Crestar Financial Corp.'s chief information officer, William M. Ginther, has a straightforward job description: help find the right combination of high-tech slingshots to fell the banking Goliaths roaming Crestar's home teritory.

"We are surrounded by giants," Mr. Ginther said, referring to the likes of Nationsbank Corp., First Union Corp., and even mighty Citicorp - all looking covetously at Crestar's increasingly prosperous home market in and around Virginia. "We've got to be a very nimble organization in order not to get stepped on.

"We can't make a lot of mistakes," he continued. "But at the same time, we have to be able to play in the game."

A 24-year operations veteran at Richmond-based Crestar, Mr. Ginther has worked his way up to his current job at a time when the roles of bank CIOs are being redefined. They are spending more and more of their time in the boardroom instead of the back office.

Mr. Ginther said this shift began at $14 billion-asset Crestar in 1994, when chairman and chief executive officer Richard G. Tilghman "decided he wasn't satisfied with the pace at which the bank was moving." He established a strategic business committee to "re-energize the bank."

Mr. Ginther, who is an executive vice president, was asked to join the top-level management group. And last month he began directly reporting to Mr. Tilghman.

"Our CEO realized a big part of our strategy was going to be in technology," Mr. Ginther said. "I've been fortunate to be part of that, to hear the conversations firsthand and then carry them back."

Anthony Davis, a bank analyst with Dean Witter Reynolds in New York, said Crestar is on the mark with its management focus on technology as a competitive weapon. Though noting that the bank's efficiency ratio of 63.4% is about average for an institution of Crestar's size, he indicated that the bank has been spending wisely.

"They're not alone in the realization that the key to success is service quality," Mr. Davis said. "But in the realm of regional banks, I would characterize them as a cut above at using technology to get there."

Mr. Ginther said his twice-monthly meetings with top management have resulted in a "freight train" approach to prioritizing technology initiatives in the banks.

"Certain key corporate projects are selected and reviewed every month by the strategic business committee to see if we're doing our job, as well as make sure all the business units are cooperating," he explained.

One example of management scrutiny hastening product development, Mr. Ginther said, was Crestar's introduction last year of what he calls "the parallel bank." That's a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week telephone sales and customer service operation under his command.

"We're probably the only bank in the region you can call at 3 in the morning and open a checking account," Mr. Ginther boasted. "Parallel banking, which we define as everything that is not face-to-face banking, is at the core of our strategy."

Part of the strategy has been movement into the emerging world of electronic home banking. In 1992, Crestar began offering a telephone-based bill payment program, working with Columbus, Ohio-based Checkfree Corp. Now it is completing a 12-month test of a home banking system with Visa U.S.A.; about 400 customers are using computerized "smart" telephones to obtain account information and pay bills.

"We're working with a number vendors in the electronic highway world, and it's being funded almost as research and development," Mr. Ginther said. He added that a PC-based home banking offering could be added to the mix soon.

Crestar is making as big a commitment as it can to various electronic delivery methods "to see what is going to win out," he said.

To help Crestar read the technology tea leaves, Mr. Ginther said, the bank has allied itself with four technology vendors: Bell Atlantic Corp., Microsoft Corp., International Business Machines Corp., and AT&T Co.

The bank is also making sure the R&D gets put to practical use. Crestar last year designated personnel to sell the benefits of newer technologies to bank executives. "They go to the business lines and ask, 'How can we use this new technology profitably?'" Mr. Ginther said.

These in-house systems advocates can boost their compensation by as much as 80% depending on the payoff of technology projects they help implement inside the bank. "I don't know of any other bank that pays its technology people in this way," Mr. Ginther said.

Incentives have also been put in to encourage branch personnel to promote alternative delivery mechanisms. For example, if an existing customer applies for a loan through Crestar's centralized telephone banking center, the client's local branch office is credited for the sale, Mr. Ginther said. That lessens the risk of turf battles.

Though Crestar has been busy pushing new alternative delivery systems, Mr. Ginther was quick to point out that the bank is still investing heavily in branch technology.

As a first step, the bank installed a sophisticated communications network from Bell Atlantic last year. The new network connects all the banks branches and offices and can be easily modified to carry voice, data, and even video traffic simultaneously. Crestar is one of only two companies to have installed the Bell Atlantic network, Mr. Ginther said.

Crestar also completed installation of a PC-based platform automation system in 1994 and will start replacing its teller-line technology later this year, Mr. Ginther said.

"Crestar is technologically ahead of NationsBank in retail delivery systems," Dean Witter's Mr. Davis said.

But Crestar has passed up some other emerging technologies, such as image processing for deposited checks, a system that is in use at its in- state rival, Signet Banking Corp.

"We looked at check imaging twice and still came to conclusion that it just could not pay for itself," Mr. Ginther said.

Instead, Crestar has focused on electronic check presentment, in which transaction data are transmitted between depositing and paying banks before the paper item is exchanged, greatly reducing the risk of fraud.

Despite his confidence that Crestar can keep using its computer savvy to ward off "the big guys," Mr. Ginther acknowledges his job is isn't getting any easier.

"The dilemma we face every single day is that there are so many people out trying to sell us this stuff, and we have to be very, very careful of who work with," he said. "The biggest mistake we can make is just to follow the herd."

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