Several companies that supply investment products and services to banks are boldly going forth into Cyberspace, despite general concerns over the World Wide Web's current problems.
Last week, Liberty Financial Cos. announced it was offering account information and trading opportunities through some of its subsidiaries' World Wide Web sites. One week earlier, Marketing One said it was taking a pilot program of expanded services to all of the banks it services.
Officers at both companies said the initiatives are secure, will reduce operating costs, and will improve customer service. They scoff at suggestions that forays onto the Internet should be cautious until improvements deal with gridlock and security concerns.
C. Paul Patsis, chairman and chief executive of Portland, Ore.-based Marketing One, said the Internet is here to stay. Companies that aren't acting now will find that "it's going to be hard to play catch-up," he said.
"If you get an early lead you can look around and see what's going on, and you're ready to deal with the next issue," said Iang Jeon, vice president of commerce for Boston-based Liberty.
Reasons that other companies have been slow to commit to the Web include the widely reported slowdowns on the Internet as a result of additional user volume.
Most users agree that speed is a problem.
In Marketing One's pilot of its broker-Internet hookup, the connection has been painfully slow for brokers on occasion, and often on Saturdays, said Carolyn Royer, the firm's director for the pilot program at Sovereign Bancorp, Wyomissing, Pa.
Each sales representative visits the site at least twice a day, she said.
But the easier navigation of the Web site versus the older, dial-up connection makes it worthwhile, Ms. Royer added. And as Sovereign Bank's Internet technologies officer said, "A lot of times it works just fine."
Mr. Jeon also said that the Web can be slow. But he takes a long-term view of the situation. "It's strictly a matter of time," he said. "It's going to resolve itself."
In the meantime, companies worried about speed should cut back on graphics, said Josh Taylor, a New York City-based computer-site designer who worked on the Web site for the magazine George and is developing MicrosoftStreet, an on-line guide to New York City.
Marketing One's cyber rep site, reached via the Marketing One home page, features a city skyline extending into a starry sky. Ms. Royer admits it is rich in graphics.
Marketing One is keeping its backup phone system for the moment, but Mr. Patsis anticipates a full commitment to the Internet this year, because it will be "as permanent as television."
"We're looking toward the future but we are still at an entry level on the whole thing," Ms. Royer said.
Addressing the concern about information security, Mr. Patsis said firewalls and other security measures now available are satisfactory.
Mr. Jeon, however, has taken security a step further with the implementation of sophisticated digital certificates, which arebased on technology developed by other companies.
BBN Corp. tailored the product for Liberty-one of the first companies to employ the certificates.
Although a password is used off-line to activate the certificate, the encrypted certificate is presented on-line to Web sites, he said.
Financial institutions must take great care with security.Articles about potential credit card fraud via the Internet, among other things, heightens the appearance of problems, Mr. Taylor said.
"The credit card story was one of the most overblown of the decade," Mr. Taylor said. "There isn't much difference between handing your card to some kid behind the counter" than presenting it on-line.
Developing and maintaining sophisticated sites can be expensive- especially with time-sensitive data updating, he said.
Marketing One has spent more than $2 million developing its site; the rewards will begin accruing in about two years, Mr. Patsis said.
Because an interface automatically translates existing information to the Web site, he explained, the amount of paperwork the company does has been sliced.
Before Wells-Fargo took its business in-house, Marketing One was faced with hiring 30 people under the old paper-oriented system to service the big bank, Mr. Patsis said.
With the Internet site, only two additional people would be required, he said.
At Liberty, Mr. Jeon makes no apologies for what he agrees is an expensive undertaking. Liberty views the move to the Internet as a "paradigm shift" in the industry.