Transamerica Leasing Inc.'s new division, maritime containers, expects to improve customer service, despite a 40 percent reduction in headcount.

With Purchase, N.Y.-based Transamerica splitting itself into five divisions earlier this month, the number of people dedicated to the leasing of ocean containers has been cut from 250 to 150, a company spokesman said.The division claims to manage the world's largest fleet of leased boxes, including 1 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of standard dry containers, 80,000 TEUS of refrigerated containers, and more than 100,000 TEUs of specialized equipment, including flat racks and open-tops. The new structure ''created in essence a small leasing company again, specifically focusing on a limited number of assets,'' said Aaron Cox, area vice president for North and South America. Although Transamerica has fewer people managing maritime containers overall, it has ''more resources per TEU dedicated to the business,'' he said.

That is because the container-leasing staff has been separated from the affairs of Transamerica's four other new divisions: North American intermodal, tank containers, structured finance, and European trailer & new products. Each business unit has its own senior vice president and balance sheet.

The maritime division's first big change was to consolidate customer-service representatives, previously scattered at a number of locations worldwide, into three dedicated customer-support centers for Asia, Europe and the Americas.

Through centralization, the division will be able to streamline administrative functions while improving the time it takes to respond to customers' queries and problems, Mr. Cox said.

The elimination of personnel at many locations will not harm the company's ability to serve its customers, he said. ''With modem technology, phones can go anywhere. It's just a question of where that phone rings.''

Mr. Cox said the demand for leased ocean containers has picked up during the past eight to 10 weeks, especially in the trans-Pacific trades. U.S. importers are bringing in product from Asia earlier than last year, in hopes of avoiding the congestion that plagued much of the western rail system during the summer and fall.

''Suppliers and manufacturers are carrying a bit more inventory,'' he said.

Shipping lines are relying more heavily on leased containers in order to meet the strong demand for goods flowing from Asia to the United States, Mr. Cox said. In some cases that has meant hiring equipment for one-way trips, since U.S. exports to Asia are weak and carriers' only other option may be to move the boxes empty on the return leg.

This year's peak ocean-shipping season should last longer than usual despite its earlier start, he said. A stronger dollar is making imports more competitive, the U.S. economy is in good shape, and consumer confidence remains high.

Transamerica intends to buy new containers this year but will retire older equipment at a faster rate. The net result should be a reduction in its fleet of between 40,000 and 50,000 TEUs. The company has yet to decide on the exact size of its purchases. Major lessors are taking a close look at the placement and utilization of their existing equipment before adding to their fleets, Mr. Cox said.

Transamerica unveiled its new corporate structure at the International Intermodal Expo in Dallas last week. Not a container or trailer was in sight. The company said it preferred to highlight recent Internet-based services. They included Tradex, the Transamerica web site offering on-line booking and status reports, and Greybox, a container-pooling service that can be used to correct worldwide equipment imbalances.