Community banks, eager to ride the home banking wave of their larger counterparts, dominated the recent Electronic Money and Banking Forum in Dallas.
The conference, hosted by Alex Sheshunoff Management Services Inc., drew an sizable roster of bankers - nine out of 10 of them from banks with under $2 billion of assets.
These community bankers turned out in force to educate themselves on the rapidly changing market for remote services, to form strategies of their own, and to find out more about the competition.
Bankers from Chase Manhattan Corp., Chemical Banking Corp., USAA Savings Bank, and Banc One's West Virginia subsidiary all gave presentations on the work that they are doing.
Although the past year has seen an avalanche of undertakings in the area of electronic banking, most of the activity has been reserved to the nation's largest banks.
But the broadening appeal of electronic delivery alternatives - evidenced by the popularity of this conference and others like it - shows that banks big and small seemed determined to reconstruct the way they do business.
Rather than being overwhelmed by the rush of change around them, many community bankers seemed reassured by their findings.
"Before going (to the conference), I felt like we might have to do more in-house," said Robert Briscoe, the executive vice president and chief financial officer of the $101 million-asset Savannah Bank in Georgia.
"For a progressive community bank, we see this as an opportunity as opposed to a threat."
Community bankers like Mr. Briscoe seemed relieved to discover how even the nation's largest banks have embraced partnerships with software companies, bank card associations, and other service providers to enable their electronic delivery projects.
Opening speaker Diogo Teixeira sounded a theme echoed by many who followed him by pointing up the considerable cost of embarking early on electronic initiatives.
"Banks have a high potential to dominate the future of the electronic money world," said Mr. Teixeira, president of the Tower Group, a Wellesley, Mass., consulting firm. "However, the risks are high."
Mark Burns, a vice president in charge of on-line services for Chase, described his bank's experiences as an early partner of both Microsoft Corp. and Intuit Inc. in offering banking services through their personal finance software as "expensive, frustrating, and time-consuming," albeit worthwhile.
Although community banks lack the deep pockets to commit quickly, speakers said that these financial institutions may eventually benefit the most from the shift to remote delivery.
Community banks, they said, have the least to lose - with fewer branches to close and smaller, more distributed infrastructures to reconfigure. A handful of small banks have already taken a lead role.
In his speech, Edmund P. Graczyk, a product manager for Microsoft's new on-line network, made reference one of these small-bank pioneers: Cardinal Bancshares.
The small bank holding company in Lexington, Ky., is setting up a unit on the Internet. "This tiny Kentucky bank is now as convenient to me as Citibank," Mr. Graczyk said.
Rather than denouncing the branch network on the whole, speakers largely encouraged banks to redesign what they should look like.
Catherine Corby, the director of electronic delivery strategies for Barnett Banks Inc., said banks have "not done a good job of integrating electronic banking into the branches." She highlighted the convergence of personal computer and interactive-television technology, saying her bank was embracing both media as they became more similar.
The speakers, by and large, presented conservative and pragmatic views of the burgeoning market for automated financial services - much to the comfort of its community banking audience, which seemed loathe to jump the gun.
Bruce Burchfield, chief executive of Intuit Services Corp., which processes bill payments for the Microsoft and Intuit on-line banking services, said it would be at least six months to a year before those programs began enlisting small banks.
Mr. Briscoe said it would take from one to three years for Savannah Bank to implement a PC-based banking service, although at least 70% of its customers already use the telephone to access their accounts.
But some smaller banks have already found it in their best interests - and their budgets - to embark on alternative delivery.
William Hall, a senior vice president for the electronic delivery region at Zions First National Bank in Salt Lake City, said his bank has done extensive research and development in electronic banking at a cost of less than $1 million in the past three years. Through a partnership with Visa Interactive, the card association's remote banking arm, the $4 billion- asset bank began offering its customers bill payment via telephone three months ago, and plans to soon provide PC-based banking.
Although the spotlight seemed to be shining on PC-based initiatives, speakers from BellSouth Business Systems and Philips Home Services pointed up a growing resurgence in screen phone projects, led more often now by phone companies and service providers than by banks.