Small banks are breaking into the ranks of those with the best-run Internet sites, according to Gomez Advisors Inc.'s latest quarterly ranking.
Salem Five Cents Savings Bank in Massachusetts, with just under $1 billion of assets, is the first community bank to score among the top five. The Internet banking research and advisory firm put it at No. 4, behind Security First Network Bank, Wells Fargo Bank, and Citibank.
Sixteen banks with less than $5 billion of assets ranked among the 55 banks evaluated for Gomez's spring ranking, issued Tuesday.
Smaller banks are on the way to providing high-quality on-line services, said Christopher Musto, senior analyst at Concord, Mass.-based Gomez.
Salem Five Cents scored a perfect 10 in the cost category by maintaining "next-to-nothing costs" even though it was enhancing its service monthly, Mr. Musto said.
Michael R. Fitzgerald, senior vice president at Salem, said being small has built-in cost advantages. "We use our size to our benefit," he said.
The two-person staff of Salem's call center provides service to the bank's 5,000 Internet banking clients. Conversations take place over the telephone and through electronic mail.
"I read almost every customer e-mail that comes through our branch, " Mr. Fitzgerald said. "I think that's pretty hard for a large bank to do."
The streamlined setup lets Salem offer low-cost products without adding to fixed overhead. "We are saving tremendously on the servicing expense side," Mr. Fitzgerald said.
The Internet banking unit, with more than $60 million of assets, has been profitable since its inception, he said. The bank offers among the best rates in the country on certificates of deposit and money market accounts, as well as 20 free ATM transactions a month, on-line bill payment, and no minimum balance requirements on checking and savings accounts.
Salem also earned high votes from Gomez for its "wizard applications," such as on-line account applications, instant loan approvals, and easy-to- use interfaces, Mr. Musto said. The bank uses software from Security First Technologies, provided through M&I Data's service bureau.
And Salem continues to innovate. Just last week it upgraded its site with free financial content and a personal financial ticker. The bank, which aims to blur the distinction between on-line banking and brokering, also expects to introduce on-line trading "very soon," Mr. Fitzgerald said.
Another community bank, Intrust Bank in Wichita, Kan., a $1.87 billion- asset unit of Intrust Financial Corp., ranked among Gomez's top 20 Internet banks, at No. 18. Mr. Musto said Intrust offers services that many of the big banks do not, such as the display of digitized check images.
Internet-only banks with assets of less than $2 billion ranked high. Behind first-place Security First Network Bank, a unit of Royal Bank of Canada, were Compubank of Houston, at No. 6; NetBank of Atlanta, No. 10; and Indianapolis-based First Internet Bank of Indiana, No. 20.
Security First Network Bank has added real-time coordination between automated teller machines and its Internet interface, so updated account information is consistent through all channels, Mr. Musto said.
Bank of America, which Gomez had long ranked as No. 1, slipped again in the latest ranking, from fourth place to fifth. The bank "is grappling with merger issues," Mr. Musto said. Its parent merged last year with NationsBank Corp.