In the race to sell investment products, Wachovia Corp. was content to watch while other North Carolina banking titans fought for center stage.

NationsBank and First Union Corp. took an early lead, quickly building two of the most ambitious bank-investment programs. Meanwhile, Wachovia did not even offer proprietary proprietary money market funds until 1992. And while its cross-state rivals began staffing branches with brokers and platform workers years ago, Wachovia only began selling mutual funds through its offices in 1994.

"For as large a bank as they are, finding them in the investment product business takes a lot of hard work," said Richard B. Ross, a investment products sales consultant based in Glencoe, Ill.

But now, executives at the $45 billion-asset banking company want to bring its investment products out of the shadows.

Last year, Wachovia expanded its bank brokerage force by 30%, to 150. And it opened a call center staffed by 33 brokers to serve customers directly and to support salespeople in branches.

"We banks didn't lose customers; we lost share," said G. Joseph Prendergast, Wachovia's executive vice president for general banking. "Our challenge now is to win that share back."

To do that, the genteel, conservative bank has no intention of imitating its aggressive neighbors. It remains focused on its core Southeast market. And its plans emphasize full-service brokers over platform salespeople and long-term relationships over quick-hit sales.

"We were later," conceded Robert S. Kniejski, president of Wachovia Investments, the bank's mutual fund and brokerage unit. "But you learn from examples in the marketplace."

Wachovia has paid a price for its wait-and-see approach, of course. By most measures, including total assets, Wachovia ranks among the 20 largest banks in the country. But when it comes to proprietary mutual funds, it is a laggard. Its Biltmore family of funds had only $3 billion in assets under management at the end of the first quarter, according to Lipper Analytical Services, ranking it 32d among bank fund families.

Even dyed-in-the-wool Wachovians - as the bank's employees refer to themselves - say they are growing impatient and urge the bank to speed up its investment products push.

"The profile of the North Carolina Wachovia household is a fairly well- to-do, stable household that invests," said J. Walter McDowell, president of Wachovia's flagship North Carolina bank. "They're simply not investing with us."

According to Mr. McDowell, only 1% of the 775,000 North Carolina households that bank with Wachovia use its broker services. That relatively low penetration presents "a remarkable market opportunity" for Wachovia, Mr. McDowell said.

To take advantage of that, Wachovia is planning to use what an asset many of its nonbank competitors lack: a network of 489 branches throughout the Carolinas and Georgia.

"It's become fashionable to think of branches as a disadvantage, and they are if you can't cover cost with enough revenue," Mr. Prendergast said. "(But) 75% of Wachovia customers go to a branch regularly."

To capture those customers' assets, Wachovia isn't satisfied to rely on traditional bank employees selling investments part time. Instead, all of its "investment counselors" are fully licensed brokers.

"We weave them into the fabric of our consumer business," Mr. McDowell said. "And already they've strengthened my consumer position."

Wachovia's brokers sold more than $2 billion of investment products last year with the aid of some 44,000 referrals from branch personnel.

The brokers are compensated primarily with salary and are not paid extra bonuses for sales of proprietary products.

"It's an expense and a large up-front commitment," Mr. Kniejski said. "But we wanted to stay away from selling one product or another yet be competitive in the market."

The bank's commitment to brokers over platform salespeople has its merits, observers said.

"Wachovia is not in the Dark Ages" with that approach, said Merrill H. Ross, an analyst at Wheat First Securities, Richmond, Va. "You've got to spend time with people."

But Wachovia may need even more brokers than it has - roughly one for every three branches.

"To be relevant in financial planning for the next generation, you're going to need to have more than half a Series 7 person per branch," said Wheat First's Ms. Ross said.

Wachovia's commitment to full-service brokers extends to its investment telephone center in Columbia, S.C., where calls are answered by any of 33 series seven brokers. For Wachovia, the center is another way to give its long-term customers high-quality service.

A "relationship is hard to replicate," Wachovia's Mr. Kniejski said, but the latest hot product can quickly be duplicated.

That approach sits well with one observer, who faulted other banks for focusing too much on the short term.

"The primary failure of the banks has been to build loyalty on the securities side," said Mr. Ross, the Illinois sales consultant. "The key object lesson is not to run a transaction-based business."

Wachovia's renewed efforts seem to be paying off. Last year, assets in the Biltmore Funds rose 32%.

And there have been some distinct advantages to going slow and steady.

Unlike First Union and NationsBank, whose aggressive sales practices have drawn regulators' scrutiny and a spate of customer lawsuits, Wachovia has garnered few complaints. In the long run, Mr. Kniejski says, customers will turn to Wachovia when they tire of other banks and brokers.

"Being slow and methodical is a powerful element in a marketplace where everyone is coming at you saying, 'Do your business with me,'" he said.

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