Zions Bancorp. chief executive Harris H. Simmons jokes that on-line banking in Utah dates back to a telegraph system built by Mormon leader Brigham Young more than a century ago.
"He was one of the most entrepreneurial people ever to walk this part of the country, and he was a genius of a businessman," says Mr. Simmons, whose office window overlooks a statue of the bearded frontiersman, the founder of Zions First National Bank, Utah's second-largest.
Like Brigham Young, Mr. Simmons seems a bit ahead of his time. The 42- year-old is one of a new generation of bank CEOs who take a hands-on approach to managing technology. While senior technology executives, or chief information officers, have gained in importance and prestige, they find CEOs like Mr. Simmons more involved than those of a previousgeneration in their planning and decision-making.
One of the hallmarks of Mr. Simmons' involvement has been his open encouragement of experimentation - as long as it doesn't cost too much.
It is a cautious but open-minded approach that has earned for $6 billion-asset Zions a technology-savvy reputation out of proportion to its size. In a recent rating of technological efficiency, Dean Witter Reynolds placed the Salt Lake City institution on a list that included such higher- profile leaders as NationsBank Corp., First Union Corp., and Norwest Corp.
Zions has a strong, basic banking foundation that helps pay for its adventures.
"It does extremely well just because of where it is," said James M. Marks, an analyst and bank technology expert at CS First Boston. It operates in Utah, Arizona and Nevada - three of the five fastest-growing states.
But Mr. Marks praises Mr. Simmons for his "cold and realistic" analysis of technology opportunities. "Each of these ventures or forays can be seen as an expression of potential expansion," Mr. Marks said.
"I am impressed with his ability to analyze circumstances and market conditions," said Lawrence W. Adler, president of the Utah Bankers Association. "I think it has permeated the bank and raised the level of the whole institution."
Mr. Simmons attributes his interest in technology to his coming of age in the era of personal computers, which filtered out into the homes and offices of business executives.
Soon after succeeding his father, Zions chairman Roy Simmons, as chief executive in 1990, the younger Mr. Simmons suggested that his top executives start managing their household finances with software like Intuit Inc.'s Quicken, Microsoft Corp.'s Money, and Meca Software Inc.'s Managing Your Money.
"Pick one of them and become conversant in it by the end of the year," Mr. Simmons told them. "That's when we'll be discussing bonuses."
The result: "Very informed discussions and stronger opinions than they otherwise would have had," Mr. Simmons said. "You have to start by doing."
The CEO raised the ante two years ago by establishing a bank technology committee to complement an existing data processing group. Called the high- technology research committee, it focuses on matters of strategy rather than day-to-day issues.
The high-tech team comprises "free-thinkers from a technology point of view," said Zions executive vice president Scott A. Anderson, a former BankAmerica Corp. technologist hired by Mr. Simmons in 1990.
The results of the committee's brainstorming are visible throughout the bank.
In home banking, Zions recently announced its support for the program marketed by Home Financial Network of Westport, Conn., which wants to make the process simpler for consumers than Quicken and Money.
Zions also launched an Internet project that is expected to result in transaction services for customers in the first quarter next year.
On the branch level, Zions has placed video conferencing terminals in many offices for communicating with remote customer service representatives even when branches are closed.
"It is something we are experimenting with," Mr. Simmons said. "If it doesn't work, we haven't lost much," because the cost is about $80,000 per station.
This type of thinking has led to a variety of other efforts, such as inthe electronic benefits transfer area - the delivery of welfare payments, food stamps, and entitlements using cards and electronic terminals.
"This is taking a section of the market that is unbanked and making them an electronic banking customer," said Mr. Anderson. "They have leaped over the middle-class customer."
In collaboration with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sold Zions in 1960 when the senior Mr. Simmons took charge, Visa Cash cards can be used by Mormon missionaries in Russia. This automated-cash system uses the same technology employed in benefits transfer to cover living expenses in Russia.
Mr. Simmons said banks have no choice but to move to electronic channels, which makes understanding of the technology a must.
"Banking is fundamentally an information processing industry," he said. "You can't have an information revolution and not have it affect an information-intensive industry."
Like other bank executives, Zions' leaders worry about the impact on banks of software companies like Intuit and Microsoft. Mr. Simmons said the quality of the Visa brand led him to select Visa Interactive as Zions' principal home-banking partner, even though "the functionality of the product is not up to par with Quicken or Microsoft Money."
The bank's management is careful not to take its progressive leanings too far. Mr. Simmons recalled the experience of a peer at another bank who closed conventional drive-up windows and replaced them with automated teller machines. Customers over 50 years old just drove on through.
Executives said it is important not to be discouraged by such cautionary tales. But by definition, not everything they try is going to pan out.
Mr. Harris said he rejected a proposal for a million-dollar home banking product being developed by the Japanese electronic games manufacturer Nintendo.
But experimentation remains a watchword at Zions. "I will try anything all day long for an investment that is $50,000 to $60,000," Mr. Simmons said.
That attitude is deeply ingrained in Zions history and culture. When settlers from many countries began flowing into Utah in the last century, Brigham Young proposed a new alphabet.
"It didn't work, and he went on to the next idea," said Mr. Simmons.