Central Administration, Local Data

AGFS saves money and bandwidth by intelligent data management.

They say all politics is local, and that's certainly true for business. Nowhere is that more evident than in financial services, where customer relationships require strong personal bonds between representatives and their customers.

Those bonds led the IT department at American General Financial Services (AGFS), which is a member of AIG, a leading U.S.-based insurance and financial services organization, to keep customer data where it belongs—in the local branch. Applications and system administration are managed from a mainframe at the company's Evansville, Ind. headquarters. But customer data is kept on 1,400 AS/400 systems in AGFS's branch offices, accessed via local area network PCs. The AS/400s are linked to the mainframe over a Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) network.

The system lets AGFS take advantage of centralized IT administration while keeping sales operations close to the customer. "Our business is a very high-touch business," says Jerry Gilpin, senior vice president of information systems for AGFS. "We like to have people come into the branch, look them in the eyes, and get to know them."

However, until recently, branch employees had to deal with separate interfaces for corporate and productivity applications. 3270 and 5250 green screen interfaces provided access to a mainframe-based loan administration application called CLASS (Customer Lending and Administration System), first developed and deployed in the mid-1990s. Productivity applications were run on PCs. New functions were being added to CLASS regularly, until the mainframe application grew to 700 different screens, says Gilpin. The complex system was cumbersome to use, and even more difficult to teach others. A user-friendly interface would be a competitive advantage in an industry that suffers from generally high turnover, Gilpin adds.

AGFS selected a Windows-to-host solution from Seagull Software to move the green screen interface to a Windows environment. Branch personnel can access applications for loan application processing and all the customer service activities related to those loans, including home equity and revolving loans. Even though there are several different applications running on the branch AS/400, branch end-users see one integrated application interface, says Gilpin. The company currently supports Windows NT 4.0 Workstation at employee sites. A separate browser opens the company's intranet, and AGFS IT also supports standard office productivity tools such as Lotus SmartSuite and Domino/Notes for e-mail.

The integrated application is expected to reduce training time for new employees, which is essential to managing costs and maintaining high levels of customer satisfaction, says Gilpin. "Clicking on a folder that has a heading called 'Payment' is far more intuitive to new employees than having to remember that the 'B47' screen is where you go to do your payment," he says.

Centralized administration was also a key consideration, says Gilpin. "Everything we do to support the branch platform is done centrally." The three-tiered network enables IT staff in Evansville to deliver patches and updates to more than 8,000 end-user PCs.

About the Author

Joseph McKendrick is an independent consultant and author, specializing in surveys, technology research, and white papers.