Price Waterhouse is making a bid for leadership in the electronic banking industry by forming a specialized consulting group.

The unit is being organized around Price Waterhouse principal Jay Norman and Gary Meshell, who joined the audit firm's consulting arm in September after serving as chief architect of Chase Manhattan Bank's remote banking systems.

Mr. Meshell said the electronic financial services consulting group will focus on alternative delivery systems such as automated tellers, telephones, personal computers, and the Internet.

As part of Price Waterhouse's financial services industry practice, the group hopes to set itself apart from more limited "boutique" firms by providing a wide range of market research, strategic, and implementation support, Mr. Meshell said.

Clients will be offered technical assistance in designing and launching Web sites on the Internet as well as more strategic advice on which services to deliver on-line.

"This is a brand-new initiative which is really focused on the top 25 to 30 financial institutions that are committed to building a direct bank operation," Mr. Meshell said.

"We are approaching this from a full-life-cycle perspective, saying that customer segmentation is the first piece of this," he asserted. "What I see most of our competitors doing is taking more of a boutique approach, specializing in Web server design or in payment systems."

While Price Waterhouse is moving aggressively into what Mr. Meshell calls electronic banking "thought leadership," it is not alone. At McKinsey & Co., electronic commerce and bank technology expertise "have grown out of our business," said Stuart Flack, a company spokesman.

"We feel it's something that all of our consultants serving these clients on any level should be familiar with," Mr. Flack said.

Andersen Consulting has tackled the technology issue in a different way: Last month it opened the Financial Ideas Exchange, a center in midtown Manhattan for financial institution clients.

The center includes a kiosk that simulates a virtual bank branch and a mock living room where executives may learn more about the future of in- home financial services.

William E. Storts, managing partner overseeing the center, said it was designed to help clients evaluate potential business paths, and then take them.

Price Waterhouse's Mr. Meshell warned that too many bankers are rushing into virtual banking and needlessly duplicating the services they offer through retail branches.

"Customers are demanding to be sold nontraditional bank products, and if they can't get them remotely through their primary financial provider, they'll go other places," Mr. Meshell said.

He said the reaction to MasterCard's and Visa's joint announcement that they are close to a security standard for Internet credit card payments indicates a high level of interest in electronic commerce.

Consumers seem to be saying "that if the big boys have all gotten aboard on this, it may be the time that I'm willing to give my credit card number over the Internet," Mr. Meshell said.

At Chase, Mr. Meshell directed the design, development, and implementation of remote banking systems - including PC banking, Internet, and on-line services - as well as electronic commerce services for small businesses.

Chase's direct banking activities are being put under the wings of Chemical Banking Corp. when the two giants merge. A prominent member of Mr. Meshell's former staff, Mark Burns, recently joined Charles Schwab & Co.

Mr. Meshell said brokers like Schwab are savvy about electronic delivery, while most bankers have not picked up on the potential of "E- brokerage."

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