Checking Options Rampant Bank Mergers Are Creating So Many Choices, It's Tough for Consumers to Know What to Do

Article excerpt

Bank mergers are happening so rapidly that customers may want to

hold off on ordering new checks.

In our own back yard, Jacksonville-based American National

Bank, a small community bank, is being bought by SouthTrust Bank,

a medium-sized regional bank based in Birmingham, Ala.

Meanwhile, the green-and-white signs of another Jacksonville

bank, Barnett, will start coming down in October.

They will be replaced by NationsBank's red, white and blue

signs, which will eventually be replaced by signage for

BankAmerica Corp., which is merging with Nationsbank to create a

gargantuan coast-to-coast bank.

Outside of Florida, First Union is in the middle of absorbing

CoreStates Financial Corp., a big Philadelphia-based banking

company, BancOne is getting larger in the Midwest, and in

California folks are getting used to the idea of

Nations/BankAmerica.

Faced with banking options from gigantic national banks to

community banks to credit unions, consumers now have a dizzying

array of choices.

Take, for instance, Didier Busnot.

He's a professional chef by training. He's also the owner of a

dramatic moustache, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and his own

business, The Seafood Gourmet, on San Jose Boulevard. The store

sells premium seafood and offers a daily carry-out soup special.

Busnot and his wife have a personal account at First Union

National Bank. At NationsBank, he has a business checking account

and a commercial loan.

The Busnot home mortgage is with Norwest, a huge mortgage

lender. He has an investment-management account with Cigna.

"I don't believe in putting all my eggs in one basket," he said.

Busnot's store competes with big supermarkets, and when he

talks about his business, he sounds oddly like a banker talking

about the virtues of his bank.

"They'll have somewhat similar products, but they certainly

won't come even close to what I have," he said.

He is precisely the kind of customer who drives bankers to

distraction, because he has plenty of options and has split his

banking business between different vendors.

Busnot came to Jacksonville as a chef to help open the Omni

Jacksonville Hotel in 1987 and hooked up with First Union because

it was convenient -- and it still is for the couple's personal

account.

And after the computer systems of Barnett and NationsBank are

physically combined in October, Busnot plans to keep his business

account there.

He can expect competing bankers with briefcases full of

products to come knocking on his door, and he says he has an open

mind.

"There might be a gain, but somebody has got to present it,"

he said.

While many consumers don't have quite as many options to sort

through as Busnot, even something as simple as selecting what

bank to open a checking account with can be daunting.

Is it best to go with the big banks, or are consumers better

off staying with small, community banks?

Ultimately, according to the experts, it depends on the needs of

the consumer.

MEGA-CONVENIENCE

Want convenience? Then a mega-bank might be the best choice,

but consumers are going to pay more money for that convenience

and get less personal service, says Ken Thomas, a Miami-based

consumer activist and bank industry analyst.

For loans, Thomas tries to avoid banks altogether. He used the

Internet to find his last low-cost mortgage.

Like Busnot, he splits his business between banks.

Thomas has a checking account at the small Commercial Bank of

Miami because he likes knowing he can talk to the president if he

has a problem. …