ST. LOUIS - While St. Louis is not exactly Hollywood, a company here is churning out box-office hits for bankers.
Bankers Training and Consulting Co., which offers video and computer- based training guides, boasts a client base of 21,000 bank branches across the country - up nearly 70% in just five years.
"They're addressing a real need in the business," said William Baker, director of training at Comerica Inc. "Our industry is changing so quickly that to produce these kind of products in-house is just not cost- effective," he said.
The company's hottest videos, not surprisingly, address compliance topics. With regulations becoming increasingly complex, bankers have shown a keen interest in tapes on fair lending, Truth-in-Lending, and Truth-in- Savings, the company says.
Bankers don't actually buy the tapes. Rather, they pay a membership fee and then borrow the videos and software they want - much as they would check out a tape from a video store. That way banks don't have to maintain libraries of quickly outdated materials.
The idea has proved so popular that Bankers Training has virtually saturated the market. Of the top 200 banks, 92% are customers. The rest, the company predicts, never will join the fold, evidently satisfied with in-house training materials.
So, to sustain its growth, the company is hoping to hook its existing customers on a new concept.
Predicting that customers want both easy solutions and the newest technology, Bankers Training has developed a "workstation." A computer, VCR, and CD ROM are the components, and they are configured in a way that allows users to run all of the company's training products at one sitting.
Thomas W. Keel, director of computer-based training for the company, says the workstation will probably be a tough sell at first. It will have a hefty price tag: about $2,500. What's more, most banks already have the components.
Nonetheless, Mr. Keel says he hopes to get about 15 installed in banks in the coming year, counting on bankers who want to consolidate their training process.
In the meantime, the company will continue rolling out video and software products.
Of Bankers Training's 400 video and computer products, only 50 focus on compliance. But those 50 account for over half of the company's entire revenue, said Rachel Y. Stadler, director of customer support. That revenue has doubled in the past five years to $8 million.
"Banking regulations are difficult for people to understand," Ms. Stadler said. "Then when they learn, the rules are changed again."
Although bankers can customize their orders, Bankers Training has two standard price schedules.
If bankers want to choose from any of the company's 400 products, they pay $265 a month during a three-year commitment. Banks can take out five products at any one time. Access to just the 50-product compliance library costs $165 a month for three years, and bankers can take out 10 products at once.
Customers use the library differently depending on their training needs. Some banks keep products for an entire year, while others exchange them every week, Ms. Stadler said. When rules change, updates go out to customers immediately.
Of course, Bankers Training doesn't have the market entirely to itself. Its main competitors are BVS Performance Systems, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Capital Training, also in St. Louis. Capital Training was formed in 1989 by two former employees of Bankers Training.
Bankers Training itself was formed 11 years ago by Lawrence Darby, then a 28-year-old former president of Mark Twain Bank, St. Louis.
Mr. Darby, who left four years ago to start a grade school, sought to instill in the company and its products a sense that banking should be fun, Ms. Stadler said.
Reflecting that vision, the company's advertisements have been quirky, often poking fun at the industry. For example, one of their first ads was a send-up of a horror movie poster that read "The Worst Loan I Ever Made" in dripping ink. The poster was reprinted in a 1984 Time magazine story on banking industry problems.
In 1992, the company was bought by publicly held Westcott Communications, Carrollton, Tex. Westcott provides training to 2.5 million people in the areas of health care, education, government, and financial services.
Bankers Training plans to stay focused firmly on the banking industry - and, specifically, regulatory compliance for banks.
Thirty of its compliance products are on video, and the other 20 are computer-based, which enables bankers to interact with the program. Most products come with comprehension tests and workbooks.
Ms. Stadler said she, like her customers, wants to spend as little time as possible making a product work. "I don't want to have to figure out how to run the program, I want it to walk me through it," she said.
But, said Jean Dunaway, general manager of Bankers Training, bankers still want new technology."Our customers want to have the latest," Ms. Dunaway said. "They want to be on the cutting edge."
Customers include both large and small banks, among them First Interstate, Keycorp, and Barnett Banks.
Bankers Training also has an impressive list of regulators on its client roster, including the Federal Reserve Board, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Besides compliance products, Bankers Training offers such diverse lessons as handling a conflict with a boss, investing in the stock market, and interpreting a cash-flow statement. Teller training products are especially successful, Ms. Stadler said, because there is such high turnover in that area.
Ms. Dunaway said Bankers Training doesn't plan to branch out to other regulated industries, such as insurance or health care. Instead, it will focus on new banking rules, and new uses of technology, such as multimedia and the workstation project.
Of course, she adds, the company would consider any product a banking client needs.
"We'll sell anything that's honest, legal, and moral," Ms. Dunaway said.