Asked to define Marquette Bancshares, Albert J. Colianni Jr. prefers to explain first what it is not.

"We are not category killers, and we are not low-cost providers," said the 42-year-old executive vice president and chief operating officer.

He might have added that $4.4 billion-asset Marquette also is not a run- of-the-mill community banking company.

With a mix of technological experimentation and progressive thinking, the Minneapolis-based company is looking to turn traditional branch banking on its head. Its vision entails a network of highly automated branches that would let it take deposits and conduct other basic transactions on behalf of other financial institutions.

The "shared branch" concept, an extension of automated teller machine practices, is permissible under Minnesota law, Marquette executives said.

The lead bank, Marquette Bank in Minneapolis, is negotiating with another Minnesota institution it declined to name to put the reciprocal banking idea into action.

Marquette executives have no illusions about how their approach is likely to be received. Doug Hile, president of Marquette Bank, acknowledged that some bankers "tell me I am nuts," and he conceded it will be difficult to make the concept work.

But he quickly added that the "McBanks" represent the kind of thinking that smaller banks need to compete in an industry increasingly dominated by large institutions.

Reciprocal banking pushes "to the edge where you have no identity" as a financial institution, Mr. Hile said.

"But I argue that you maintain your identity based on the relationship, and that the services themselves are not how you build your identity."

In a Minneapolis office park, Marquette Bank is in the process of creating an unconventional "branch" that could serve as one of the foundations of the reciprocal banking strategy.

The branch is an office only in concept. Its main feature is a local area network that connects the businesses in the office park to the bank's systems. The objective is to entice employees to bank on-line.

Marquette also has a physical presence in the office park, but not in the traditional sense. It has installed five automated terminals that can dispense cash, make loans, display account information, and accept deposits.

The bank hopes this infrastructure will persuade about 5,000 upscale employees and residents to choose Marquette as their primary "relationship bank."

The terminals could give customers access to services for a variety of institutions if reciprocal banking catches on. Even if it does not, the terminals are an efficient way for Marquette to increase its visibility and strengthen its ties to customers.

"You can't run a business that is staffed for people who just might happen to walk in," said Mr. Hile. "Bricks and mortar were not built to meet the needs of the community."

Though the automated branches can be cheaper to operate than conventional offices, Marquette is mainly concerned about staying close to its customers. It is the community bank ethic updated for the 1990s and beyond.

"We asked ourselves what do we do best, and we decided we were relationship managers," said Mr. Colianni. "We build good will. We engender and enhance relationships as opposed to taking them for granted."

Marquette has a history as an aggressive user of technology. It was the first Minnesota bank to offer PC-based banking, and it was part of the first wave of institutions to embrace home banking using personal financial management software.

It launched on-line banking programs using Microsoft Corp.'s Money and Intuit Inc.'s Quicken around the same time as bigger-bank purveyors, such as Michigan National Corp., Chase Manhattan Corp., First Chicago NBD Corp., and U.S. Bancorp.

Mr. Hile is a good match for the strategy. A self-described techie who uses "Getdough" as his on-line moniker, Mr. Hile graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee in 1974 and received an MBA in finance and marketing from the University of Chicago in 1979.

He has worked with ATMs since the late 1970s and prides himself for marketing new services.

"I used to stand in parking lots and pay people $5" to use ATMs, said Mr. Hile. He added that too many bankers "don't want to sell" the technology they spend so much developing.

"Doug's goal was to try to establish in the minds of people in his market, that Marquette Bank was the leading technology provider," said Bruce Burchfield, retired chief executive officer of Intuit Services Corp., who has known Mr. Hile for several years.

"That is a tough thing to do when you are not Citibank or another huge bank."

Mr. Hile said Marquette is about halfway toward its goal of getting 3.4% of customers to use on-line banking services. He said the bank has placed an on-line specialist in every branch to market the services.

Marquette "doesn't want to be a backwater in terms of the services they offer and the way they do business," said Mr. Burchfield. "But they are also not trying to compete directly with the giants in downtown Minneapolis."

Striking the balance between big-bank sophistication and small-bank charm will be a challenge.

But the Marquette executives are confident that consumers will grow ever more comfortable with the technology-based services upon which they are staking the bank's future.

"Teenagers don't have any concern about wiring money, transferring funds, and sending credit card numbers," said Mr. Colianni. As that demographic group matures, he said, new modes of banking will "grow like weeds."

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