Executives at Marine Midland Banks Inc. have spent six months retooling technology and compensation in preparation for a big push into wealth management.

Now they're waiting for the payoff.

"We've set challenging goals for this year," said Jim Thacker, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the reorganized investment services division.

Target: 5,000 Clients

Marine set up the unit last year, consolidating its private banking, trust, employee benefits, and mutual fund operations. The target: wealthy individuals and institutional clients.

Mr. Thacher said Marine is on schedule to meet one ambitious goal: adding 5,000 clients to its in-branch retail investment program by yearend.

To get there, Marine has revamped its internal systems to improve customer referrals throughout the company, and it has trained more than 200 employees to cross-sell investment products. Crucial to the effort is a bonus-related incentive that encourages referrals throughout the division.

"We're trying to expand relationships that we already have," said William N. Hudson Jr., executive vice president in charge of the investment services division.

Strategy Wins Praise

The decision to focus on existing branch customers rather than reaching out in a highly competitive market to new customers was applauded by industry experts. Marine's sprawling 317-branch network in New York is opportunity-ripe.

"It could be mining gold," said David Ross Palmer, a New York-based private banking consultant.

Marine's strategy differs from that of many rivals, who segregate services for the wealthy into trust and private banking units that are separate from branch operations.

"They're missing the opportunities that we're betting on," Mr. Thacher said.

Turmoil

The private banking efforts at Buffalo-based Marine follow a dramatic bankwide reorganization after two years of heavy losses and cash infusions from the company's overseas parent, HSBC Holdings.

Marine earned $2.6 million in this year's first quarter, its first profit since 1990. In 1991, the company lost $189.9 million.

As part of the investment services reorganization. Mr. Hudson boosted the number of investment counselors working in branches, to 53. He also promoted Mr. Thacher to his post and named Alan Trench to oversee private banking in metropolitan New York.

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