The St. Louis unit of Boatmen's Bancshares recently shortened its small-business loan approval time - and cut its telephone bills to boot.

Until last month, Boatmen's National Bank had to call up the state government to track down a company's Uniform Commercial Code filings - only three requests were allowed per call.

Because the bank handled hundreds of applications a month, days could pass before requests were filled, said bank officer E. Tracy Beckett.

"It was a very manual process," he said.

But in an example of the way new technology is reshaping the small- business lending niche, Boatmen's turned to a vendor for a way to tap directly into public records and credit reports. The vendor, TRW Business Information Services, claims it has a first-of-its-kind product for routine credit inquiries.

And for an extra fee, the bank can research a business owner's personal credit reports.

Speeding up processing time strengthens the bank's position in the increasingly competitive world of small-business lending, said Mr. Beckett, vice president of business banking for Boatmen's First.

"It really makes us more efficient," Mr. Beckett said. "It can shorten the time for closing a loan from five days to one day. It offers us some real advantages."

Boatmen's National is one of 20 banks using the TRW system, available since February from the Orange, Calif., company. TRW is marketing it toward the 100 largest banks, said Tony Hegarty, national banking manager.

Big banks have been automating their lending since the early 1990s in hopes of lowering dollar thresholds and cutting the costs of lending. The TRW system, called Intellisys, represents another step in that process, said consultant Les Dinkin, managing principal of NBW Consulting Group in Westport, Conn.

"It helps simplify and shorten the time to get this data," he said. "It's often difficult, cumbersome, and expensive to collect this information."

The relative ease of access to the information, which is provided on- line, also makes marketing efforts easier, he said.

"It gives them a data base to better understand their customers," he said. "It would help them target more people."

Intellisys users are charged per "hit" on the service, the amount depending on the information requested.

Boatmen's National is testing the product before it is adopted by other banks of the St. Louis-based holding company. "We volunteered," Mr. Beckett said.

Although the bank has been using it only for four weeks, he has already endorsed its use systemwide.

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