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Amid Internet boom, top banks expand services, add branches

FORT LAUDERDALE — With a surge in Internet banking, growth in automatic teller machines and a tight economy, you might think that new branches would be far from the focus of banks today.

But many of the country's big banks are opening more offices to try to sell existing customers more services beyond checking or savings accounts. They're now peddling the gamut from loans to investment funds, stock brokerage to insurance — activities once off-limits to banking companies.

They're becoming aggressive partly to recoup some of the money that banks are losing from tighter government rules on overdraft fees and debit cards.

Bankers say their expanded offerings help customers with one convenient location for multiple needs, but some consumers are wary. They fear that fees for simple banking will rise — or at least, not be waived — if they don't tap into the new investment-related offerings.

"The banks are being greedy. They are trying to get all the money," said Whitney Land, 48, of Margate, who is studying health information management to start a new career. Even so, she would consider using new investment services if they help reduce the fees she pays on her banking accounts.

The new branches are coming mainly from the country's biggest banks, such as Bank of America Corp., which now offers investment services through the Merrill Lynch unit it bought in 2008.

The country's 69 largest banks added 1,107 offices in the year that ended June 30 to reach 45,890 branches, according to the latest data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. That comes despite a drop in the total number of branches from all banks.

TD Bank, part of Canada's Toronto Dominion banking group, illustrates the growth trend. It has 170 branches in Florida, up from three dozen in early April 2010, mainly due to acquisitions. And it aims to add six to nine more branches in the state yearly, said Kevin Gillen, regional president for Florida.

TD hopes extra branches can draw customers for a range of services from its Penny Arcade, with free coin counting, to its TD Ameritrade stock brokerage and TD Insurance products. For the wealthy, it also offers private banking through TD Wealth.

TD also strives to forge long-term relationships through personal service. It keeps branches open 361 days a year, clears deposits faster than many other banks and staffs its call center 24-7, so "it's nearly impossible to get a voice mail," Gillen said.

Some banks are even rethinking branches more as community centers, opening their conference rooms to neighborhood groups or hosting community events in the evenings.

For example, Umpqua Bank, based in Portland, Ore., offers movie nights with popcorn and even sells CDs of local bands at its branches. Some branches feature a "Discover Wall" that showcases neighborhood events and volunteering opportunities.

But extra offerings, even in a convenient, attractive office, won't necessarily draw in more cash from all customers — at least not for insurance adjuster Ron Brook, 52, of Fort Lauderdale. He prefers to keep his banking and financial investments separate. "I'd rather go to somebody dedicated to servicing my investments," Brook said.

Amid Internet boom, top banks expand services, add branches 02/13/11 [Last modified: Sunday, February 13, 2011 3:30am]
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