IN THE LAST FIVE years, Commerce Bancorp has more than tripled in size. Now, the Cherry Hill, N.J.-based banking company is installing the technology it needs to keep up with its rapid growth.

It began a little more than a year ago, when management was putting together a long-term strategic plan. They realized the bank needed new systems in order to provide better customer service at branch offices.

Since then, Commerce has begun to install new technology, including an automatic voice-response service, consumer loan software, and a teller system. It plans to have all of the technology installed and running by the end of the summer.

In addition to the technology, the bank says it is competing against bigger regional competitors like Midlantic Corp., First Fidelity Bancorp., and CoreStates Financial Corp. by giving its branches a distinctive look and keeping them open longer.

Since 1990, Commerce has grown from $777 million in assets to $2.3 billion. It's in the process of adding 11 branches by yearend and its strategic plan calls for 50 additional offices over the next five years.

"We have been able to grow through building new branches - where we have very strong growth - and through acquisitions," said Vernon W. Hill 2d, chairman and president.

In the past year, the bank acquired Coastal Bank, a $51 million-asset community bank in Ocean City, N.J.

Commerce has also bought a number of branches from other institutions.

"Our bank has been built on collecting consumer deposits at the branch level, and our philosophy is that our people are trained to say 'yes' to our customers' requests," said Mr. Hill. "We have a very active program to get rid of procedures that do not make sense, to enhance and add value to the consumer experience."

Elizabeth A. Summers, a banking analyst at Ryan, Beck and Co., in West Orange, N.J., said, "The bank is truly customer oriented, and is always trying to improve the level of service it is providing, and the use of technology will enhance it."

Within the past 12 to 15 months, the bank has been able to accomplish significant technology implementations, said John Dabek, Commerce's vice president of operations. "We have been able to streamline the branches to better serve our customers. And technology has been the answer.

"Several months ago we introduced a 24-hour banking service which allows customers to get complete account and rates information over the phone," said Mr. Dabek.

New technology includes an automatic voice-response service, consumer loan software, and a teller system

And although it has not been marketed to the entire customer base, he said, "We have seen tremendous customer acceptance, with over 5,500 calls a day."

The bank has also installed local area networks at its 40 branches. Platform personnel and tellers are equipped with personal computers linked to the bank's International Business Machines ES9000 mainframe.

"By using a personal computer-based teller system, we have been able [to see] an increase of approximately 47% in our teller processing," said Mr. Dabek. "We expect to pick up another 5 to 10% with the installation of digital communications lines."

Commerce has installed a PC-based teller system by Dayton, Ohio-based Culverin Corp. The system, called Flextran, processes information rapidly while giving the data to the tellers in a readable manner.

The system has allowed for a reduction in check transaction time from 36 seconds to 19 seconds, said Mr. Dabek.

Commerce is also automating the new account and loan opening processes with technology from Portland, Ore.-based CFI ProServices Inc. Both systems will be completely operational in all of the bank's branches by the beginning of August.

"The old-fashioned way of opening up accounts with many forms in the branches and getting it to the back office was a long, tedious process," said Mr. Dabek. "With these two systems we no longer have to type multiple documents. With the touch of a key, all the customer information is edited and uploaded to the mainframe."

Commerce's core banking system is Orlando-based Kirchman Corp.'s Dimension 3000.

"The beauty of the system is that it has been designed to allow for all of the interfaces to occur," said Mr. Dabek. "The voice-response system, PC system, and teller system are all interfaced to process information. The Kirchman system does not confine us to certain vendors. We are able to seek out whichever system we want and have the flexibility to integrate to the host."

By using the technology the bank has been able to free up customer service employees to focus on sales.

"We looked to technology as the tool to make our operation work more efficiently," said Dennis DiFlorio, chief retail officer. "From a retailing standpoint, we have been able to give the customer a value-added service through the use of technology. We have freed up our branch employees so they can focus on working with the customers."

Another way the bank is working to improve customer service is by keeping longer hours than its competitors. "Customers really like the ability to bank until 8 p.m. during the week at our drive-throughs. They really like the convenient hours," said Mr. Dabek. "As a result of the hours, we do a tremendous transaction volume for an average branch."

Commerce branches average $55 million in deposits, while most of the banks it competes with directly have $20 million to $30 million, he said. The bank's branches process more than 50,000 transactions per month.

Commerce also tries to distinguish itself from other banks in the Garden State by functioning more like a retail store. Mr. DiFlorio said the majority of Commerce branches have been built or renovated to have a contemporary, identifiable look.

Commerce's next move will be linking all of the local area networks to create a wide area network. That, officials said, will provide better access to customer information throughout the company. The bank also plans new back-office technology, such as imaging for loan applications.

By installing the software, the bank has been able to freeup customer service employees to focus on sales

"The amazing thing here is that we have been able to effectively implement and integrate our systems without a large support staff," said Mr. Dabek.

Commerce does not employ any programmers. In all, the bank has eight data processing employees. Five employees handle day-to-day operations and clerical work; the others are systems analysts and managers.

Said Mr. Dabek: "Our focus is not on technology. We are using it effectively to provide service, but this strategy allows us to stay focused on banking."

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