April 03, 2001, 11:55 AM —
NORDEA'S BRICK-COLOREDheadquarters sits like an island of calm in Stockholm's bustling commercial center. Executives in traditional suits and starched shirts roam the wood-paneled halls and confer in hushed tones. From their orderly top-floor offices, however, they peer down on quite a different scene-streets jammed with trendy businesspeople talking on tiny cell phones, as a chorus of ringing and beeping fills the air.
Don't be fooled.
These bankers know what's going on down below, and they've made sure they're a part of the action. Working out of their staid corporate offices, they've emerged as groundbreakers in electronic and wireless banking. Compare with U.S. banks, which are only now starting to attract significant numbers of online users, this pan-Nordic bank has a sophisticated set of services for its more than 1.8 million Web clients, one fifth of its total of 9 million customers throughout Sweden, Finland and Denmark. It was the first to offer banking via cell phone, and its IT staff is busy working on new wireless applications that will bring more customers into its fold. Now that several U.S. banks are also taking steps to offer wireless services, Nordea serves as a pioneering example for those headed down the same, little-explored path.
Scandinavia's early and widespread use of the Internet and cell phones have made the Nordic region an ideal laboratory for Nordea, a holding company formed when Swedish-Finnish MeritaNordbanken acquired Denmark's Unidanmark last year. The bank has also recently expanded its reach into Norway with the purchase of Christiania Bank and is also making inroads in the Baltic region. In Sweden, 42 percent of households are connected to the Internet, far greater than the figures for most European countries and equal to the usage in the United States. And Swedes, like their neighboring Finns, constantly use their cell phones to flirt, buy stocks and pay bills. In fact, more than 60 percent of Sweden's population of 9 million are cell phone users; in Stockholm, the number of cell phone users surpasses 80 percent of the population. In Finland, more than 70 percent of the country's population of 5.2 million talks on the run-the highest rate in the world.