The chairman and chief executive officer of Bank One Corp. sought last week to shoot down speculation that its Internet banking initiative would buckle under the parent company's earnings woes.

John B. McCoy said in an interview that efforts to sign up customers nationwide for are "still on track" and the company has no intention other than to "continue to make it better."

Recent upheavals, including Bank One's third-quarter earnings decline of 12% and the resignation of the chairman of the First USA credit card unit, Richard W. Vague, who was overseeing WingspanBank, had raised questions about the future of the uniquely branded, Internet-only offshoot.

In a report at the end of October, Forrester Research Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., predicted that Bank One's depressed earnings would "ground" Wingspan. "Financial difficulties and internal politics" would "debilitate" it, wrote analyst James P. Punishill.

In response, Mr. McCoy revealed that Wingspan has attracted 50,000 customers, many of them new to Bank One. "We're pleased with what's happening," he said.

The 50,000 customers enrolled in four months is one-fourth the number who do business with Telebank of Arlington, Va., which has been offering mail and telephone banking for 10 years and an Internet service for four. Banks selling Internet services alongside traditional delivery channels, such as First Union Corp., Wells Fargo & Co., and Bank of America Corp., have each passed the million-customer mark.

Mr. McCoy, who has been championing Internet strategies for several years, has gotten more deeply involved on a day-to-day basis. When Mr. Vague left First USA last month -- he was succeeded by William Boardman -- Mr. McCoy added the credit card unit and the Internet activities to his top priorities.

Mr. Punishill of Forrester said that Bank One's placement of Wingspan within First USA was solid. But "everything was predicated on First USA continuing its success," he said in an interview. First USA's troubles could force Mr. McCoy to "shift dollars to the traditional credit card business to nurse it back to health."

Mr. McCoy said Bank One would earn more than $4 billion this year and can afford to invest in projects like Wingspan, which reportedly has a marketing budget of $150 million. He added that Bank One would outline a strategy for Wingspan at a previously announced Nov. 15 meeting with analysts in New York.

Mr. Punishill said when First USA, the No. 2 bank credit card issuer, was riding high it was easier to "bury Wingspan's expenses" within its $1 billion marketing budget.

Michael Mayo, an analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston, disagreed with Mr. Punishill, saying financial difficulties at the parent would not cause a drastic strategy shift.

"It's a general challenge for Bank One to balance the potential opportunities of with the expectations for success," he said. "Certainly the loss of top management at First USA makes the management task more difficult, but at the same time we hope that no one was relying for this initiative on one or two people."

Responding to other points made by Mr. Punishill -- that Bank One could lose staff members at a time when it needs "dedicated people and dedicated dollars" and that Mr. McCoy may have to "rededicate" Wingspan employees to First USA's core business, "depriving Wingspan of critical operating resources and expertise" -- the Bank One CEO said: "I know of no thought to do either. We are hard at work, running as fast as we can to continue to make it better."

Mr. Punishill advised others considering the creation of a separate Internet operation to learn from Bank One's "blunder with Wingspan." He called it "a cautionary example of what not to do when spawning a 'dot-com' subsidiary."

Meredith Hickman, analyst at Meridien Research in Newton, Mass., said the Internet-only approach would not prove viable.

In one retreat from an Internet-only strategy, North Fork Bancorp in Long Island, N.Y., is integrating its on-line plans with conventional operations. It concluded that on-line banks become indistinguishable because they are easily copied.

Steven Marjanovic contributed to this article.

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