Wachovia Corp. has distinguished itself in the small but growing group of wireless banking providers by devising a plan to target corporate as well as retail customers.
In going for corporate the Winston-Salem, N.C., company is breaking new ground in wireless banking. Corporate customers have been ignored in the move to wireless, even though their need for real-time updates of financial positions is arguably more pressing than that of retail customers.
Wachovia's plan, announced Monday, is all the more aggressive given the company's size and its plan to introduce an Internet-based system for cash management services by fall. Most other banks that have made a big push into wireless - including Citigroup, Bank of America Corp., Wells Fargo & Co., and Bank of Montreal - are considerably larger than $69 billion-asset Wachovia.
Wireless corporate banking, which the company will begin testing in the third quarter along with wireless retail, is a response to "a lot of requests from corporate offices" for more flexibility in accessing information, said Lawrence G. Baxter, executive vice president and head of Wachovia's e-business division.
"Not only are these chief financial officers and treasurers who are often on the move, these are people who are now part of the Internet generation," Mr. Baxter said. "The treasurer who is in a taxi on the way from the airport is going to want to check the position of his company, and this makes it possible."
Wachovia will test the corporate service with 10 to 15 customers, and aims to roll it out in the fourth quarter, said Doug Hartsema, executive vice president at Wachovia and manager of treasury services.
The company is considering giving away browser-enabled phones to encourage use of the service, as banks in the United Kingdom have done. Pricing may be similar to the monthly service fee that Wachovia charges for other corporate banking applications, though "details of the carriers and service providers are still being worked out," Mr. Hartsema said.
"We believe we can sell it to hundreds and thousands of customers," including small businesses, he said. Initially it will be offered to Wachovia's 28,000 corporate customers. It also has 200,000 small-business customers.
Users of the wireless service will need to be customers of Wachovia Connection Plus, an information reporting and transaction initiation product used by 7,000 businesses. Wachovia began piloting an Internet version of the PC-based Connection system a month and a half ago and will roll it out at the end of the summer.
"Wireless is now another channel," Mr. Hartsema said. Many of the functions available on the Internet version of Wachovia Connection, including initiating transactions, could become applications for wireless, he said, particularly when the bank begins making information available on Palm Pilots, which have larger screens for viewing information.
Initially the wireless service will let users approve payments and gain access to summary balance information, intraday position reporting, and exception reporting for positive pay.
Wachovia chose Toronto-based 724 Solutions Inc. as its provider for both the retail and corporate wireless banking services. One reason, Mr. Hartsema said, was because its software is "the most scalable and the most secure. The security we use for Wachovia Connection uses several levels of authentication and 128-bit encryption. The wireless security will be consistent with this."
Wachovia's wireless service for retail will let its 3.5 million customers access real-time account information, transfer funds between accounts, pay bills, and track performance of selected stocks. It is expected to be available by the first quarter of 2001.
"Many banking functions are chores in customers' minds," Mr. Baxter said. "I think we have reached the point where there are more cell phones than PCs, and we see people all around with mobile devices. It just seemed to be a logical next step."
He said he expects wireless banking customers will be more loyal.
Adam Zawel, a senior analyst at Yankee Group, said Wachovia is among the leaders in targeting corporate customers for wireless. Though many brokerages have added wireless, "as far as corporate banking is concerned, activity has been minimal if nonexistent to this point," he said.
But he said it may be a challenge for Wachovia "to convince all the potential users of the safety and security of the service."
Lawrence Forman, assistant director of Ernst & Young's cash management practice in New York, said wireless banking might establish a niche with small-business and middle-market customers. "When you think of cash management and wireless, you have to invent scenarios," he said. "For example, there could be the owner of a small company who's out on the golf course and wants to know when a wire transfer comes in. It fulfills a need for small-business people who are handling multiple activities."
But it is not as easy, he said, "to imagine large corporate customers with complex needs" using cell phones to get crucial information. "I think it'll take four to five years to see what pans out."
Greg Wolfond, chief executive officer of 724 Solutions, said Wachovia is his first customer to announce it will do both retail and corporate wireless banking.
"It's good insight on their part," he said.
724 Solutions' other customers are Bank of Montreal and its U.S. subsidiary Harris Bank; Bank of America; Wells Fargo & Co.; Citigroup; ClarityBank.com; and BBVA Bancomer of Mexico.