added, can play a significant role in attracting desirable customers. "If you're there the fastest ... you can have all the business," Mr. Tejera said.
Octavio Marenzi, an analyst at Needham, Mass.-based Meridien Research Inc., said KeyCorp is not alone in avoiding the so-called "bleeding edge." But "it becomes a dangerous strategy to say, 'I'm going to wait a couple of years because that way I have a lower risk.' Customers are more and more demanding in the kind of technology they want."
Home banking is one area that will pit deliberation against the conventional wisdom.
Compared with most banking companies in its peer group, $72 billion- asset KeyCorp has been slow to market with personal computer offerings.
The Cleveland-based superregional has a Web site, but it is mostly informational. KeyCorp was discouraged from a proprietary, dial-up PC banking service after "seeing the headaches it would create," Mr. Gula said.
KeyCorp customers can download account data into personal financial management software programs like Intuit Inc.'s Quicken or Microsoft Corp.'s Money. But they will not be able to do meaningful business through the bank's Web site for several months.
Though many major banking companies have extensive PC programs, Mr. Gula said he does not worry about falling behind or suffering significant customer defections.
"With the Internet, I felt pretty comfortable in lagging, simply because there aren't a lot of people demanding it yet," he said.
KeyCorp is devoting extra development time to a Web site that would offer basic banking services while helping the company market and sell new products.
When fully developed, the site will be tied into a data base that records and analyzes each customer contact. Using "life events" data and other bank information as triggers, the system will make product pitches tailored to individual users.
The Web site also will look for synergies between the bank's corporate and retail customers. For instance, if the bank divines that a retail customer is preparing to do home renovations, it could offer a home equity loan and then highlight a special deal on construction services offered by a corporate client.
Mr. Gula said KeyCorp wants to deliver similar services through its call centers and branches.
"I want to be able to sell or service you no matter how you want to do business with us-whether you walk into a branch, interact with an ATM, PC, or telephone," he said.
The successful linking of sales and service relies heavily upon KeyCorp's data base, which is called Max. Because data for all channels emanate from a single source, customers get the "same feel and look" no matter which channel they use, Mr. Gula said.
Middleware that KeyCorp developed in the late 1980s lets the Max data base accept information from a variety of systems used by KeyCorp subsidiaries.
With the advent of interstate banking, the middleware becomes increasingly valuable. It can help the bank track new types of transactions, such as a deposit by an Ohio-based customer at a New York automated teller machine.
It also can help the bank to process information from acquired companies more quickly.
Mr. Gula knows a thing or two about bank mergers. He joined a KeyCorp predecessor, Central National Bank, in 1982 as assistant vice president and manager of computer operations. Before that, he had worked for several years in technical jobs at nonbanking companies.
When Central National Bank merged with Society Corp. in 1985, Mr. Gula was named vice president and information systems division application manager. He rose to executive vice president in March 1992. He reached his current post after Society merged with KeyCorp three years ago.
Mr. Gula plans to oversee several technology upgradings next year, including an enhancement of the middleware and an upgrading of call center and branch automation.
He also will continue to work on the bank's sales technology. On his watch, KeyCorp built a facility in its operations center for making multimedia presentations to corporate customers and investors.
In keeping with Mr. Gula's philosophy, the presentations focus on products and services KeyCorp can deliver today.
"I wanted to have a place not only to talk about the things we are doing but then to show it," he said. "Talk is cheap."