NationsBank Corp. insists it isn't looking to go head-to-head with the mutual-fund supermarkets of Charles Schwab & Co. or Fidelity Investments.
Rather, the company's own no-transaction fee mart - Fund Solutions - is an attempt to "meet the needs of our customers who want to do business that way," says Mark H. Williamson, consumer investing executive at NationsBank.
There's no denying, however, that the mart has solidified NationsBank's reputation for innovative and aggressive investment sales.
Fund Solutions, launched one year ago, is the first funds supermarket offered by a banking company. It offers consumers an easy, inexpensive way to buy the wares of about two dozen fund families.
Though the mart still accounts for only a small portion of NationsBank's total investment sales, no other bank has a mart anywhere near as strong, said Geoffrey H. Bobroff, a mutual fund consultant in East Greenwich, R.I.
"So, they really are going against the Schwabs or the Jack Whites of the world," Mr. Bobroff said.
And NationsBank is hardly standing still. During the past 12 months, the company has added about 50 funds to an original lineup of 300 no- transaction-fee funds, said Mr. Williamson.
The mart now offers funds from 25 families, including four funds from NationsBank's own Nations Fund group, which has $32 billion of assets under management. The other offerings are from outside vendors such as Dreyfus Corp., Invesco, and Scudder Stevens & Clark.
Mr. Williamson declined to single out any particular funds available through the supermarket as hot sellers. "It would be inappropriate to do so," he said, noting that NationsBank has an agreement with the fund providers in question not to talk about individual performance.
NationsBank, meanwhile, is enhancing Fund Solutions in other ways, too. "We are close to offering an Internet trading capability," Mr. Williamson said, although he declined to give more details on the project.
Right now, investors looking to access the mart can use the phone to reach service representatives, or trade through a voice response mechanism. NationsBank already has an informational Web site.
Charles Schwab & Co. continues to have a clear edge in the world of fund marts. The company's OneSource, established in 1992, remains the largest in the playing field with 1,100 funds from 140 families.
Although NationsBank may not admit to having OneSource squarely in its sights, the San Francisco-based Schwab is certainly aware of the viability of banks as both competitors and partners in the field, says R. Harold Schroeder, a banking analyst with Keeefe, Bruyette & Woods.
Mr. Schroeder referred to comments made by Charles Schwab, head of the firm, when he admonished one of his own lieutenants for belittling NationsBank's fund mart at a conference in last spring.
"It means they realize that the future of the industry is going to involve a working relationship between themselves and the banking industry," said Mr. Schroeder.
NationsBank, meanwhile, will continue to look at new ways for investors to use the supermarket and to access the other funds available through NationsBank, said Mr. Williamson.
"Access is where I think we'll put a lot of our emphasis going forward," he noted.
Though proud of the supermarket, Mr. Williamson is anxious to point out that the company, through its subsidiaries, provides access to "virtually every fund available."
Fund Solutions is "just the no-transaction fee aspect," he said. "We actually have thousands of funds."
The primary retail distribution channels are a discount broker-dealer - NationsBanc Investments, with about 100 registered representatives - and a full-service brokerage, NationSecurities Inc. That unit has some 500 full- time investment consultants.
The company also sells funds to institutions through its securities subsidiaries and has selling agreements with about 150 different broker- dealers outside the bank, noted Mr. Williamson. A private client group - which Mr. Williamson calls "the second largest in the country" - provides yet another outlet, he noted.
The supermarket is "one more arrow in their quiver in terms of the funds and services they can provide to NationsBank customers," said Burton Greenwald, a Philadelphia-based mutual fund consultant.
Other banks are clearly interested in the mart concept, and some are set to become players. Fleet Financial Group, for instance, is entering the arena with its agreement to buy Quick & Reilly. The bank recently struck a $1.6 billion deal with the Palm Beach, Fla.-based shop, which has a no- transaction fee mart. Fleet, however, has promised to leave Quick & Reilly alone, noted Mr. Bobroff.
NationsBank, of course, also has been increasing its investment business through acquisitions. The company's own fund group now includes Boatmens Bank's Pilot funds, the result of the bank's acquisition Boatmens last spring.
Though NationsBank is now acquiring Barnett Banks, Mr. Williamson declined to say how Barnett's Emerald Funds will fit in. However, he noted: "Certainly we're going to spend some time getting to know them and having them getting to know us, and obviously we're going to try and maximize the value of what we're purchasing."