to see its chief executive officer, Edward E. Crutchfield Jr., referred to as a "Luddite" because he does not have a computer on his desk. If a man who is so devoted to modernizing banking that his nickname is "Fast Eddie" does not feel he needs a computer for every decision, I can justify still using a typewriter. Now, I am not a stick in the mud. And I could not survive without my fax machine. So I try my best to understand what I am missing and, more important, what community bankers are missing if they do not offer Internet banking or set up Web pages. I recently talked about Internet banking with the head of a major brokerage firm's bank research department. About a year ago, he told me, he took $20,000 and set up accounts at each of the 20 banks that were most aggressive in advertising what they were doing for customers on the Internet. He used each account and gained access to each one's most promoted service. One year later, he said, "they are all the same, and I didn't get any real value out of any of them." The head of a major financial trade association, who has a reputation for keeping his members up to date on every important issue, told me: "We set up our own Web site, and we put everything we felt our members would be able to use into it. In fact we have already had hundreds of thousands of access hits to the site." Since the trade executive is a friend of 30 years, I had the courage to ask, "Has it accomplished anything you didn't do efficiently before?" "No, it basically just provides information we had in our manuals and publications." Many people could not live without the Internet. Researchers tell me they find material quickly that would take weeks to dig out in paper form. But is there anything most community banks need to say that requires a Web site? "Sure it can be of value to some people, and it can make the bank look up-to-date," my friend said. "But the community bank with a Web site and diffident tellers is worse off than the one where there is no Internet connection but the customers feel they are wanted and valued." To test whether I, a fellow Luddite of Mr. Crutchfield, am misleading my readers, I visited a former bank tactics chief who is now an independent consultant to ask how he is suggesting his clients use the Internet. This is what he told me: "The real money today is not in the Internet but in simple direct debiting. It is amazing how few banks are encouraging their customers to use automatic payment of routine bills and automatic payroll plans instead of still relying on paper transactions." I thought about my own banking habits. I love Zipcheck - a system under which my gas, electric, and three phone bills are electronically deducted from my checking account each month. This saves my writing and mailing five checks a month and gives me enough time to protest any mistakes. My friend reported how a regional phone company resisted automatic payroll deposit, until he showed them how much using checks was costing them, despite the income earned on the float of uncleared checks. "I took them to a bank at noon on payday and showed them six or seven of their repair trucks in the parking lot, as service employees left their repair and installation routes to cash their paychecks." My friend's suggestion: "Sure, look at the Internet. But remember, on a dollar-and-cents basis, a lot of plain-vanilla steps can be far more valuable." He gave another example: the year-2000 problem. Even I recognized long ago that 2000 would come after 1999. Yet only now are we panicking about it. (He even told me one bank's elevators are programmed to return to the first floor and stay there when the century turns.) Why didn't we see this coming? Were we so involved in new ideas that we didn't attend to basic ones? He didn't have any answers, and certainly I don't. So let's ask you. Let's make this our new contest to win a day's presidency of Schmidlap National Bank with accompanying certificate. The question: Why were we so unprepared for the impact of the turn of the century on our operations? Bankers, consultants, professors, yes, even Luddites, may submit answers. Send them to 14 Friar Tuck Circle, Summit, N.J. 07901, if you like Snail Mail, or fax them to 908-273-7309. Mr. Nadler, an American Banker contributing editor, is professor of finance at Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.
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