The credit union industry is well on its way to creating a nationwide banking system.

Through a network of "shared branches" - facilities jointly owned and operated by a group of credit unions - customers may soon be able to gain access to their credit union from anywhere in the country.

"Most major metropolitan areas will be covered [by a branch] in five years," said Michael J. Mercer, chairman of Credit Union Service Corp., Duluth, Ga., which is overseeing shared branching in about 16 states.

The two-year-old company's goal is to tie every state into a seamless system.

So far 105 credit unions have signed on, representing more than two million credit union customen, Mr. Mercer said. The network conducts about 30,000 transactions a month, about 5% of those cross state lines.

California Network Gains

In January, Credit Union Service Corp. and California's shared branching network agreed to link their operations. The link went live in April.

Forty-six California credit unions belong to the California shared branch network. There are 25 branches throughout California, and that tally could reach 85 by the end of the year, said Bonnie Irving-Strain, chief executive of the network. "It's an aggressive plan," she said.

There are some hurdles on the road to a nationwide system.

After months of talks Daniel Balagna, president of Southfield, Mich.-based Service Centers Corp., still hasn't agreed to link operations with Credit Union Service Centers.

"Before I put resources into it, I want to make sure they're off the ground," he said. He also downplayed the importance of a nationwide system, saying that shared branching is more crucial locally because it allows credit unions to open branches near their customers' homes.

Service Centers Corp., which opened its first branch in 1975 is the oldest shared branching network. Its original five mere bers pitched in to open a branch because opening one individual ly was deemed too costly. It now has 155 credit unions, 15 branches and conducted 6.3 million transactions in 1993.

In May it opened a branch in Falls Church, Va., for Washington-area credit unions. Service Centers Corp. also is the contractor for shared branch networks in Missouri, Texas, and Indiana. Last month it signed contract with 11 Wisconsin credit unions.

It's also a challenge to credit unions and customers involved.

Some credit unions haven't joined networks because they have a sufficient branching system or are not sure the system will work. Some worry rivals might use shared facilities to steal their members.

"A lot of credit unions have a wait-and-see attitude" about joining, said Kenny Harrington regional manager of Texas Credit Union Service Centers.

Nevertheless, a nationwide credit union network is coming. "Credit unions recognize they can't afford brick-and-morta all the places they need to to be near their members," Mr. Mercer said. "They're willing to share in the development of facilities."

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