Community bankers' plans for using imaging technology are far more ambitious than industry experts had predicted, according to responses to an American Bankers Association survey.

Overall, about 16% of banks with less than $500 million in assets said they plan to move to image technology within two years to speed check processing, the costliest form of imaging, and another 23% said they would use the technology to produce image statements.

Exceeding Expectations

Larger community banks express even greater than average interest, with 32% of those between $250 million and $499 million of assets planning to use the costly proof of deposit image systems.

The numbers are greater than vendors and other observers had expected, said Joye B. Haneberg, executive vice president of Emprise Bank, Wichita, Kan., who headed the study. Most imaging systems, especially those for proof of deposit check processing, have targeted large banks with big transaction volumes.

Emprise Bank itself expects to install a check-image processing system based on personal computers within two years.

Anchor Bank, a $210 million-asset institution based in Myrtle Beach, S.C., is installing a personal computer-based check-image processing system this November. "It's a significant investment, but it's a lot lower than we expected," said Jack Moran, comptroller. The bank expects to reduce costs and improve customer service, he said.

579 Banks Participated

The study, conducted in the first quarter of 1993, is based on responses from 579 community banks, each with total assets of less than $500 million. The study breaks down the banks into five categories, ranging from banks with less than $25 million in assets to those with $250 million to $499 million.

The ABA launched the survey this year as a way to broaden its appeal to community banks.

Many vendors have discussed offering image processing to community banks on a service bureau basis, but most maintain little demand has emerged. Systematics Financial Services Inc., Little Rock, Ark., will be the first to move its service bureau customers to image-capture technology for check processing when it converts operations in its Piscataway, N.J., facility.

The study also found that many community bankers -- about 22% -- plan to install new retail banking systems in the next two years.

The ABA said this survey was the first to get a snapshot of trust services at community banks. Many are offering such services -- 17.5% of banks with $25 million to $49 million of assets; 35.5% of those with $50 million to $99 million of assets; and half of those with the more than $100 million of assets.

But in other respects, community banks remain far less technologically sophisticated than their larger counterparts. Although nearly all community banks, 95%, use personal computers, only 30% had linked their PCs on networks, according to the survey.

About half of community bankers operate their computer systems in-house, while 35% use service bureau providers.

Bankers expressed most interest in optical disk storage, which is used to store document images electronically (86.7%); debit card point of sale technology (80.5%); electronic mail (70.3%); and enhanced automated teller machine capability (68.7%).

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