Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Fidavante-Merger Musings

Posted by Mark Brousseau

Vijay Balakrishnan, president of StratEx, LLC (770-598-5747) passes along the following blog entry with his musings on the recent merger between Fidelity National Information Services and Metavante. For more insights from Balakrishnan, visit his Web site at www.stratexllc.blogspot.com.

In an era characterized by synthesized monikers a la "Brangelina" for famous couples, "Fidavante" is perhaps warranted for the entity to be created by Fidelity National Information Services' acquisition of Metavante. The combination promises to be a powerhouse to rival Metavante's cross-town rival Fiserv. With over 2200 core banking customers and 220 million cards processed, Fidavante's potential operating leverage is nothing short of phenomenal. The road to fruition, however, is dependent on the successful integration of two complex organizations.

At the core. The greatest payoff, arguably, is in the rationalization and rejuvenation of the combined core banking base. As the oft repeated watchword argues, "Core is King!" It is also the most difficult integration challenge ahead. Both companies have large customer bases with legacy systems. The Fidelity repertoire includes customers on systems as disparate as Systematics, Horizon, Mercury and Miser. The Metavante stable includes the Integrated Banking Suite (IBS) platform, as well as the Bankway products that came by way of the Kirchman acquisition- the latter marketed through both outsourced and in-house license models. In addition, Metavante has entered into an agreement with Temenos to produce a next-generation core banking solution for large U.S. banks. The Fidelity equivalent is its Profile product.

There are myriad strategy alternatives. Does it make sense to focus the new technology from either Temenos or Profile on effecting a technology turn within the existing small-to-medium sized institution base? Notwithstanding the daunting number of conversions, it can be argued that this option is easier than the heart surgery of core replacement in a large bank. Or is it better to leave the legacy base as is for now, and use the next-generation platform to go after larger institutions? How does one pick a winner between Temenos and Profile, given the shots across the bow already being fired with the recent statement from Temenos that its agreement with Metavante is binding on post acquisition successor parties? If large banks are the target market, exactly how big is big?

Whale hunting perils. I suggest the foremost prerequisite for success is to get a clearly articulated strategy for each core banking market segment. It can be argued that both companies have a predominantly small-to-medium financial institution footprint. Thus, execution of a strategy for that segment, regardless of what that ends up being, is likely to come naturally to the combined entity. Scaling the heights of large institutions, on the other hand, is a different matter. Selling to, and serving large, whale-like institutions is an art by itself, considering the long selling cycles, significant customization, and the volatility that large deals bring to the P&L lines. That said, there are elements within both companies that have come by way of acquisition that have a large-institution history. The trick will be to identify those skill sets, and allow them to succeed within an operating mileu that has long been used to the relative predictability of smaller institutions.

Switch hitting. The payments side of the business offers major synergies. The NYCE network from Metavante and the debit switching operation from Fidelity's eFunds acquisition are natural fits. The synergies between these two entities stretch back in history to when eFunds was part of Deluxe Corporation. If memory serves me right, Deluxe Data Systems provided debit switching processing services for NYCE based on the flagship CONNEX product. NYCE later took the processing in-house, based on a licensed version of CONNEX. Even today, CONNEX is a leader when it comes to very high volume switches like NYCE, and the synergy analysis should be straightforward. Looking ahead, the gap that has endured the Deluxe-eFunds-Fidelity chapters, is for a product that could compete effectively with ACI's Base 24 at smaller networks for switching and peripheral functions like ATM driving... another acquisition down the road?

It's in the cards. Fidelity brings with it a strong card processing base aimed at predominantly issuance processing for credit unions. This business has preserved its dominance in the credit union space right from its inception as Telecredit, through its acquisition by Equifax, spin-off as Certegy, and subsequent purchase by Fidelity. This is a net plus, as there is nothing on the Metavante side that enjoys a leadership position in this segment.

Striking the right image. Both companies moved into image based check, remittance and document processing through acquisitions. Metavante has a comprehensive offering from its purchases of AFS, Vectorsgi, Endpoint Exchange,Vicor and Treev. Its strategy has been to grow the medium sized institution AFS business base, while taking its image work-flow expertise up market to large institutions, leveraging account relationships and IBM CPCS based product knowledge from Vectorsgi. The Fidelity offering is primarily based on its acquisition of Bankware. There will likely be a need to rationalize offerings between the erstwhile Bankware and AFS product lines.

