A new-old type of financial institution is arising on the Internet: the community bank.
Typical are two scheduled to be launched this summer and fall-G&L Holding Group Inc. in Pensacola, Fla., and Compubank in Houston-that aim to bring small-bank sensitivity to the World Wide Web.
Unlike the first banks that cropped up specifically for the Internet- Security First Network Bank and Atlanta Internet Bank-the new community banks are focused on niches, or virtual communities, and view the Net as a means to the end.
G&L Bank will cater to the gay and lesbian community. Officials believe that its extensive Web site (www.g-lbank.com)-including a congratulatory letter from President Clinton-has already helped establish goodwill in its target market.
"We have a tremendous brand loyalty from a group of customers that have traditionally been ignored," said Steven Dunlap, founder and chairman of the savings bank, which is awaiting regulatory approval and hopes to raise $15 million in a public offering before launching.
More than 11,000 Internet users responded to an on-line survey the bank posted last July, he said, with 62% percent expressing interest in G&L's services. The bank's logo includes the words "First in servicing our community."
Mr. Dunlap, who claims that as an entrepreneur he was denied a business loan because of his sexual orientation, said he believes the Internet is well suited to reaching his audience.
He said America Online is logging six million visits a month-or 200,000 hours-to OnQ, its section catering to the gay community. "It is how we are connecting and communicating, in a safety net without fear of being 'outed.'"
Mr. Dunlap sees a potential market of 15 million people on-line-half of his estimate of the number of gays and lesbians in the country-plus straight people who may be attracted to the nondiscrimination message.
"The excitement we are seeing clearly shows that customers are very anxious to have the Internet as their venue for banking services," said G. Kay Griffith, the bank's president and chief executive officer.
G&L intends to use NCR Corp. for core processing services and Edify Corp. for Internet banking software.
Michael E. Gazala, senior analyst at Forrester Research, Cambridge, Mass., has high expectations for the ability of affinity groups to build active, on-line communities. He points to other affinity Web sites, including Net Noir for African-Americans and Women's Connection Online for career-oriented women, as examples.
Though they are not banks, each of these Internet affinity groups has aggregated on one site financial services from a number of providers. Mr. Gazala views this as a competitive threat to all banks.
"You will see affinities thriving in 'open finance,'" Mr. Gazala said, using Forrester's term for a coming wave of financial-market evolution.
The community aspect could also overcome what otherwise might be seen as product deficiencies. "Users here will be willing to sacrifice best-of- breed products for a community feel," Mr. Gazala said.
Compubank defines its approach with the tag line "community banking on- line." It has the distinction of being the first nationally chartered Internet bank. Security First, soon to be acquired by Royal Bank of Canada, and Atlanta Internet Bank got thrift charters.
Compubank has raised $6 million in capital and expects to begin accepting deposits in July.
"Preeminent customer service will be our bailiwick," said Jonathan H. Lack, executive vice president of marketing and planning. "You can't call and get the executive vice president of Wells Fargo or Chase Manhattan on the phone. You will be able to do that with us."
The bank, which would also be the first U.S. institution to use the Ovation software of Prologic Corp., Richmond, British Columbia, will operate its call center in-house. "What will separate us from the larger banks is that we don't take our customers for granted," Mr. Lack said.
Many observers are skeptical that Internet-only banks, even those with niche-community or affinity advantages, can match the abilities of larger institutions to offer both personalized and remote customer services.
"These Internet-only banks will have a difficult time reaching any semblance of critical mass on the deposit side," said Edward L. Neumann, managing director of Farragut Group, a technology spinoff from Dove Associates Inc.'s Washington office.
"There is always an issue of trust," he said. "Consumers want to know they can get face-to-face service if they need it."
"We don't think the market is ready for a pure Internet presence bank, because people are multi-channel users," said Cliff Condon of Forrester Research.
But the Internet offers interesting economies, said Bill Burnham, an equity research analyst at Deutsche Bank Securities in San Francisco.
"The Internet allows you to cross-cut geography," he said. "Within a limited geographic area, they're aren't enough gays, plumbers, or Armenians" to form a bank specific to their needs. "But across the U.S. there are enough, and the Internet allows you to very cheaply set up shop.
"You can't take on the big banks head-on, but you can be a little bit more innovative" by intelligently targeting a niche market, Mr. Burnham said. "The Internet calls for different tactics to be successful."