In an effort to expand its share of small business banking in eastern Pennsylvania, Meridian Bank has designed a product to give employees access to the company's money.

The Reading, Pa.-based regional bank has targeted its new Business Advantage Account at companies with fewer than 50 employees and $1 million in annual sales.

The account combines services ranging from a debit card and overdraft protection to a savings account paying interest tied to Treasury bill rates.

In the two months since its introduction, the account has proved especially popular among existing customers that do not borrow money.

The bank has converted nearly 5,400 existing business accounts to the new product. Of those, only 312 involved customers with commercial loan accounts

The conversions of existing customers are just the beginning, said Jim Turner, regional manager and a vice president in Meridian's retail banking operation.

The bank is now looking beyond its current customers.

"The really big push will begin when we start a mass mailing of the account early next year," Mr. Turner said. "We'll follow up the mailings with telemarketing efforts."

Joe Flynn, a senior vice president in the bank's business banking group, believes that this service will help the bank in the traditional middle market. The bank is counting on the account to gain and hold the loyalty of these companies now.

"We want to make sure we are in at the grass-roots level with these small businesses because a lot of them grow into middle-market companies," Mr. Flynn said.

Since controlling expenses is key to survival of any small company, the bank believes the debit card will help customers in this area by allowing them to order as many as they need. The company can then tailor each card to the level of spending it thinks is necessary.

The bank also provides account holders with a relationship statement. The statement includes activity in the company's checking, savings, and retail products. Mr. Flynn said this service is not even available to the bank's middle-market customers.

The product is not free, though. The bank charges $20 for the initial card and $15 for unlimited additional cards.

Customers must also maintain average monthly balances in excess of $3,000 to avoid a $20 maintenance fee for the checking account. To avoid a fee in a connected savings and checking account, a customer must maintain a minimum daily balance of more than $5,000. The bank also charges standard fees on other services.

But some do not mind the cost as long as they get the service. One such customer, Ritting Communications, almost left Meridian earlier this year because the bank did not provide a debit card for business customers.

The company, a four-year-old authorized distributor of Atlantic Bell data, voice, and video networks, talked with Meridian's rival Mellon Bank about opening an account.

At the time, the company was trying to piece together a line of credit, overdraft protection, as well as affordable checking and time deposit accounts.

The company stayed put after Meridian launched its Business Advantage Account.

"It was a saving grace for us, because we were trying to accomplish on our own what this account offered us," said David Ritting, owner of the business. "We use it for office supplies, entertainment, and other expenses."

The bank is counting on the new product to keep existing customers like Ritting, and also to give the bank an inside track into selling other products and services to these customers.

"Cross-selling is really the bottom line for this product," said Mr. Flynn. "That's why we have so many services hooked up to it."

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