BECOMING A BIG player on the international banking scene is no small feat.

But for Barnett Banks Inc., it was simply a matter of moving over to a new platform. Last May, the Jacksonville, Fla.-based bank holding company implemented a trade services platform to help it react faster to the demands of its international trade customers.

Barnett is using its new client-server platform, called MicroTradeLine, to process all letters of credit and international collections for its 33 affiliate banks.

The system will reduce processing time and allow Barnett to target a greater variety of international trade customers. Developed by Arlington, Va.-based American Management Systems Inc., the microcomputer-based system provides the same functionality as its mainframe counterparts with the added benefits of a workstation environment.

"We invested money in the project to become a major player in the international market," said Charles Piazza, vice president and manager of international operations at the $38 billion-asset bank. "We sensed a vacuum in the market and we saw the opportunity to expand into it." For Barnett, the system integrates and automates all phases of the bank's trade services, including receipt of incoming international funds transfer (SWIFT) messages, customer applications for these services, back office accounting and processing, and transmission of outgoing documents and messages.

Before converting to the new system, Barnett used a standalone, PC-based product and churned out letters of credit in about 24 hours. Now, Barnett is routinely generating letters of credit in less than two hours. Industry observers agree that moving from a host-based system to intelligent workstations can make all the difference when trying to compete for a chunk of the international trade market.

"The volume and velocity of change in host-based systems is paralleling what's happening with PCs," said William M. Arnold, a principal at Towers Perrin, Atlanta. "They put an amazing amount of processing power and control on someone's desk. That's a change that has been nothing less than dramatic."

Barnett continued to build on its strong capital ratio in the first half of 1993. The bank posted net income of $104.2 million in the second quarter of 1993, as compared to a $275 million gain for all of 1992. Second quarter earnings represented a 1.11% return on average assets and a 15.51% return on average shareholders' equity.

Barnett should be able to continue its strong performance, due to advances in technology and the resulting quicker delivery of products and services.

Perhaps the most important benefit of the new system is that it allows Barnett to target companies of all sizes. Now the bank's trade customers run the gamut from giant pharmaceutical and commodities firms to shrimp fishermen.

"Our focus is from small businesses all the way up to the big guys, but it's the small business that we really need to service," said Mr. Piazza, who oversees credit, collections, cash letters, foreign exchange, and notes processing, as well as back office support.

By allowing Barnett to process letters of credit and collections faster, addressing the concerns of smaller customers has been simplified -- not to mention profitable.

"The net effect for a customer must be positive," Mr. Piazza said. "This is a fee-based business and to convince customers to pay our fees we have to provide them with great service."

Besides making money, the system also saves it. With MicroTradeLine, Barnett avoids the overhead involved in supporting a mainframe system and allows the bank to operate without relying on paper.

"We're moving toward a system that has little or no operator intervention," Mr. Piazza said. "This system will eventually allow me to work in a paperless environment with electronically sent messages."

MicroTradeLine has two major components: a letter of credit system and a collection processing system.

The letter of credit component of the system automates all transmissions associated with commercial and standby letters of credit, reimbursements, and bankers' acceptances. The system has ultimately enabled Barnett to tailor trade services products to individual customer needs, improve operational control, and reduce cost.

The collection processing system provides support for inward and outward documentation of collections and direct sends. It supports the collection process whether a bank is the remitting, collecting, or presenting institution.

Barnett has also found MicroTradeLine to be a powerful marketing resource.

"We invite our customers in and we provide a demonstration of the new system. An exporter can come in and look at what we have and see the value," Mr. Piazza said. "Any time you save your customer time and money, he's going to be happy."

Barnett's system, a fully distributed client-server application for processing letters of credit and international collections, runs on an OS/2 local area network in Jacksonville, and supports operations centers there, as well as in Miami and Tampa, Fla.

MicroTradeLine can operate on any IBM-compatible PC in the OS/2 operating system. The mainframe portion of the system operates on IBM 3090 and larger machines.

Mr. Piazza looks forward to the day when his new trade services platform is armed with imaging capabilities. American Management Systems is trying to come up with a way for banks and their customers to scan documents, thus creating a true paperless trade culture, said Kurt E. Cavano, senior principal.

Mr. Arnold at Towers Perrin is also of the thinking that more is yet to come from trade-savvy banks.

"Putting power at the point of decision is very powerful and will forever change the landscape of trade," he said.

Looking ahead, Barnett Banks believes that customer service and operational efficiency will make it world class in international trade.

"Our new platform has made us a bigger bank and a more important one on a world scale," said Mr. Piazza.

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