BOSTON – Bank customers here have seen a number of mergers over the years and some predict that they are starting to grow weary of the sign changes and fee hikes. At least that's what many credit unions here have seen and predict will happen when Bank of America acquires FleetBoston Financial Corp. in 2004, making it the second largest bank holding company in the nation. "It leaves consumers with one less local option," said Rob Kimmett, senior vice president of marketing at the Massachusetts Credit Union League. "This merger will reinforce to consumers what big banks are all about – the dollars and their shareholders." Kimmett said the league will alert credit unions to the potential falling away of customers in three critical stages that are prime times for wooing bank customers. "Right after the (acquisition) announcement was made, you're going to hear people say `I've been through this before,' " Kimmett said. " When the signs start to come down, phone numbers change and people get fed up with bad customer service and then 30 to 45 days after the merger is complete when the new fees and rates hit." BofA recently announced its intent to purchase FleetBoston, which has been approved by both bank boards and awaits regulatory and shareholder approval. The combined bank would have nearly 5,700 branches serving 33 million consumers and more than $930 billion in assets. If approved, the new bank would be the second largest bank holding company behind Citigroup, Inc. At Digital Employees Credit Union, the largest in the state with $2.2 billion and 210,000 members, a knee-jerk marketing blitz to capitalize on frustrated bank customers will not be the way to go, said Tim Garner, DECU's vice president of marketing and strategic planning. "People tend to move to large credit unions and community banks after a merger," Garner said. The plethora of mergers here has historically shown that most banks "have not handled the customer service aspect well," Garner said. "Our focus will be on value." Indeed, over the past decade, five major bank mergers have occurred here: Fleet bought Bank of New England in 1991 and Shawmut National in 1995; in 1996 Bank of Boston bought BayBanks Inc. and in 1999, Fleet bought BankBoston. "We've seen growth over the years because of better service and quite of bit of word of mouth," Garner said. "Quite frankly, we feel people are missing out if they're not doing business with us." Known as the coast-to-coast bank, BofA's presence will surely be felt here given its reputation for expansive branch and ATM networks. That's becoming less of a wooing tool due to credit unions' increased use of shared branching and ATM networks, Kimmett said. "Banks have to work harder," Kimmett said. "It's more than pretty logos and a brand. They have to show how they're different from everyone else." When Fleet and BankBoston merged a few years ago, credit unions saw a 24% increase in checking account openings, Kimmett said. Because of their "dynamic and complicated" nature, the number one reason people switch checking accounts is because of dissatisfaction with the provider, he added. "A lot of Fleet customers have been through a number of mergers," Kimmett said. "Some people get to a point where they become switchable." For Everett Credit Union, the merger is "great news" and was the top item on the agenda at a recent managers' meeting, said Tony Terrizzi, president/CEO. "The losers here are the customers, they get lost in the shuffle," Terrizzi said. "We can promote credit unions as the mainstream supporter of financial services. We represent the everyday person and everyone in between." Though small in size with $47 million in assets and 6,500 members, Terrizzi is expecting a "large influx" of members post merger. According to a survey, 35% of 3,023 polled said they plan to leave Fleet compared to 35% who plan to stay. Another 29% didn't have an opinion on the merger and 2.9% said they will join Fleet as new customers. Most Bostonites are also wondering what the FleetCenter's – home to the Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins – new name will be. Some have suggested "BOA" or "The Garden." Terrizzi wants to start a petition. "Why not call it the CU Center of America?" he asks partly tongue-in-cheek. [email protected]

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