In a bid to deepen its ties to an increasingly powerful minority group, NationsBank Corp. is launching efforts to woo Hispanics as it prepares to merge with BankAmerica Corp.
NationsBank officials said they are expanding Hispanic-targeted marketing and advertising, arming sales associates with Spanish-language lending documents, and developing recruitment plans to boost Hispanic management.
"What we're trying to do is come up with a seamless sales and service approach to this customer group," said Maria C. Alonso, NationsBank's national Hispanic marketing manager. "We want, from beginning to end, a way to better serve this customer group."
The move comes as the $315 billion-asset banking company deals with a host of community-related concerns over its planned $60 billion merger with BankAmerica in San Francisco. From east to west, numerous constituencies are voicing fears about being underserved by the combined company, which is to be based in Charlotte, N.C.
Hispanic groups have not formally protested the merger, but they do have concerns.
With an estimated $348 billion in nationwide purchasing power, the Hispanic population is one NationsBank cannot afford to ignore, observers said. The states with the highest concentrations of Hispanics-California, Texas, and Florida-are key markets for NationsBank and BankAmerica.
"It is something that they have become more aware of, but it will take far more than words," said R. Harold Schroeder, an analyst with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. "With California and Florida, the Hispanic community becomes a significant component of the franchise, and they need to develop a more thorough understanding of that segment."
In South Florida, NationsBank has stumbled in trying to win the hearts of Hispanics. Its Hispanic market president recently quit to join competitor Union Planters Corp. And some business leaders say that until it bought Barnett Banks Inc. this year, NationsBank had hardly any Hispanic relationships.
"NationsBank really was not participating with the Hispanic community until they merged with Barnett Banks," said Lilian Lopez, president of the South Beach Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater Miami.
"We would try to reach out to NationsBank ... and the attitude was they were such a big bank they didn't need anything from the Hispanics. Finally, they've noticed us."
Meanwhile, the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility is asking that NationsBank name Hispanics to its board after the merger.
NationsBank has no Hispanics on its board of directors and did not retain Remedios Diaz-Oliver, a Hispanic Barnett board member, when it bought the Jacksonville, Fla.-based company.
BankAmerica has one Hispanic director. A second one retired last year.
NationsBank said that until the merger is completed it cannot make such a commitment. Spokesman George Owen said the new company's board will reflect an emphasis on diversity.
NationsBank officials "are very cognizant of the importance of the Hispanic market, in particular in California," said Dora O. Tovar, vice president of Washington-based Hispanic association. The merger, she said, is a "good opportunity to make clear their commitment and really bolster their success."
Ms. Alonso acknowledged NationsBank has room for improvement but said the willingness is there.
"The proposed merger with BankAmerica has given us the opportunity to relook at what we do, who we are, and what we need to do to improve that," she said. "We have a lot of work to do. But this is a focus for us. This is where we are going as a company."