THREE YEARS AGO, when the First National Bank of Naples, Fla., opened its doors for the first time, it was also running its own computers.

While this might not seem like a big deal, the de novo bank's investment in technology was an expensive gamble at a time when many other cash-strapped financial institutions were being enticed by the trend toward handing off their data processing chores to outsiders.

"From the day it opened, First Naples has been an independent, technology-driven bank, and that gives it more flexibility than a lot of its peers that are at service bureaus," said M. Arthur Gillis, a New Orleans-based consultant specializing in community bank technology.

In many ways, First Naples' philosophy is no different from that of other community banks. Since its castle-like main branch opened in Naples, an affluent Gulf Coast community, the bank's employees pride themselves on greeting each customer by name and on differentiating their bank from the competition with little perks such as free cookies whenever possible. "There's nothing like a good cookie to get them in the door," quips one of the bank's employees.

Where First Naples differs from the herd, however, is in its technology strategy. With the exception of the receptionists, every one of the bank's 61 employees has access to a personal computer.

The PCs are tied together in a local area network that gives branch workers access to everything from customer information files to electronic messages.

The system is anchored by an International Business Machines Corp. AS/400 computer that is proudly displayed in a glass room overlooking the lobby of First Naples' main office.

"We put technology on a pedestal here, there's no doubt about it," said Gary Tice, First Naples' founder and chief executive. "But we only do so where it will drive us to our ultimate goal of generating profits."

Mr. Tice is aware that his statements sound like the often heard but seldom used theories, set forth at banking conferences. But there is evidence that First Naples is practicing what it preaches.

The bank began making a profit after only 12 months of operation and has been in the black in every subsequent month but one. In the first six months of 1992, the bank's net income was about $300,000, an improvement of more than 140% from the same period last year.

Assets have skyrocketed from $6 million on opening day to more than $114 million in a little over three years. It is now the fourth-largest of nine commercial banks in Naples and competes with larger regional powerhouses like Barnett Banks Inc. and Sun Banks Inc.

Although the bank's 0.33% return on assets is low compared with those of its peers, analysts say that it is unfair to evaluate a bank in such a manner until it has been in business at least five years. The same goes for overhead expense, which exceeds the peer group average slightly because of the bank's up-front costs for hardware and software.

"From the beginning, we were committed to functioning as an independent bank for at least 10 years," said Mr. Tice. "If we didn't give ourselves that kind of window, we really couldn't get a clear picture of how our commitment to self-sufficiency pays off."

Raising the capital to fund this self-sufficiency was no mean task. Before it could open for business, First National Bank of Naples needed about $6 million to fund equipment purchases and construction costs. But, leaning heavily on a business reputation that he established at Citizens National Bank across town, Mr. Tice and his partner Garret S. Richter were able to raise the capital in a little over a month. As a result of that first stock issue and a second offering completed in September, the bank has about 500 shareholders, most of whom reside in the Naples area and none of whom owns more than 5% of the bank. The technological independence that these shareholders are funding is paying off in terms of how First Naples competes with crosstown rivals, Mr. Tice said.

For instance, any deposit the bank takes can be immediately credited to a customer's account. By contrast, many community banks treat all deposits taken after 2 p.m. as a next-day transaction. This can make a big difference to local businessmen who make frequent deposits.

Thanks to a special software package from Broadway & Seymour, Charlotte, N.C., a certificate of deposit can be sold to an existing customer in less than three minutes. And the bank can tailor statements to the needs of each business customer.

Operating an in-house system also streamlines the process of adding applications. Recently, First Naples added an indirect loan department, and the necessary system modifications were completed in about two weeks.

"We would have been on a waiting list of eight to 10 months at a service bureau, and I speak from experience on that one," said Mr. Richter, senior technology officer at the bank, who spent 20 years in Mellon Bank's data processing business before joining First Naples.

Using the Broadway & Seymour software, the bank has been able to accomplish all of this without a single programmer on staff.

The bank's self-sufficiency also paid off handsomely when Hurricane Andrew ripped though South Florida on Aug. 24.

After the storm passed, many banks found communications lines to their service bureaus cut. First Naples was one of the few local banks that remained in operation in the days following the disaster, with staff working overtime to handle its neighbors' overflow.

Now that the crisis has passed, the bank plans to open its second branch in the neighboring town of Greentree, Fla., and, not surprisingly, it intends to pursue the same strategy that has made its main office so successful:

"Put the right tools on the table, and the work will take care of itself." Mr. Tice said.

At a Glance

First National Bank of Naples Headquarters: Naples, Fla Assets: $114 million Employees: 61 Software: Broadway & Seymour, Inc. deposit, loan, and branch automation systems Hardware: International Business Machines Corp. AS/400 midrange computer IBM personal computers Lundy Financial Systems teller terminals

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