Breaking the paper habit

When employees at Huntington Bancshares Inc. heard that their beloved paper report – called the balance sheet income report – was going to be transformed into a Web-based database, they weren’t happy about it.

Complaints came flooding in:

– “My manager says I have to have these (paper) reports for my file every month.”

– “I’m not going to be able to do my job anymore.”

– “I can’t possibly ask my people to learn this. I’ll have to do it for them every month.”

– “You may have saved paper, but you have just doubled my workload.”

– And everyone’s favorite: “Who made this decision?”

But the US$28 billion regional bank holding company, based in Columbus, Ohio, had good reasons for replacing the paper reports. They amounted to 200,000 pages – the equivalent of 40 cartons – sent to hundreds of offices every month. That’s 2.4 million pages per year.

“As far as our users were concerned, the sun came up every morning and they got their balance sheet and income statement delivered to their desk every month-end,” says Raymond Heizer, IS project leader for corporate profitability systems at Huntington.

The reports had to be mailed via an interoffice distribution system to 2,500 locations for a diverse user group ranging from operations clerks to financial controllers.

In place of that tidal wave of paper, the bank chose to load the financial data into an Oracle Corp. database running on a Unix server and purchased a reporting system from Crystal Decisions Inc. in Palo Alto, Calif. The result: The bank is now saving $30,000 per year in paper costs alone, says Al Werner, vice president of corporate systems.

Huntington is using Crystal Enterprise, a Web-based system for reporting, analysis and information delivery. It took four months and cost a little more than US$1 million to deploy. The rollout was completed in October.

One obvious benefit of the Web-based reports is that cost center managers can now see the balance sheet income reports immediately online. Another benefit is the ease with which managers can see and resolve exceptions – items in an account balance that don’t match the credits.

“We’ve always had a lot of data in the bank, but it was always seen in rows and columns. Now we can have bar charts of mismatches,” Werner says.

He says the most expensive piece of the rollout was installing the servers and software and developing reports that were easy enough to use that they didn’t require a lot of training for cost center managers.

Currently, Werner says he’s working with bank offices to improve the look and content of the online reports by adding and subtracting certain lines and adding a third page of metrics. The report “is divided into sections, and each section gets a certain amount of report real estate,” he says.

The data, drawn from Excel spreadsheets, mainframes and online analytical processing queries, may also someday include each branch’s balance sheets, employee turnover, new sales and cross-product sales, service quality and credit quality. “That way we can score a branch on how they’re doing,” Werner says.

Going paperless has proved difficult for corporate America. Paper consumption by U.S. companies is growing six per cent to eight per cent annually, according to document technology user group Xplor International in Torrance, Calif.

But Huntington is riding the front of a wave of banks trying to go paperless externally (with online banking statements) and internally to save money and comply with new regulations, says Avivah Litan, an analyst at Gartner Inc. “The trend started two years ago, but in the last nine months, it’s really been moving ahead,” Litan says.

For example, in June, Congress passed the Check Clearing for the 21st Century Act, also known as Check 21, which allows banks to voluntarily exchange electronic images over networks instead of using paper checks. Huntington Bancshares already offers online check images to members.

As for the bank income statements, cost center managers have stopped mourning the loss of their beloved paper reports now that they see the benefits of the database and reporting tools, Werner says. “We give them the ability to . . . see details of what is being charged. They can get an image of an invoice that hit their cost center. And they’re saying, ‘Wow, those are pretty nice features,’ ” he says.