ATLANTA - When 200 top retail banking executives get together to talk about banking's future, investment products are front and center.

Investment products headlined eight of 22 sessions at the national retail management conference held here earlier this week by the American Bankers Association.

Mutual funds and annuities also rolled off the tongues of executives who were speaking on broader topics, like the role technology will play in banks.

Attendees certainly felt all the talk about mutual funds and annuities was appropriate.

"The issue is not whether to offer investment products," said David W. Mooney, retail division executive with Chemical Bank, New York. "The issue is how we can do so more effectively."

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While planning the future of their investment products businesses, banks must also make sure their program foundations are firmly in place.

That was the message from Eric C. Oppenheim, director of compliance at Comerica Investment Services, Detroit. Mr. Oppenheim said banks can best cut through the regulatory thicket by developing guidelines for their sales programs.

Comerica counts on an 11-page "Checklist for Retail NonDeposit Investment Sales" developed by the Detroit law firm of Bodman, Longley & Dahling.

The list contains 64 categories for banks to consider, ranging from settings for sales to striking arrangements with outside marketers.

Mr. Oppenheim reminded bankers that senior management is not the last word when it comes to reviewing an investment products effort. "Include your board," he said. "They should be aware every step of the way."

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The conference began Monday, the same day that regulators in South Carolina threatened to shut down retail investment sales in that state by the brokerage unit of NationsBank Corp.

The South Carolina authorities, like other regulators, are looking at public allegations that the brokerage used inappropriate sales tactics. NationsBank has repeatedly denied the assertions.

The episode quickly found its way into conference presentations and cocktail chatter, with industry executives pondering the fall-out for themselves.

"This has erupted into a major issue," said George M. Morvis, president of Financial Shares Corp., Chicago.

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Not everyone lauded banks' investment sales efforts.

William D. Wilsted, president of the graduate school of banking at Colorado University, took a decidedly negative view.

He brandished a study that indicated brokerages are doing a better job at helping customers than banks are.

The survey, based on surveys of five banks, a brokerage firm, and an insurance company, scored the banks lower at product knowledge, determining customers' financial needs, and choosing the right investments for them.

The banks did fare better than their competitors at the prices they charge for services and the way they prepare and issue account statements.

Bankers questioned the findings, saying they survey represented too small a sampling to be persuasive.

Bankers also complimented themselves for making sure customers are placed in the right products.

"Suitability is what we're all about," said Donald DeMaio, executive vice president at North Fork Bancorp., Mattituck, N.Y.

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If one message emerged from the conference, it was that banks, as they evolve and embrace new systems, must not lose the personal relationships they've cultivated with customers.

Some speakers used the latest techno-terms to impart that advice, while others relied on home-spun wisdom.

William M. Randle, senior vice president at Huntington Bancshares turned phrases like "virtual banking," "cyber banking," and "a holistic view of banking" when discussing sophisticated communication devices designed to strengthen ties to customers.

John Turnipseed, people services manager for Southwest Airlines Co., took a different tack.

Cutting-edge approaches can only take banks so far, he said. "Remember, it's about putting people first, and having fun."

He also drew a laugh by reminding the crowd, "No matter how much you prepare, you sometimes step in it."

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