As the industry consolidates, NationsBank Corp. is beginning an educational effort to help its work force navigate merger-related turmoil.

The Charlotte, N.C., banking giant is putting its 90,000 employees through a series of workshops in each of its markets. The goal is to increase workers' awareness of how competition and consolidation are affecting their $308 billion-asset employer.

From Baltimore to Albuquerque, employees are gathering around large, brightly colored boards that "map" the competitive landscape.

"The need to retain and focus on customers is paramount at all times but especially during mergers," said Rick Bradley, a NationsBank senior vice president heading the project. "It's never been a better time to do this. Part of the goal of the learning maps is to create a work force that is prepared for change."

NationsBank began the project in March, when president Kenneth D. Lewis led a teleconference linking 3,000 company leaders in 17 cities. Rank-and- file employees are attending conferences this summer.

With 23 implementation managers and 2,000 "coaches," the banking company is throwing significant resources behind the project. It comes as rapid consolidation is transforming not just the banking industry but also NationsBank itself.

The banking company's largest acquisition to date, Barnett Banks Inc., is in the final stages of integration, with final customer conversions scheduled for October-the same month NationsBank's merger deal with BankAmerica Corp. is slated to close.

NationsBank officials said the program's goal is to arm each worker with a cultural understanding of the company and its place in the financial services industry as well as a game plan for giving customers what they want.

The program should minimize merger-related distractions in the ranks and translate to better service-not to mention consistent revenue growth, officials said.

Donald MacLean, financial services industry manager at Root Learning Inc., the Perrysburg, Ohio, consulting firm orchestrating the project, said top banking executives are accustomed to dealing with the issues and challenges of a changing environment.

But lower-level managers and employees are more likely to miss the big picture as they focus on their individual roles, he said.

"The marketplace is truly in a state of upheaval," Mr. MacLean said. "It's important to make sure no one loses sight of the customer and the long-term goals."

NationsBank is one of a handful of banking companies recognizing and acting on that realization, he said.

The NationsBank program is built around four maps, which typically cost $75,000 to $100,000 each. The first, titled "The Revolution on Financial Street," outlines what the company sees as its competition, including both banks and nonbanks. The second map deals with customer expectations and behavior and how employees can affect that behavior. The third focuses on retaining customers. The fourth is under development.

The workshops include proprietary information, so employees are not allowed to take notes or carry any materials from the presentations, said Fred Hannon, a NationsBank spokesman.

It is still unclear how the planned Oct. 1 closing of NationsBank's merger with BankAmerica would affect the educational project. BankAmerica executives have reviewed the program, but no decision has been made about incorporating BankAmerica's cultural and strategic elements.

However, according to Mr. Hannon, it is "very likely" that NationsBank will roll out the program to BankAmerica employees.

Banking consultant Edward Furash compared NationsBank's effort to an army preparing for combat. "The reason everybody drills soldiers is to create a uniform fighting force. That is what this is," he said.

The chairman of Washington-based Furash & Co. said that as banks grow larger it becomes more difficult to keep employees focused.

"Banks have always had severe problems in training their employees to understand the customer and to be good advisers," he said. "This problem is bad enough when banking units are small, but as companies consolidate, the distance between those who ... (direct the company's strategy) and those servicing the customer widens."

Mr. Furash added, "NationsBank is making a laudable try at solving a problem that is getting worse and worse as banks consolidate."

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