ORLANDO - Fidelity Investments had some notable success last year with a push to sell more of its mutual funds through trust departments at community banks.

The push, which started around midyear, entailed creating a new unit of 34 professionals to call on trust departments with less than $750 million of trust assets, said Nishan Vartabedian, executive vice president of a Fidelity unit that markets funds through financial institutions.

The unit sold $500 million of Fidelity's long-term mutual funds, he said in an interview here at the American Bankers Association's trust and private banking conference.

That's a big part of the $1.5 billion of long-term mutual funds that Fidelity sold through all bank trust departments in 1994, tripling the 1993 figure.

Mr. Vartabedian, who heads Fidelity's trust sales efforts, declined to disclose this year's projections.

But he acknowledged that he was planing on "substantial growth" driven by sales through community banks and through 401(k) plans for which banks are trustees.

Indeed, Fidelity already this year has picked up a handful of trust accounts with more than $100 million of assets which previously had invested in other companies' mutual funds.

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According to the conference program, the theme was "Thinking Outside the Banking Box to Compete in the 21st Century."

In a reflection of the management-oriented theme, a pair of management gurus were tapped as keynote speakers.

One of these gurus, James Brian Quinn, professor emeritus with the Amos Tuck business school at Dartmouth College, urged conferencegoers to focus on "core competencies." In other words, the key to success in the competitive 1990s is making sure your company does only what it can do better than any other company.

By contrast, Frederick F. Reichheld, director of consultancy Bain & Co., Boston, said the key to success was finding customers who are profitable to serve, and making them so happy they never leave.

On this front, affinity credit card marketer MBNA America Bank was a leader, he said.

Indeed, Mr. Reichheld went so far as to deem MBNA America's chief executive Charles M. Cawley the Dalai Lama of niche marketing.

So what wisdom can Mr. Cawley give to other bankers?

"Success is simply getting the right customers and keeping them," Mr. Reichheld said the banker told him.

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The more than 940 attendees at the conference were treated to a mixture of old and new thinking on the exhibit floor.

The new was epitomized by the more than two dozen technology and mutual fund company booths that dominated the displays. The flow of visitors was evidence that the staid trust and private banking business has embraced the latest in software and investing techniques.

But blue-blood companies also were present, including art auctioneers Christie's and Sotheby's, which had prominent displays.

"We do a lot of business with banks," explained Richard S. Wolf, a Sotheby's senior vice president.

Sotheby's works closely with bankers to sell off artwork from estates of the deceased, or to appraise the value of artwork in trusts administered by banks, he explained.

Sotheby's also looks for art buyers from among banks' private banking clients, and even does some work for banks' private art collections.

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