Just when consolidation seemed to be whittling the electronic banking industry down to its final core of elite regional networks, an industry pioneer has decided to try to muscle his way back into the business.
Joseph E. Wolfson, who founded the now-defunct Metroteller network m upstate New York in 1974, has formed a company called Integrated Delivery Technologies Inc. to process transactions in competition with the likes of MAC and NYCE.
Starting from scratch with what he insists is an attractive, entrepreneurial idea, Mr. Wolfson is unlikely to grow into an industry giant in the near term.
But he is entering the fray with one intriguing notion: that retailers are disenchanted with the bank-controlled networks, especially on pricing issues, and that he might act as their agent to get better terms.
Mr. Wolfson, who is based in Buffalo, N.Y., has kept in touch with the bankers and supermarket executives who used to participate in Metroteller. He said the stores are disenchanted with a recent decision by the NYCE network to impose an interchange fee.
He wants to give the retailers negotiating leverage, by helping them take ownership of banking and payment terminals on their premises or by otherwise empowering them as network participants.
"The most important thing in this business is locations, and retailers have the great locations," Mr. Wolfson said in an interview.
He also believes groups of smaller financial institutions or credit unions may also be looking for a friend amid the ever-expanding network giants. As mergers like the recent one of NYCE and Yankee 24 in the Northeast (they are now Infinet Payment Services, Hackensack, N.J.) create increasingly powerful superregionals, independent bankers associations have begun negotiating processing deals on behalf of multiple members.
"We're doing this because it's a good marketing opportunity - transaction processing can be a great business," Mr. Wolfson said last week. The political and pricing issues "coincided with our plans. We're entrepreneurs. We see a business opportunity that may not have been there three years ago."
Mr. Wolfson, chairman and chief executive officer of the company he is calling IDT, and Craig S. Mcintyre, president and chief operating officer, began to tell the world about their plans in the hallways of the Bank Administration Institute's retail delivery systems conference in Phoenix.
They were among a skeptical crowd. A former member of the regional network executives fraternity, Mr. Wolfson was viewed as a bit of a maverick. Metroteller pushed the once-heretical idea of networks' owning terminals as opposed to member banks', and it caused consternation by agreeing at an early stage to accept the Discover card. then a product of Sears, Roebuck and Co.
Some observers question Mr. Wolfson's current ambitions and timing. There may also be an element of suspicion, as Mr. Wolfson sounds as if he wants to upset the industry establishment.
"I'm not here to win any popularity contests," Mr. Wolfson said. "Politics may be one of the reasons point of sale debit hasn't made more progress than it has. We will not be proprietary in our thinking, and we will create a new profit-making business."
"Joe is the kind of guy who can shake things up, you can be sure of that," said Stephen Cole, chief executive officer of the Cash Station automated teller machine network, which is based in Chicago.
Mr. Wolfson, then in his 20s and working for Empire Savings Bank in Buffalo, was credited with building one of the first shared electronic banking programs. The network, Metroteller, consisted initially of customer-service platforms in supermarkets as well as ATMs. It diversified into point of sale debiting and other services, and was one of the most successful such networks in the country when it was acquired in 1989 by MAC, then owned by CoreStates Financial Corp. and now by CoreStates and several other major banking companies.
Mr. Wolfson is returning to electronic transaction processing after spending a few years as a consultant and as head of a telecommunications equipment company.
He describes his new venture as a pure transaction processor, willing to work with any group on the efficient handling of anything from routine bank transactions and bill payments to check cashing and electronic ticketing. His focus is on the retailers who have invested millions of dollars in ATMs and point of sale equipment.
"This national retail network will insure that retailers have a voice in the pricing, processing, and policies of these electronic transactions and, more importantly, a voice in the design of future payment systems such as electronic benefits transfer and smart cards," Mr. Wolfson said. "Currently, these retailers participate in bank-owned regional electronic funds transfer networks that control all aspects," he added.
Mr. McIntyre, Mr. Wolfson's chief lieutenant at Metroteller who stayed with MAC until mid-1993 before going into consulting, said major supermarkets have been at the mercy of network pricing and policy decisions into which they had no input.
"We have had discussions with retailers that represent chains throughout the United States and we are extremely encouraged by their comments and level of interest," Mr. McIntyre said. "We merchants have talked about this approach for some time, we will now be able to coordinate this effort for them."
IDT is still some steps away from putting its business proposition into action, but it has consulting agreements with the Price Chopper and Tops supermarkets that it expects will lead to an operational transaction program in New York and other northeastern states.
Also, IDT said it has agreed to pursue a mutually beneficial relationship" with Atlantic Northeast Service Corp., which represents several state credit union leagues. While Mr. Wolfson and Mr. McIntyre have national ambitions, they expect to be operating first in the Northeast.
Mr. McIntyre consulted with the New York State Credit Union League on the development of a shared ATM network. The league has gone on record saying it will explore opportunities for credit unions to be a part of IDT's network.