SAN FRANCISCO - Wells Fargo Bank appears to have become the first in the country to offer automatic teller machine checking accounts for small businesses.

With its ATM Option, Wells Fargo Bank is cutting monthly service fees in half on three basic small-business checking accounts. The catch is that small businesses that use the option must handle all of their standard banking transactions at automatic teller machines; there's a $5 fee to visit a teller in a branch.

Wells officials said the bank began making the ATM option available last month.

Wells, BankAmerica Corp., and First Chicago Corp. are among the few banks in the country to offer automatic teller machine checking accounts that penalize customers for speaking to tellers and give financial incentives to use ATMs only. But bankers and other experts said they knew of no other bank offering such accounts to small businesses.

"I have not heard of another bank doing that on the business side," said Rockwell F. Clancy 2d, managing director of retail banking for the Bank Administration Institute, Chicago.

But Wells' lead may not last long. A BankAmerica spokesman said his bank plans to introduce automatic teller machine checking accounts for small businesses next year, in response to market interest.

San Francisco-based Wells is the second-biggest bank in the state, with $51 billion of assets. BankAmerica's lead bank, also based in San Francisco, is the biggest, with $146 billion.

Thomas R. Shymanski, a Wells Fargo vice president and group product manager for mass-market business deposit products, said the bank hopes to gain a competitive edge by using the ATM option to cut small-business checking account fees.

Small businesses that use the option on Wells' basic business checking accounts reduce the $10 month monthly fee to $5. That's the lowest fee for small-business checking accounts at any of the state's four biggest banks.

The ATM option is also available on Wells' more up-market packaged business checking account and its business checking interest plan. Even though the ATM option is not aimed at businesses that handle large amounts of currency and coin, Mr. Shymanski said market research indicated that "a large proportion, possibly a majority" of small businesses would be attracted to the ATM option.

Mr. Clancy of the Bank Administration Institute said he thought the ATM option "made a lot of sense," offering a way for small businesses and the bank to save money.

Les Dinkin, managing principal with NBW Consulting Group in Westport, Conn., said ATM Option would appear to be especially attractive to law firms and other professional service firms that get most of their payments by check. He also noted that small businesses often create more traffic in bank branches than individuals do.

But Donald W. Hance, a vice president and small-business service manager with Union Bank, said his bank hasn't seen much small businesses demand for using automatic teller machines and doesn't plan to offer such accounts. Instead it plans to focus on providing personal service, he said.

Union, largely owned by Bank of Tokyo, is California's fourth-largest commercial bank, with $17 billion of assets.

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