A year after announcing plans to buy Barnett Banks Inc., NationsBank Corp. is preparing to roll out a slew of products and services to customers of what was Florida's leading banking company.
Charlotte, N.C.-based NationsBank plans to put its stamp on Barnett Oct. 9, taking down Barnett signs and converting Barnett customers to NationsBank accounts.
NationsBank has spent months preparing for the move and has put together a blend of product offerings and special pricing aimed at retaining skittish Barnett customers. Mailings explaining the upcoming conversion began going out to more than one million households Wednesday.
"The key thing we're trying to do is minimize disruption," said John Perkner, NationsBank's marketing transition manager and the former director of product management at Barnett. "We're giving many customers special pricing so they won't see increases; some may get pricing decreases. That really takes all the negatives out of it."
Ensuring a smooth conversion is a priority for NationsBank, which is also preparing for its megamerger with BankAmerica Corp. The conversion of Barnett's customer base will be not only one of the largest such undertakings to date but also one of the most closely watched.
It was a year ago this month that NationsBank announced plans to pay about $15 billion for Barnett-a jewel franchise with a dominant deposit share in a high-growth state. Since then, competitors throughout Florida have waged aggressive campaigns to snatch away Barnett customers and siphon off precious deposits.
As a result, NationsBank has been going to extraordinary lengths to retain customers. A yearlong freeze on fees and a delayed conversion schedule have been key tactics. NationsBank says it has retained more than 98% of Barnett's "top-level" customers since buying the company in January.
Many observers scoff, saying the real test will be how many customers stay put after they are rolled into the NationsBank system in the October conversion.
"They're fairly boastful about what they've done so far, but they haven't taken the signs down yet," said David Stumpf, an analyst at A.G. Edwards. "Retention so far is not a good indicator. The question is: What is that deposit number going to be?"
Mr. Stumpf and other industry analysts said it is not unusual for about 10% of a bank's deposits to run off during a merger-related conversion. The loss can be closer to 20% if technology problems and price hikes hit confused and nervous customers particularly hard.
NationsBank said it expects only minimal deposit loss.
James H. Hance Jr., NationsBank vice chairman and chief financial officer, said the company generally has experienced deposit runoff of about 5%, and he said he expects that figure to be even smaller for Barnett.
"We are very good at" conversions, Mr. Hance said. "You normally see the fallout now before the conversion ... when there is uncertainty and fears. Customers like what they get after our conversions."
What customers will get in the conversion is a mixed bag of former Barnett offerings as well as old and new NationsBank products and services.
For example, NationsBank will adopt Barnett's Sunrise Statement, a daily financial report fax service for small-business accounts, as well as Barnett's credit card-backed overdraft protection service. Both will be rolled out throughout the NationsBank system.
New to both Barnett and NationsBank customers will be enhanced packages of accounts, some offering discounted pricing. And NationsBank will offer dual PC banking options-its own, as well Barnett's Quicken-based product.
A new cash management ac-count-new to both NationsBank and Barnett-will be rolled out throughout NationsBank in October.
Barnett customers got a taste of NationsBank this year when the company introduced two products early-a certificate of deposit product and a 15- year mortgage.
"Obviously there is still a lot of impact yet to come," Mr. Perkner said, "but we hope that with everything we've done, we'll do even better than expected."
Still, there are skeptics.
At Barnett offices, "when those signs go down, there are going to be a lot of disappointed customers," said R. Harold Schroeder, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc.