The banking profession's uncertain future was the topic of a speech delivered this spring by James M. Culberson Jr., president of the American Bankers Association and chairman of the board of First National Bank and Trust Co., of Asheboro, N.C. The following are excerpts.

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Here it is, the midpoint of the 1990s. It occurred to me that for about the past 20 years, whenever anybody talked about the future, they always used the phrase: "by the year 2000." Well, the year 2000 is less than four years away. ...

As lenders, we must figure out now what our customers will want in terms of banking in the year 2000, and we must find ways to sell it to them at prices they are willing to pay. Whatever specific products and services it turns out they want - which remains a big unknown - we do know they will want them to be fast and easy. We also know that if we don't offer these products and services to them, someone else will.

Just look at automated teller machines and why they've become so popular. Simply by pressing some buttons you get cash, make deposits, check your balances, switch funds around, and even get loans. You can do it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can do it while you're buying milk at the convenience store. What a wonderful thing!

On the other hand, ATMs now are as common as color television sets. People take them for granted. The fact is, today's state-of-the-art gizmo is tomorrow's museum exhibit. That is literally true. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., recently announced plans to put on display, inside a glass case, the very first automated teller machine.

Every day, customers ask us: What have you done for me lately? We need to ask that as well. But that's not all we must do. As lenders we have an additional duty: We must ask what these big changes in financial transaction systems will mean to the financial structure of this country. The nation's banking system is an economic engine that drives business, development, and growth, while providing stability. It's no accident that safety and soundness permeate everything we do.

So we have two responsibilities - one, to meet our customers' needs, and two, to preserve the integrity of the financial system. ...

(There are) so many questions - and, as always, the pressure of time and deadlines. We're joined in this race by a field of competitors anxious to increase market share.

I'm reminded about a famous question posed innocently by an unnamed engineer at IBM at the dawn of the personal computer age, way back in 1968. As he looked at one of the first microchips ever produced, he scratched his head and said, "But what is it good for?" That's for us to discover - and develop - as swiftly as we can.

Where there have been seismic changes in customer needs and technologies, we must make equally great changes in the way we conduct our business. We must meet our customers' expectations as quickly and completely as possible. Our future success depends on it. ...

Finally, just as the future of banking will depend on emerging technology, it also will depend on the redefinition of banking itself. Already we see banks operating in areas undreamed of a generation ago - mutual funds, interstate operations, derivatives! Who knows where banks will be a generation from now?

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