Until last May, NationsBank Corp. looked pretty much like other superregional companies that were dabbling in various new forms of electronic banking.
That changed when it combined with BankAmerica Corp. to buy Meca Software Inc. - putting itself in direct competition with the giants of the personal finance software market, Intuit Inc. and Microsoft Corp.
About a year later, the Charlotte, N.C., giant is doing more to separate itself from the pack.
Under Richard Parsons, president of direct banking, NationsBank has focused in on a specific personal-computer strategy while many other major banks are still weighing or hedging their options.
NationsBank has been beefing up its back-room and customer service capabilities and has become the first bank to promote a PC-banking product based on Meca's Managing Your Money software.
The service is currently available in Texas and will gradually roll out elsewhere, beginning with the Carolinas next month.
Implicitly, the bank wants to use Managing Your Money as part of a strategy to control the software, the processing, the servicing, and ultimately the customer base.
It is markedly different than the approach taken by Wells Fargo & Co. and Citicorp, which offer services tied to software owned by nonbanks.
S. Kere Lewis, a consultant with Speer & Associates in Atlanta, described NationsBank's as a "hybrid proprietary approach."
"NationsBank and BankAmerica are about the only ones big enough to pull it off," he said.
Though Intuit's Quicken and Microsoft Money command a much greater market share than Managing Your Money, the NationsBank-Meca service has a finite marketing mission, aimed at consumers in the bank's southeastern strongholds.
By leveraging its relationships with large retailers, utilities, and other big billers in the region, NationsBank hopes to promote electronic bill payments more effectively than national payment processors such as Intuit Services Corp. or Checkfree Corp.
Intuit and Checkfree both admit that most of the payments initiated over their systems result in delivery of paper checks. By contrast, NationsBank officials said half of their home banking payments are fully electronic.
There also is limited competition for NationsBank's regionally focused strategy, and officials see the market as nascent enough that they need not be overpowered by an Intuit or Microsoft.
"A company like Intuit clearly has a core competency in software development - there's no question the market has spoken about that," said Charles Hieronymi, NationsBank's senior vice president of marketing for electronic access services. "But there are many more PCs in homes than (people) who use personal finance software. Intuit happens to have a large share of a small slice of the pie."
Smita Quinn, vice president for direct banking, added, "We get letters from customers who are using Quicken right now and would want to continue to use Quicken. But we have found that a lot of people look at the fact that Managing Your Money is a product that's comparable to Quicken."
But NationsBank wants far more than a proprietary electronic pipeline for PC banking services. Executives stressed the continuing importance of longer-standing alternative delivery mechanisms such as the telephone and automated teller machine.
Mr. Parsons said the bank receives more than 100 million calls annually at seven service centers, and that the number could double by 1999. The bank is experimenting with outsourcing some of the overflow. He added that the bank plans to add 1,200 automated teller machines this year, most of them off premises.
These outlets, coupled with PC banking, are expected to relieve pressure on branches, of which the bank expects to close 100 a year through the end of the decade.
William Arnold of the Towers Perrin consulting firm said the bank seems "less interested in a technological solution than a holistic execution."
In light of recent snags in the bill payment system, bank officials are stressing the value of service to back up their offering.
Contrasting NationsBank with Intuit Services Corp., which processes for a number of banks, Mr. Hieronymi said, "We provide the servicing for one set of customers, and that's NationsBank. We control it, we can determine the level of service and we think that's a critical factor in what customers expect."
He noted that the bank's Houston operations center is dedicated to the PC service. Ms. Quinn said the center employs between 60 and 80 service representatives, and is expected to have 100 within two months.
The officials declined to comment on the number of customers they had signed since PC banking became available in Texas last month. But Mr. Hieronymi said it is "light years" ahead of the bank's screen phone initiative in the Middle Atlantic region.
NationsBank inherited that program with its acquisition of Maryland National Corp., using phones made by Online Resources and Communications Corp. that are sold to bank customers for less than $100. But there are no immediate plans to expand past the Virginia-Washington-Baltimore corridor, and growth appears fairly stagnant.
Mr. Hieronymi said the screen phone experience has been "very positive . . . but the fact is the marketplace in general still does not know what a screen phone is.
"We still don't get a whole lot of unsolicited requests for screen phone service. So the jury is still out on whether the screen phone is going to be a viable channel in the near future."