An investment marketing firm is helping small-town banks develop a big- city business - trust services.

Investment Centers of America, Bismarck, N.D., is offering the services of its new subsidiary, Trust Center, to more than 200 bank clients in communities in about 20 states.

Investment Centers specializes in supplying brokers and offering investment marketing support to banks with between $20 million and $100 million of assets.

The company will hold trust assets in custody and manage the investments of those assets for small banks that don't offer such services already.

It will also manage property - including farms and ranches - put into trusts, as well as employee benefit plans.

Most small banks don't have the capital to start up their own trust departments, said James Bierdeman, president of Trust Center. Beyond personnel costs, software for record keeping and accounting alone can cost between $10,000 and $20,000, he said.

Also, banks save initial capitalization costs, which can be high. Investment Centers, for instance, had to come up with $500,000 to meet North Dakota's requirement.

The company received a charter a year ago from state regulators to open Trust Center, and has hired a small staff. It already offers the program to five banks in North Dakota, and manages more than $2.5 million of assets.

Investment Centers launched the new unit because small banks' business is increasingly threatened by larger rivals who have trust departments, Mr. Bierdeman said.

"If the customer of a small bank needs trust services, and that customer goes to one of the big corporate banks, eventually the rest of the smallbank's services are going to fall," he said.

Mr. Bierdeman knows whereof he speaks. He was once a big- bank trust officer snaring customers from small-town competitors.

For 28 years, Mr. Bierdeman was in charge of the trust business in western North Dakota for First Bank System, the $25.9 billion-asset bank based in Minneapolis.

"People came into to us to set up trusts, and I would naturally cross- sell the rest of the bank's services - checking accounts, certificates of deposit, and so forth," he said.

In the past, community banks worried less about regional banks stealing their customers because the big banks remained in the large cities. Most small banks brought their customers' trust business to the big banks and shared revenue, said Kenneth Kehrer, a Princeton, N.J., consultant.

But big banks are acquiring small ones rapidly, building branch networks even in remote areas.

Thomas E. Gunderson, president of Investment Centers of America, said that despite acquisition sprees by big banks, many rural communities still have little access to trusts.

"If you're in Sidney, Neb., the chances of having trust services available are slim to none" Mr. Gunderson said. "You'd have to go to Omaha, which is 300 miles away."

Investment Centers is hoping to capitalize on a trend among all banks to boost their revenues derived from fees, which trust services help generate.

"In the past few years we've seen how important fee income has become to banks," said Mr. Bierdeman. "It has contributed 40% or so to the bottom line."

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