There was a time when small-town banks had a hard time getting training for employees.

Money had to be spent on travel and time away from the bank as employees flew or drove to cities to get the training crucial to quality performance and top-notch exam ratings.

Not any more.

American Financial Skylink delivers training videos and much more to banks across the country via satellite.

"It's the wave of the future, especially for banks outside of metropolitan areas," said James E. Smith, chief executive of Union State Bank and Trust, in Clinton, Mo., an hour and a half from the nearest city, Kansas City.

"Our bank is far better by having Skylink," he said. "Our employees know more about what's happening in the industry."

The walls of the employee lounge at Union State Bank hold charts listing who has watched assigned videos. Mr. Smith said he shows examiners the charts as evidence of an established training program.

American Financial Skylink, celebrating its third anniversary this month, has 730 customers. The majority are community banks, with an average asset size of $75 million.

Jeffrey S. Owen, executive director of Skylink, said the network now is growing at a rate of about 200 banks per year.

With renewal rates around 90%, the network is close to breaking even this year. Next year may be its first money-making year, Mr. Owen said.

Every Tuesday morning, Skylink beams two hours of training. Bankers pull the shows, ranging from how to avoid environmental liability to how to dress professionally, down from a satellite and record them for use at any time.

The videos are tailored to meet the different needs of everyone in a bank: chief executives, tellers, and compliance officers.

Programming decisions are made much like a television network producer makes choices, Mr. Owen said, according to audience demand, hot topics, and time constraints. Right now, compliance segments are the most popular.

With the stakes for noncompliance getting higher, bankers have found Skylink training to be an important training tool for new regulations.

Today, Skylink will air one of its most popular specials, its biannual compliance teleconference. Bankers can call in with questions and comments to the live symposium that runs from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The topics today are fair lending and the Community Reinvestment Act.

In the next few months, Skylink will add an online service. This will allow customers to communicate with experts and each other through an interactive online service.

Bankers will use it to file evaluations, get programming updates, and ask questions. The new service also could test employees training over Skylink.

Skylink's mission is simple -- give bankers information they need the way they want it. "We're helping banks on their own terms," Mr. Owen said. "If they don't like what we do, we change it."

Skylink began as the Kentucky Telebanking Network in t989, The American Bankers Association bought the network in 1991 because it was clear there was a larger market for educational banking programming.

The ABA renamed the service American Financial Skylink, put five people on staff, and started national distribution. Much of the production is still done out of the original Louisville location.

The ABA charges banks on a graduated scale.

For example, banks with less than 10 employees pay $75 per month; those with 50 to 75 employees pay $250; and those with 75 to 100 pay $350.

Each two-hour program, which goes out over the satellite from 6 a.m to 8 a.m. on Tuesdays, is divided into five segments of approximately 20 minutes each.

The short length gives bankers more flexibility in training, Mr. Owen said. "People in banks need short, usable bursts of programming," he said.

Customers receive program guides each month, showing which group of bank employees are targeted by which videos.

Banks use the programs differently. While some have weekly viewing sessions, others use tapes for training new employees or teaching a certain skill. Because of their sheer number, tellers represent the largest group of viewers. But many board members watch as well.

A main goal is to keep the audience's attention, especially the young people new to the banking industry, Mr. Owen said.

Skylink also chooses experts in each area who are charismatic speakers. Its list of teachers reads like a "Who's Who" in banking, including John Byrne with the ABA, Robert Chamness from CFI ProServices, and JoAnn Barefoot of Barefoot, Marrinan in Columbus.

Besides the weekly programs, Skylink produces some longer specials, including today's compliance symposium. Other indepth programs have discussed the Americans with Disabilities Act, and automated teller machine security.

Mr. Owen said his most pressing challenge is keeping up with technology and staying close to the customers.

"Every customer counts," Mr. Owen said. "This is a one-on-one business, despite the fact it's national and delivered through technology."

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