Boatmen's Bancshares, a onetime example of how growth by acquisition can reduce an organization's efficiency, has ridden a renewed focus on technology to vastly improved profitability.

The St. Louis-based regional banking company has acquired 24 institutions in the last six years, boosting assets by 450%, to $32.5 billion.

The buying spree created an inefficient organization. Raymond Senuk, chief information officer at Boatmen's, has helped turn around this situation, overseeing technology initiatives that have unified the bank's disparate parts.

"Each of our acquisitions has required us to convert the institutions - regardless of what system the bank was operating on - to our standard corporate system," he said.

"Our belief is that the faster we integrate a bank to our system the more money we will save and the faster we will be able to get customers operating in a truly Boatmen's environment."

Currently, all but one of the Boatmen's regional banks operate on a standard back-office processing system, which was developed in-house.

The company has converted 75 bank charters to its systems and has "reinvented itself as a retail bank," according to Mr. Senuk.

The move to common systems has played a large role in a Boatmen's resurgence, according to analysts.

Return on assets and return on equity ratios that only four years ago were below industry averages have improved enough to put the company in its best fundamental position in at least a decade, according to Alan Legate, a banking analyst at Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. in St. Louis.

"They are in excellent condition for the future," he said. "Everything across the board is in line, and management is taking an aggressive stance to making sure it is number one, two, or three in the marketplaces in which it operates."

The most recent of the bank's technology initiatives is its construction of a $20 million data center in Kansas City. The facility, which handles back-office processing for nearly all units of Boatmen's, began operating in January.

Boatmen's had previously used a data center that came to the bank as a result of the same acquisition - Centerre Bancorp - that brought in Mr. Senuk.

Mr. Senuk said the new facility updates much of the technology used at the old site. It also offers room for growth.

"We broke ground on the facility in April of 1994 and built a 100,000- square-foot facility in just under nine months," Mr. Senuk said. "The conversion was completed in one weekend, and for the most part it was seamless."

The 1988 Centerre acquisition was a crucial moment in Boatmen's history, according to Mr. Senuk. For starters, the deal increased the company's assets from $7 billion to more than $12 billion.

But more importantly, it prepared the company to deal with future acquisitions.

"After the Centerre acquisition, we decided to look at our technology operation from a corporate perspective and realized that we needed to make some changes in order to survive and compete," Mr. Senuk said.

"At the time, we had four data centers that operated on the regional level and decided that we needed to consolidate the operation into one entity which was directed by the holding company."

In addition, the Centerre acquisition forced Boatmen's to focus on improving its retail delivery channel - an effort that continues today.

"Suddenly, we realized that we were not just a wholesale bank but that we had a lot of retail customers" and needed to capitalize on the franchise and focus on providing service.

Expanding its retail focus while consolidating its processing proved tough, but Boatmen's, seven years after Mr. Senuk's arrival, has nearly completed its move to common systems.

The one unit not operating on the same systems as the others is Superior Federal, an Arkansas savings and loan. Superior is under a long-term agreement with a data processing provider, and Boatmen's feels that breaking the contract would be too expensive.

Though it has deployed many personal computers, Boatmen's core technology strategy still revolves around the mainframe. Its system consists of a group of individual processing pockets, including demand deposit systems, customer information files, and data warehouses, that are unified into a coherent package accessible to all of the company's units.

"No matter where a customer walks in the door," Mr. Senuk said, "we know everything about every account they have with the organization: current balances, payment history, and creditworthiness. All of the information is available (through an) on-line, real-time system throughout our 500 locations across nine states."

Like many institutions, Boatmen's hopes to use common systems to put the wealth of customer information it owns to its best use.

"We have every customer's relationship at our fingertips so customers can come into the branch and we can say, 'What can we do for you today?' " Mr. Senuk said. "The applications are truly integrated."

Mr. Senuk said the company's annual technology budget is $65 million and grows about 5% per year. Much of future increases will go toward improving branch-based technology.

"In 1989," he said, "we had no on-line branch automation system, and since then, we have built a system that provides teller and platform automation and installed a client-server system.

"We have also installed an on-line credit scoring application (and) have expanded into telephone and personal computer banking."

On the corporate side, the bank is using a Windows environment interface that lets customers use point-and-click technology to execute, enter, and create a host of cash management and corporate transactions.

"The name of the game in banking is to keep costs low and maximize efficiency," Mr. Senuk said, "and we think that we are positioned for the future with our current technology plan."

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