For Anne M. Slattery, the past four months have been a crash course in how Fleet Financial Group operates.

In January, Ms. Slattery, a 24-year veteran at Citicorp, was named Fleet's vice president of consumer and community banking. She joined at a time when the Providence, R.I.-based institution is undergoing a major reengineering that will result in 3,000 layoffs.

"It is the best of times in that the whole company was really laid out in front of me," said Ms. Slattery. "It's the worst of times in that ... it has been a difficult time for all poeple in the company. But it is a necessary time."

The restructuring, called Fleet Focus, is expected to save $300 million in overhead annually. The $46.5 billion-asset bank also aims to reduce its efficiency ratio, or noninterest expense per dollar of revenue, from 67% to a more competitive 55% by the middle of next year.

On Solid Ground

Fleet recently joined the banking industry regatta to cut expenses and restructure. But unlike many counterparts, Fleet launched the process from a position of relative financial health. Last year, the bank posted $488 million in earnings, with a return on assets of 1.06% First-quarter earnings in 1994 were up 25% over last year.

"The whole process of Fleet Focus was not necessarily to reduce expenses just for the sake of reducing just for the sake of reducing expenses," Ms. Slattery said. "It was to ... re-engineering the bank and make us more efficient. That means reducing expenses, increasing revenue, and sometimes, spending more money to save money.

"Technology will be a very key factor in getting us there." said Ms. Slattery.

Positions Centralized

Ms. Slattery's job is a new position. Under a previous reorganization last year, day-to-day responsibility for retail banking, once handled by the presidents of the seven subsidiary banks, was centralized into one position. "We're organized along lines of business," she said.

Ms. Slattery reports to Michael R. Zucchini, one of the bank's three vice chairman who was formerly head of information services.

Sally Pope Davis, an analyst with Goldman, Sachs & Co. in New York, said the restructuring along business lines as opposed to geography made sense for an organization that, like Fleet, grew by acquisition.

Making It Happen

She added that technology will be a big factor in gaining efficiencies throughout a vast network of 832 branches in seven states.

But while the major goals of Fleet Focus have been set, it appears to bank is still working on how to achieve them.

"[Fleet] has not given a lot of guidance on how it's going to affect different branches," said Ms. Davis.

Dennis F. Shea, analyst with Morgan Stanley & Co. in New York, said he has heard few specifics on how the bank plans to boost revenues while simultaneously cutting expenses.

Mr. Shea said he expects Fleet, like banks, to cut the number of branches. But branch closings, Ms. Slattery noted, are not part of Fleet Focus, though the bank does evaluate the profitability of each office twice a year.

Branch Strategy

"One of the things you have to say to yourself is, I can lower the overall delivery cost by reducing the number of branches. Or I can reduce the overall cost ... by insuring that the branches we do operate are profitable."

But while saying she "assumed" technology spending will increase, Ms. Slattery did not point to any major information services initiatives in the retail banking area.

"When I came to Fleet I was astounded at how advanced they are in their use of technology," said Ms. Slattery. "What we had to do was harness the technology we already had."

The bank is looking to implement a number of ideas that grew from the reengineering process. "I was so impressed when I heard that when the chairman sent out the letter describing [Fleet Focus] to all the employees and asking them for input, [there were] 20,000 responses."

Overdraft Example

By way of example, Ms. Slattery noted that decisions on whether to cover or return bad checks are now made at the branch level. "Each branch spends roughly 2.5 man-hours per day on overdrafts," she said. "TMultiply] that by 832 branches and you're talking a lot of human power."

Fleet will centralize and automate those decisions to create a more efficient process. That step might also, she suggested, result in greater income if fees are levied more consistently across the branch network.

"That's an example of something that came out of Fleet Focus that would clearly reduce the efficiency ratio," Ms. Slattery said. And, she added, "we didn't have to buy anything."

Another change was reducing six different applications for a variety of loans into a single, standardized form. Data entered at the platform can be sent electronically to a back office where it is run through a credit-scoring process.

Quick Loan Decisions

Now, customer can find out if they qualify for a loan while waiting in a branch. Fleet is using a similar credit-scoring process for small-business loans.

But Ms. Slattery emphasized that the bank doesn't plan to sail ahead of the industry on technology initiatives. Fleet does not, for example, segment its customers to ease cross-selling.

And there are no plans to implement bankng by computer. "Our belief is that we're operating in the here and how. And today, there is a wonderful device called the telephone, which has phenomenal customer acceptance."

Like many other big banks, Fleet operates a 24-hour phone center with an automatic voice-response system to handle inquires. The center will soon provide a service that will allow customers to pay bills by phone.

"I think the issue is not getting too far ahead of the consumer," said Ms. Slattery. "Far enough ahead so that you have competitive advantage. But not so far ahead that you sink a whole bunch of dollars."

Focus on Self-Service

The phone center, she said, is part of a strategy to focus more on self-service banking. Last year, Fleet began placing in its branches machines that resemble ATMs. The units, called Quick Touch, are designed to free branch personnel from answering routine questions.

Customer can use a touch-sensitive screen to get information about bank products such as checking and savings accounts, credit cards, and mortgages.

Users can also print out details about the products.

The machines are designed to handle other routine tasks such as printing out account statements, renewing certificates of deposit, or stopping payment on checks.

That kind of approach, she said, offers better customer service and greater productivity.

Customer Oriented

"What I bring to the party ... is that I'm very customer oriented," she said.

As Fleet moves ahead, Ms. Slattery said, it doesn't want to leave any potential customers behind. "It is our objective over time to deliver our products and price our products in a way such that when customers use them they are profitable."

She concedes, however, that every product will not necessarily be profitable.

Ms. Slattery also compared Fleet with New York-based Citi-corp, where she was most recently managing director of U.S. consumer banking.

"It's very different here," she said. "In many ways -- from a customer point of view -- Fleet is far more [advanced]" than Citi-corp, which has a reputation as a technology innovator.

She cited Fleet's checking account for private banking customers, who receive integrated image statements.

"What we tend to do is take technology and deliver to a broad base of customers. We do that very well," Ms. Slattery said.

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