The American Bankers Association, in hosting its first unified conference for trust and private bankers this week, took a symbolic step toward dissolving traditional barriers between the two banking functions.

As recently as last year, trust and private bankers attended what one organizer described as two conferences side by side. While trust and private bankers ate together, they broke off to attend separate lectures and discussion groups. This two-track approach dates back to 1988.

But the 530 trust and private bankers who congregated at the San Francisco Marriott on Monday were divided no longer. Trust executives, who have traditionally focused on money management and estate planning, and private bankers, the credit officers to the affluent, sat side by side learning about subjects ranging from compensating employees to reaching customers via the Internet.

The ABA's decision to unify the conferences comes at a time when nonbank competitors from mighty Merrill Lynch & Co. to a plethora of smaller financial planners have succeeded in taking market share from bankers. Some bankers lament that their rivals have done a better job in serving the needs of affluent customers.

"We combined conferences to show that we are all in the business of dealing with high-net-worth private clients," said Daniel W. Drake, a managing director at J.P. Morgan & Co. and chairman of the ABA's trust and management executive committee.

"Private banking and trust services are a spectrum of services," rather than two distinct sets of services, he said.

Integration of trust and private banking wasn't the only concern on the minds of the conferees. Like most bankers, trust and private bankers are concerned about being outdone by large and small nonbank competitors in the race to transact business on computer networks.

"We have a real sense of urgency about technology," said David D. Burroughs, another J.P. Morgan managing director who is chairman of the ABA's private banking executive committee.

A leading technologist didn't give bankers any reason to worry less.

In the conference's keynote address, G. Geoffrey Baehr, the chief networking technology officer for Sun Microsystems, a computer network and software company in Mountain View, Calif., argued that competitive barriers in many industries are falling as more players gain easy and affordable access to computer networks.

"Loyalty is one mouse-click away," said Mr. Baehr, whose company is in the midst of a highly publicized play to acquire Apple Computer Inc. "If customers don't like your content, they can click their mouse and then they're gone.

"To win," he added, "you have to have the best content and the best service quality to cause people to come and stay."

The need to embrace the future was very much on the mind of Kevin P. Stiles, an executive vice president with Rhode Island Hospital Trust, a Providence-based subsidiary of Bank of Boston Corp.

While Mr. Stiles is keeping a wary eye on the current crop of nonbank competitors, including the major brokerage houses, he admitted to being "more concerned about what hasn't yet reached the marketplace, but will leave bankers behind."

Until now, he said, private bankers such as himself have benefited from having a client base that is older and less computer literate than is found in other businesses.

"That will keep you profitable for the next two years, but where do you go from there?" he asked.

Norman A. Jacobs, president of Huntington Trust Co., found that the conference's emphasis on unity between trust and private bankers has relevance to his institution. The Huntington Bancshares subsidiary he heads doesn't handle private banking functions - that's left to a separate unit.

"We are looking at more integration," said Mr. Jacobs. "That's what the market wants."

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