The London-based bank that created the Mondex smart card is attempting another bold departure.
National Westminster Bank and its managing director for retail, Tim Jones, this time are taking a lower-tech route but are seeking to radically reshape the bank-customer relationship.
Natwest is offering to become a personal information agent, an "unbiased point of contact" for anything from stock prices to weather reports, from travel assistance to a reminder of a spouse's birthday.
The idea is trendy, in keeping with the "intelligent agent" movement on the Internet. But with bankers and others wondering how soon automated, on- line assistance can be widely available and accepted, Natwest's approach is firmly rooted in its branch system and person-to-person contact.
Mr. Jones said he might eventually package the offering and license it to banks in other countries.
Announcing a market trial Wednesday, $300 billion-asset Natwest emphasized that "people, not machines" are always on call, though the information can be delivered by electronic mail or other means.
Mr. Jones, who co-invented Mondex when he worked in Natwest's card group in the early 1990s, said his aim is to do no less than "make lives easier."
In remarks reminiscent of his grandiose goal for Mondex-to reinvent cash electronically-Mr. Jones said he may be on to an idea that changes the way people think about banks.
For now Natwest is calling the service Zenda, its internal code name. Mr. Jones said Natwest made it public because it is preparing for a six- month pilot with 5,000 people and could not hope to keep the word from spreading.
He said in an interview that Natwest is at least two years ahead of anyone else, and "a two-year lead is all one can ask for in this day and age."
"Ten years from now we may look back and see this as the core of a new personal service business that evolved at the end of the last century," he said.
For amonthly fee of about $8, Zenda subscribers will get access to basic information like weather and sports results, car-buying help, date reminders, and financial information-though a link to Natwest accounts is optional and non-Natwest customers are welcome. Future additions could include wedding planning and home-relocation help.
William M. Randle, an executive vice president of Huntington Bancshares in Columbus, Ohio, who has an innovative reputation similar to Mr. Jones', said he wondered how Natwest will assure customers of its impartiality and how quickly its representatives will be able to answer tough questions.
But he added, "This is cool-a very creative thing for a bank to be doing. Its customers want information, the bank has it, so why shouldn't it say it is in the information business?"
Mr. Jones said a bank is ideal for the role because consumers put trust and confidence in it. He said "lifestyle management and handholding" comport with a "post-industrial vision of retail banking."
"We as banks can metamorphose into your personal assistant," said Mr. Jones. "Time is short and households will be willing to pay for this," he said, citing the fact that out of 250 people in his first test group, 80% wanted to be in the Zenda pilot.
"I have 6.5 million customers who are really high-touch-they want access to money and their banking relationship, and they are coming to us once a week," he said. "It makes sense to bundle information with the core banking offering."