Kenneth W. Long, a pioneer in putting personal computers to work inside banks, has some advice for Microsoft's Bill Gates and other cyber- visionaries constantly hyping new technologies to the industry: Sometimes you have to just say no.
"I have survived in this business by providing business solutions, and that sometimes means making decisions that don't always please my software developers," said Mr. Long, chief executive of Protocorp International, a Monroe, N.C., firm specializing in imaging systems and data archival software. "Technology can be awe-inspiring, but you better be careful you don't end up building products that nobody can afford."
Mr. Long is a former banker who established his first company - Backroom Systems Group - in 1983, not long after the introduction of International Business Machines' original PC.
Backroom Systems developed PC-based software for such arcane operational tasks as tracking bounced checks and making statement adjustments.
"Ken Long applied a simple little device - the PC - to replace what had required a lot of manual labor to do, and banks fell all over themselves to get at it," said M. Arthur Gillis, a bank technology consultant in New Orleans.
Mr. Long sold the business to Mellon Bank in a 1988 deal that provided him with the capital to launch Protocorp in 1991 along with a number of former Backroom Systems employees.
Mr. Gillis said he wasn't surprised that Mr. Long didn't just cash in his chips and retire after selling his first company. "I had occasion to meet lots of millionaires in this business, and they all had some kind of motive," Mr. Gillis said. "Ken Long's main motivation is to fix the stupid ways we still do things in the back room."
One of those nagging problems is the mountain of computer-generated paper reports and microfilmed documents banks warehouse every day. At the time Mr. Long was starting Protocorp, banks were just beginning to learn about so-called "file folder" imaging systems, where archived documents are scanned and stored electronically.
Mr. Long said the already existing PC-based imaging and data archival systems were built for community banks, while bigger institutions required much more expensive mainframe-based solutions.
"What we needed to develop was a PC-based architecture that allowed us to bring all the horsepower needed by the largest banks, but would also work for the mid-tier and low end of the market," Mr. Long explained. "One of the basic rules of the software development business is you can build software for the high end and take it to the low end, but you can't do the reverse."
Protocorp's first two products in this arena, PCI/File Folder and PCI/Reports Archival, use some of the latest advancements in client/server technology to allow a network of PCs to handle the massive amounts of data larger banks store and retrieve.
Mr. Long says Protocorp's systems have been installed at over 250 financial institutions, including $5 billion-asset Downey Savings and Loan in California and the Illinois subsidiary of $35 billion-asset Comerica Inc.
Mr. Long's company, which raised $1.5 million last year in a private stock placement, should report 1995 revenues of about $7 million, officials said - a 67% increase over the previous year. He said he hopes to take the company fully public in the near future.
Mr. Gillis said one of the keys to Protocorp's success is that while the software is sophisticated, it's the support bankers receive after installation that wins them over. "Their deployment is superb," he said.
"We would like to claim that we have some very special, unique technology, but the reality is that while there may be some unique feature or functions, the real reason we've been successful is our support and referenced account base," Mr. Long said.
John Dann, vice president of distributed processing at Newport Beach, Calif.-based Downey Savings, said Protocorp's ability to provide after- installation assistance was key to the decision to license the firm's archival software.
"During our review of data archival vendors, we spoke with Protocorp customers," Mr. Dann said. "Without question, each one praised the support it was getting." The thrift has installed the system in its check processing operation, corporate departments, and branches in order to completely eliminate the use of microfiche.
Though Protocorp's current clients are mainly small and midsize banks, Mr. Long sees his PC-based systems eventually moving into the largest institutions. "I'm convinced our systems' architecture can handle the biggest banks, it's just the storage media costs that are holding them back," he said, adding that the cost of electronic storage of documents versus microfilm and microfiche is shrinking.
In the meantime, Protocorp's newest software product package, PCI/Links, seeks to give banks equipped with imaging better access to electronically stored reports and documents.
PCI/Links uses Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system to provides the necessary software connections to a banks' archived documents and core accounting systems.
"It's one thing just to store data, but it is really something else to retrieve, manipulate, and use (the) data," Mr. Long said, noting that banks can generate fees by using the system. For example, PCI/Links can retrieve images of canceled checks that can in turn be automatically faxed to bank customers requesting them.
Mr. Gillis said in that in light of all the hoopla surrounding client/server computing, Mr. Long's quiet crusade to reengineer bank back offices stands in stark contrast.
"If you look to see who the big mouths preaching at bank conferences are, including yours truly, Ken Long is not in that group," Mr. Gillis said. "But if put Ken Long at Citibank or NationsBank, he commands a knowledge of the business. You don't get the feeling there's a lot of hype going on."