There has always been a gap in the old AFS line at the very low end (institutions of less than $100 million in assets). There may be a case for looking at the Fidelity (Bankware) line as an alternative. I suspect, however, that both companies will look at addressing the low end through outsourced item processing services. The choice of the right platform will depend on multi-institution capability. Both Bankware and AFS originally built products for in-house licensed use. It is often the case with products initially built for in-house licensed use that functions like partitioned databases and multi-customer billing (as opposed to operating a different instance of the product to serve each customer), are part of later redesign efforts. Both companies have been at the multi-institution outsourcing business for a while, and it is entirely possible that both platforms lend themselves adequately to the needs today. Metavante's Vicor acquisition brings a high end wholesale remittance product line which doesn't have an equivalent on the Fidelity side. The Endpoint Exchange check image exchange network is unique with the many thousand routing and transit points served, although it is still challenged in its ability to offer a convincing alternative to the Federal Reserve.

Check it out. Fidelity has a check verification and guarantee business that includes the well known SCAN check verification system, courtesy eFunds. There could be interesting synergies between these check services, and Metavante's merchant capture products and services. Being able to assess payment risk at the point of check image capture can be a powerful combination, particularly if there are thoughts of launching "bank agnostic" merchant capture services. A broader approach to assessing debit risk- a debit bureau if you will- can also include Chex Systems from the erstwhile eFunds stable which is easily the most well established new account risk management system in the country.

Across the oceans. While the two companies together will operate in 27 countries and serve customers in 90, the international presence comes mostly from Fidelity. The expansion overseas has its roots in a strategy on the part of what was then Equifax Card Services to take its card processing expertise beyond U.S. shores. This has grown into a viable global presence. Fidelity's eFunds acquisition also brought with it a large presence in India, which provides a base of lower cost, high quality technology development expertise. This operation has its roots in the joint venture established between Deluxe Corporation and India's HCL Corporation in the mid-1990s to tap into India's growing technology base (eFunds was later spun off from Deluxe). Metavante's international presence is more modest, comprising mostly of distributor based product sales and recent agreements with Temenos and Monitise. The future augurs well for Fidavante's international expansion, as it is not beset with the same scale of integration challenge as the home base.

Cultural Exchange. In most mergers, getting different cultures to work together is more difficult than rationalizing products and technologies. At first glance, Fidelity and Metavante are similar in that they are both providers of banking and payment processing services to mostly mid-sized institutions. Processors tend to have a culture that is unique in that there is great emphasis on operational efficiency to keep pushing those "clicks" through. A closer examination yields a few differences. Metavante had its origins as the captive data processing center of the Marshall and Ilsley bank. Until the spin-off of a year or so ago, the company grew dramatically under the ownership of the large mid-western bank. The company prides itself on customer service, and was able to develop its culture in a relatively stable atmosphere. The Florida based Fidelity has grown through the acquisition and absorption of sizeable businesses with varied histories. As discussed previously, Fidelity is also more global in its footprint. While I don't see any "show-stoppers", it should be recognized that there will be varied perspectives at the table.

A third pole? Almost more interesting than the Fidavante saga is the potential shift in the competitive landscape. The combined entity presents a formidable challenge to Fiserv. With the exception of not being able to match Fiserv's dominance in the ACH arena with its PEP+ product, it is arguably set to becoming the second pole in this business. Does this signal a rush for scale on the part of others? Like nascent planetary systems, there is the need for a center of mass around which alternate poles develop. Will it be First Data, privatized now, and debit payment-centric in posture? Can an SAP or an Oracle morph from being horizontal players to slugging it out in this vertical market? Where does Intuit go, post the Digital Insight acquisition- was that just a toe in the water or a harbinger of a more purposeful move into banking and payments? Where does this leave the many niche players in the marketplace?

It is possible that nimbleness and innovation will serve niche players while the big players sort out the integration challenges. They will do well, however, to heed the adage that the grass gets trampled when elephants quarrel. To take on the dominant players on their terms- especially those who can leverage their core banking business base- is suicide. The niche players only have two choices: Become a bigger fish, or find a smaller pond.

Predicting course and speed in choppy waters is difficult at best. Nevertheless, the observations offered here, as well as insights from those with other perspectives, makes this a fascinating development to watch.

What do you think? Post you comment below.

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