Adding their voices to the banking industry's debate over size, corporate treasurers say service has declined in the wake of the bank merger boom.
Three-quarters of 587 treasurers who responded to a survey by the Treasury Management Association said they had experienced at least some service disruption, account errors, or additional bureaucracy as a result of bank consolidation.
Furthermore, 47% said they perceived banks as less loyal after a merger, and 43% said their relationship with their banks became less important.
"Banks are getting much larger, and there are a lot of tasks being handled by different functions that used to be handled by one relationship manager," said Robert J. McBennett, treasurer at Orange and Rockland Utilities in Pearl River, N.Y. "It's not as hands-on."
Mergers have "definitely changed things," he added.
The Treasury Management Association, a Bethesda, Md.-based organization representing corporate financial officers, solicited anonymous written responses from over 4,000 treasurers nationwide. The association conducted the survey last summer, at the peak of the 1998 megamerger boom.
Among the survey respondents, 93% said their bank had been involved in at least one merger in the last three years. Only 7% reported that none of their banks had been involved in a deal.
To be sure, 61% of the treasurers said banks are financially stronger thanks to consolidation. But that has not necessarily translated into improved service. Some 40% of respondents said bank service quality declined after a merger.
Consultants say they were not surprised by the findings since merger integrations often take needed energies away from clients as bank executives focus on putting new teams together.
"You can lose a certain amount of institutional knowledge as you put the new groups together," said Navtej Nandra, a consultant at Greenwich, Conn.- based Cambridge Group.
Communication has been among the largest concerns of corporate treasurers, the survey showed. Forty-four percent of respondents said the staff at newly combined banks lacked adequate knowledge of the new bank's product and services, and 62% said merging banks need to retrain their relationship managers.
"The biggest complaints come when there are surprises," said John Rodelli, executive vice president and head of global treasury services at BankAmerica Corp., the Charlotte, N.C. banking company formed in last fall's cross-country merger of BankAmerica and NationsBank Corp.
BankAmerica is starting to notify its large corporate customers how long they will need to prepare for systems conversions and other integration issues that will affect them, Mr. Rodelli said. BankAmerica also plans to link dedicated teams or individuals with specific clients to walk them through the integration process.
"We would all like the world to stop spinning for a year while we move to a national platform," Mr. Rodelli said. "But that's not realistic, and our customers understand that."
Client monitoring has become an important aspect of mergers as banks learn from the lessons of the past, said Roger Gruss at Barlow Research Associates, a Minnetonka, Minn.-based research firm that works with large banks. "Banks are recognizing more that client retention is vitally important."
Corporate treasurers said they were taking a wait-and-see approach to how bank mergers will affect their choice of financial institutions.
Bank relationship managers "need transition time to understand the new bank products," said Ronald Jones, head of the treasury department at Monsanto Corp., a St. Louis-based chemical company.
Monsanto, like Orange and Rockland Utilities and many other large corporations, still uses multiple banks to serve its needs, Mr. Jones said.
Mergers have not yet become a major factor in the company's choice of bank, he said, "but as we consider the services we need in the future, service quality will definitely be a consideration."