'McDonaldization' of Md. banking Can NationsBank meet the state's diverse needs?

October 23, 1994|By David Conn | David Conn,NationsBank Corp.Sun Staff Writer

Now the branch signs are changed. Now the ATMs sport the NationsBank logo, instead of Maryland National's. And now the operators have stopped greeting callers with, "Maryland National-soon-to-be-NationsBank, may I help you?"

A year after its parent was purchased by the Charlotte, N.C., banking company, Maryland National Bank is now NationsBank.

The company has become part of the nation's fourth-largest bank, an institution that has grown phenomenally in the past five years based on two driving forces: a strategy, borrowed from the fast-food industry, of efficiency through nationwide standardization; and the ego and vision of the company's chairman, Hugh L. McColl Jr.

But despite a statewide advertising campaign launched this month, many Marylanders can be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. Until this weekend in Baltimore, and last month in the Washington area, NationsBank has struggled to make its $1.4 billion purchase of MNC Financial Inc. nearly invisible to most customers.

They didn't entirely succeed. On Friday, the day the NationsBank signs were unveiled in Baltimore, some customers with direct deposit service got bad news from their ATM machines: the money wasn't there. A computer glitch during the night had temporarily rejected those deposits.

Going forward, NationsBank executives say that the few changes retail and business clientele will ever see will be positive ones: the ability to deal with one bank across state lines; a wider range of products and services; a greater willingness to make loans.

"We are doing today what those of us who were in banking for a lot of years have wanted to do," said Susan C. Keating, NationsBank's senior banking executive for Maryland. "We're growing the business."

Real estate developers, mid-sized businesses and even community activists say that the early signs are hopeful, although most are withholding final judgment on NationsBank's performance in both lending and community development.

But for many who deal with NationsBank, both inside and outside the company, there are more questions a year after the acquisition of MNC than ever before.

Specifically, some smaller businesses wonder about NationsBank's commitment to their needs.

Low-income lending activists are concerned about the company's unwillingness to make long-term commitments like those that helped give Maryland National a stellar reputation.

And some employees are frustrated with what they see as technological backsliding that has made their jobs harder, and a culture that pulls much of the decision-making away from the branches and into the centralized hierarchy.

But for many MNC employees, it has been a relief to give up the daily struggle for survival that marked their past few years, when progress was a pipe dream.

As one loan officer put it, "That bunker mentality has certainly been replaced; you know where your next meal is coming from."

NationsBank says it has started to add employees throughout its 8,800-person Mid-Atlantic work force, including tellers, clerks 22 and even commercial lenders, after letting about 1,200 people go in the past year. Most of the laid-off workers were at divisions or affiliates that were sold.

The branch closings, 58 in all, are done, leaving 328 branches in the region. And the company says it has managed to retain a much larger market share in both loans and deposits than it expected.

There continues to be a steady outflow of employees this year, from top executives down to lending officers in various divisions. After Frank Bramble Sr., MNC's former chief executive officer, moved to First Maryland Bancorp this spring, he recruited several executive vice presidents from NationsBank.

Some said they left because of the perceived "McDonaldization" of their bank, an analogy used by NationsBank executives all the way up to General Bank President Kenneth D. Lewis. The goal is to provide McDonald's-like consistency in service and quality at every branch in the nine states and the District of Columbia where NationsBank operates, from Maryland across the southeast to Texas.

But the idea of banks as fast-food companies, where retail employees have strict instructions on how to do their jobs and where the product is always the same, understandably leaves some people wary. Bankers and analysts agree that a company the size of NationsBank couldn't survive without a strong dose of standardization.

Soon after he arrived to take over the Mid-Atlantic region last November, R. Eugene Taylor told several employee groups that, though some were accustomed to helping create policy, their job now would be to implement it, according to current and former employees at different levels in the company.

"I don't ever recall saying anything like that, or delivering a message like that," Mr. Taylor said through a spokesman. "It simply isn't true."

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