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Bankers meeting focuses on past, present and future

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For the first time in years, members of the Utah Bankers Association gathered in Sun Valley, Idaho, Monday for their 93rd annual convention with the luxury of examining the banking industry through a longer lens than in past confabs, when the need to put out fires took precedence.

Thus, the main speakers for this year's convention are "futurist" David Zach, on "An owner's guide to the future," and KeyCorp consumer products manager Patrick J. Swanick, who explores "delivering the value of e-commerce in financial services."

For now, Utah bankers believe their cancerous war with the credit unions is in remission, if not cured; the fight for a modernization of national banking legislation has been won; and the frantic lobbying of the '90s has been ratcheted down in the new millennium.

"This is a convention where we are going to take a little bit of a break from the day-to-day things and gain a better perspective on where we've been, where we are going and where our customers want us to go," said UBA president Howard Headlee in an interview prior to Monday's opening session.

Headlee said the theme of this year's convention, held a bit later than usual at this Idaho resort town, is "Declaration of Innovation," a play on the Declaration of Independence and a logical hook since the gathering will spill over into Independence Day Wednesday, the first time that's happened in decades.

"We're really going to focus on technology and the future of our industry and attempt to get a feel for what kinds of services and products our customers will be demanding of us," Headlee said. "We want to bring those two worlds together."

Headlee said Utah's banks have been innovative in responding to the need for increased customer convenience as people become more pressed for time and have less tolerance for standing in line at tellers' windows. More products and services are now delivered via telephone and computer modem than would have been dreamed of by bankers only a decade ago.

Moreover, that trend toward bankless banking has only just begun.

"The next frontier is going to be more product oriented, geared toward making consumers' financial needs more convenient in every way," Headlee said.

For that, banking customers can thank the Graham-Leach-Bliley Act, a complete rewriting of the nation's laws governing financial institutions that repealed the 66-year-old Glass-Steagall Act. It had prohibited banks, securities firms and insurance companies from affiliating, and its removal created the "level playing field" for which banks had been lobbying the past 20 years.

"Graham-Leach created convergence, but convergence will be driven by demand," Headlee said. "The future is coming fast on us, and during this convention, we'll try to take some time to get a glimpse of what customers are going to want and where the demand is going to be."

For once, the "hot button" this year is not on the long-running turf war between Utah's banks and credit unions. "The (Utah) Legislature has pretty much decided where banks and credit unions are in the marketplace, and we are ready to work with them in re-establishing our old relationships," Headlee said.

With its banks, credit unions, thrifts, industrial banks and others, Utahns have more choices than just about any state in the country, Headlee said, and that strong competition is fine with bankers as long as everyone plays by the same rules.

Reporting on the national picture at this year's convention is Don Mengedoth, president of the American Bankers Association and chairman of Community First Bankshares, Fargo, N.D.

On Wednesday, new UBA officers for 2001-2002 will be elected.

E-MAIL: max@desnews.com