LOS ANGELES - Every day at about 8 a.m., four trucks carrying huge "Don't Merge" billboards emerge from secret locations around California. They are then parked outside Bank of America branches.
Their mission: to lure customers to First Interstate Bank of California.
The trucks are among many aggressive tactics First Interstate is using to capitalize on customer dissatisfaction stemming from BankAmerica Corp.'s acquisition of Security Pacific Corp. San Francisco-based BankAmerica plans to close 45 branches in California during the next few months because of the merger.
"This is an opportunity that only comes along once in a decade to significantly increase our market share in a short time," Bruce G. Willison, chairman of the First Interstate Bancorp unit, told employees in an internal newsletter."
First Interstate isn't the only bank that smells an opportunity.
Last week Sanwa Bank set up card tables outside BankAmerica branches about to be closed in San Diego, signing up customers on the street.
Redlands Federal Savings in San Bernardino and Riverside counties is running a campaign advising former Secpac customere: "Look at it this way. They're not getting bigger. You're getting smaller."
But Los Angeles-based First Interstate is decidedly the most zealous in its pursuit of former Security Pacific customers.
Live Radio Spots
In addition to its mobile billboards, First Interstate has arranged for radio stations throughout the Golden State to air live spots from the bank's parking lots.
Disk jockeys are giving away T-shirts and gift certificates to callers who correctly answer bank trivia questions like "Whose picture is on the $50 bill?" and "What is the largest bill iii circulation?"
The effort, code named "Project Win," has paid only modest dividends so far.
Dennis Shirley, First Interstate's director of marketing, said the bank has picked up about $350 million in deposits since September from customers or small businesses that previously had accounts at either Bank of America or Security Pacific.
That's a relatively small amount for a bank that already has $41.9 billion in deposits.
Effort Not Yet in Full Swing
"This is just phase one," Mr. Shirley insisted. With the majority of California branch closings scheduled for the end of this year and early next, First Interstate reckons its greatest opportunity to sign up new customers lies ahead.
First Interstate has put together a data base of 500,000 Bank of America customers with three or more accounts. First Interstate plans a direct mail campaign offering these customers special rates on a variety of products and services. The theme of the mailing: "We'd like to get to know you."
For its part, BankAmerica does not appear to be worried. A spokesman said, "We see it as a publicity stunt, and nothing more."
"We think there's an irony about the message on the mobile billboards," said Harvey Radin, a BankAmerica spokesman. "First Interstate is the product of mergers itself"
Reluctant to Switch
Thomas Glatt, an analyst with Counter Intelligence Associates, a bank consulting firm in San Juan Capistrano, Calif, said consumers are reluctant to move their account from one bank to another. because of the hassle involved.
"The banks that play to the consumers' fears of how they will be treated will do the best, he said.
First Interstate won't say how much money it's spending on Project Win, though it's clear the budget is relatively modest. The bank is avoiding expensive television spots in favor of radio and targeted print advertisements in neighborhoods where branches are closing. The ads are timed to coincide with the closings.
Schedule Easily Learned
How do they know the timetable for Bank of America's branch closings? First Interstate earlier this year asked its branch managers and other employees to open accounts at BankAmerica branches, so they would receive all of BankAmerica's customer mailings.
First Interstate jealously guards intelligence of where its billboard trucks will emerge each morning, fearing that BankAmerica employees will retaliate by filling the parking spaces around the targeted branches with their own cars.
The game plan for now is to take advantage of customers who are inconvenienced because of the merger.
And there appear to be plenty.
A Branch Overflows
This week, for example, a Bank of America branch near the closed Canoga Park branch was overflowing with customers. At 3 p.m. on Monday, about 30 people were standing in line. The parking lot was filled.
The handling of the merger "is disappointing," complained Sheila McGahey, a manager in an insurance company. "It's a great inconvenience," she added, saying she could not use her bank card at all BankAmerica teller machines.
Halfway down the street, midway between the closed Secpac branch and the BankAmerica branch, a First Interstate branch with six customers in line sported a red window painting saying, "Welcome Security Pacific customers."