If the old Bailey Building and Loan from the film "It's a Wonderful Life" were ever updated for the Internet era, it might look a lot like Wilber National Bank. The Oneonta, N.Y., institution is one of the growing cadre of community banks staking out positions on the Internet and anywhere else it believes customers might want or need access.
But while pursuing virtual aspirations, the bank still basks in local affection from a prominent position on Main Street. Its Christmas party in a nearby farming museum is an annual ritual for many in the town of 16,000.
Wilber is known for its involvement in the arts, supporting the Catskill symphony and paying for artists to visit schools and nursing homes. Sports fans would appreciate the bank's contributions to the Baseball Hall of Fame in nearby Cooperstown as well as the Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta.
In fact, Robert W. Moyer, 64, the bank's vice chairman and chief executive officer, could play a convincing George Bailey. The year before last, his annual report featured a three-page guide on "opening doors to homeownership" and proudly documented the $500 million-asset bank's mortgage lending record.
Yet this old-line community banker probably couldn't do without his Internet connection.
The bank's Web page (www.wilberbank.com) is black-and-white simple, yet fully transactional. Any account holder can check on deposits and withdrawals and pay bills. Add to that Wilber's options for banking by personal computer or screen telephone and an extended-hour call center, and you have a bank more technologically advanced than many bigger ones.
David Wilber opened the bank in 1874 in the building from which he sold hops - to a forerunner of Anheuser-Busch. He made loans on ta handshake while bringing the stability of the payments system to a thriving rural area.
Oneonta, nestled in the mountains between Albany and Binghamton, played a role in the history of computerization. In 1911 its congressman, Sherman Fairchild, decided in his capacity as chairman of the Post Office Committee to standardize timekeeping across the country. He turned to a machine designed by a local company named Computing, Tabulating and Recording, according to Mr. Moyer, who has one of the original clocks in his office.
After leaving Congress, Rep. Fairchild went on to head the company, which had merged with International Time Recording to become International Business Machines Corp.
In recent years, Wilber National has been carrying a technology torch. Mr. Moyer, an inveterate computer tinkerer, moved to Oneonta in 1964 as an employee of its major competitor, Key Bank. Three years later he joined Wilber, and by 1972 was its president.
In the 1970s the bank was one of the first to put savings in a "real time" mode, recording transactions on its own books at the same time they were entered in customer passbooks.
The bank built a reputation not for inventions, but for understanding how to apply available technologies - and not just in the back office, but in ways that built business.
"Bob Moyer doesn't know much about bits and bytes," said Matthew Lawlor, chief executive officer of Online Resources and Communications Corp. "But he isn't afraid of them. He is what you would call an early adopter."
After years of steady growth, the bank now occupies four merged buildings taking up almost a full block in the center of Oneonta. The interior is laid out to encourage customers to use automated teller machines.
Technology and high-touch aspects are in constant juxtaposition. Clerical workers open envelopes in the bank's servicing area next to the computer room with IBM machines and an "Authorized People Only" sign. A telephone call center is next to the room where a choir rehearsed for a Christmas concert on the bank's balcony. A loan officer wraps up his business at 6 p.m., his bowling shoes in hand for a night with his league.
Beginning in the 1980s, computer reports were stored in electronic form rather than on paper. In January 1994 the bank began relying on digital images of mortgage and loan documents. It also introduced an automated voice response system for touch-tone phone access.
In November 1995 the bank took a step further with the implementation of what it calls the "electronic check," using the screen telephone system designed by Online Resources and Communications Corp. of McLean, Va. (See article on next page.)
Screen phones, out of favor with PC-banking advocates, have made inroads with Wilber's customers. The bank has 700 users, including some who had been using PCs.
"There is still some customer apprehension about the Internet," said Steve A. Milavec, vice president of information systems.
Many of Wilber's customers learned about the new electronic systems through bank employees and their spouses.
John Heney had stopped banking with Wilber six years before the electronic option lured him back. "Because of the distances around, the on- line banking seemed practical," said Mr. Heney, an art teacher.
He accesses Wilber through the Internet, and though he hasn't used the account much, it is "easier to use than I thought it would be," he said.
Mr. Moyer saw an advantage in having an electronic banking system operating in real time over the ATM network. Instead of hiring programmers on his own, he sought out Online Resources.
"When we first started out, this home page technology was new and expensive," said Mr. Milavec. "We didn't have the resources to build" the systems.
"Because we are also offering a voice-response system, we are focusing on the screen phone. Customers can have electronic access, and we offer them a variety of methods."
"Seeing things on a screen makes it easier to calculate a future bill," said Michele Terrell, a showroom manager who banks with Wilber. "I love not having to go to the post office."
Mr. Moyer sees the Internet as a way to strengthen relationships with students at the several hospitals and universities in the area.
"When they get rid of their student loans, they'll be great customers," he said.
But he also wonders how the Net will affect customers.
"In a scary way, we are driving them out of the bank," he said. "We have a lot to learn about working with customers whose hands we can't shake. Now we need to reconstitute the bank to bring them back to us."