Solutions '96, the American Bankers Association's revamped technology conference, gave bankers and vendors an opportunity to spend some quiet time together.

But many in both groups had hoped the gathering - which takes the place of the National Operations and Automation Conference - would generate more noise.

Despite a schedule of speakers that included some of the most influential bank technology executives, Solutions '96 failed to reverse the trend of declining attendance.

About 1,000 people showed up, and only about 250 were bankers. Under the old operations and automation banner, the conference drew more than 2,000 last year and close to 4,000 during its heyday in the 1980s.

According to one vendor, who requested anonymity, "You could hear a pin drop" on the exhibitors' floor at Solutions '96.

Dan N. Fisher, Solutions '96 chairman and senior vice president at Victoria Bank and Trust in Texas, said the new format "will set the stage for years to come."

With many vendors threatening to pull out next year if there were no signs of improvement, perhaps the word that best describes the conference's stage is "critical."

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One of the star attractions was Denis O'Leary, chief information officer of Chase Manhattan Corp.

Presiding over one of the banking industry's biggest technology consolidations - the combination of Chase and Chemical Banking Corp. operations, Mr. O'Leary has come to be regarded as an authority on megamergers' opportunities and pitfalls.

In his speech, he noted the important role that mergers and technology are playing in the way Wall Street views banks. Investors increasingly want to know about information flows and how banks plan to digest acquisitions.

Mr. O'Leary also suggested that asset size and the pursuit of scale efficiencies mean little to analysts in the long run.

"The market's valuation sends a warning," he said. "Investors' concern regarding our future ability to grow and compete continues to dampen the valuation of our stock.

"I believe the battle for success will center on operational excellence and customer intimacy, with (information technology) being the weapon of choice for the winners."

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Citicorp's chief technology officer, Colin Crook, spoke of the need for banks to get more sophisticated in the way they use technology to deliver services.

He predicted traditional automated teller machines would soon be replaced by terminals that have multimedia capabilities. He gave no specifics about projects at Citibank, which historically has been in the forefront of ATM technology.

Mr. Crook also said banks must strive to become more consumer oriented and to design delivery systems that adapt to human communication modes.

He said advanced forms of customer identification, such as iris scans, are likely to become widely used in banking, but he warned that their use raises privacy issues that banks must address.

For instance, does a bank have to inform customers that it is seeking to authenticate their identity via iris scans?

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Some companies used the show as a platform for product launches and contract news.

Learned Mahn Inc., Boise, Idaho, rolled out cash management software for community banks.

Local Federal Bank, Oklahoma City, announced that it bought imaging software from Protocorp International Inc., Charlotte, N.C.

Diebold Inc., Canton, Ohio, said several banks have begun using a special dispenser to sell postage stamps through its ATMs.

Liz Moyer contributed to this article.

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