Bank of America Corp. and the processor First Data Corp. are collaborating to deliver advanced payments capabilities, and especially mobile payments, to merchants.
The companies announced Monday that they had created Banc of America Merchant Services LLC, which incorporates Bank of America's acquiring unit and First Data's merchant clients that had been served previously by a joint venture with JPMorgan Chase & Co. that disbanded in November.
Thomas Bell, the new company's chief executive, said that First Data has a long history of teaming up with banking companies, and that this partnership will help deliver its payments technology to B of A's extensive roster of business customers.
"The bank alliance model is, we believe, the most powerful strategic model for us to go to market, and it's certainly something that we've been committed to for decades," he said during a conference call Monday. Bell is also First Data's chief strategy officer and the president of its financial services division.
Besides offering standard credit and debit card acceptance services, Bell said, First Data and B of A expect to promote a variety of other emerging services, including prepaid cards, new types of online transactions and, perhaps most important, mobile payments.
The ability to collaborate on new payment formats "is where this gets very powerful, because obviously the bank and obviously First Data have been working on next-generation payment types and are investing in those, and this is an opportunity to bring those together," he said.
A key goal is persuading merchants to embrace the idea that mobile phones can become payments devices, he said.
"We all believe that eventually payments will move into the phone," he said. "Being partners with the bank allows us to be at the front line of bringing that innovation to the table."
Brian Riley, a research director in the bank cards practice at TowerGroup, the Needham, Mass., independent research firm owned by MasterCard Inc., said First Data's executives "are masters of joint ventures" with banks. "They go way back," Riley said.
One of its largest such ventures was Chase Paymentech Solutions LLC, which it co-owned with JPMorgan Chase.
The New York banking company decided to dissolve the joint venture after First Data's 2007 acquisition by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.; First Data owned 49% of that venture, and when it was formally broken up in November First Data ended up with a proportional number of the merchant acquirer's customers.
Riley said the new company "certainly replaces the void that First Data had from breaking up with Paymentech."
It "locks in the relationship with an important customer, without a doubt, but it also allows a lot of sharing of best-in-class technologies," Riley said.
The company is based in Atlanta and will handle the business of B of A's 240,000 merchant clients plus 140,000 of First Data's merchant clients, which come mainly from Paymentech.
First Data is the biggest shareholder, with 48.5%, but no company owns a majority stake. Bank of America owns 46.5% and the remaining 5% is owned by Rockmount Investments LLC. Neither First Data nor Bank of America would identify the owners of Rockmount.
One area where Bank of America and First Data may not be working together is in new automated clearing house formats.
B of A and Wells Fargo & Co. are working to create an ACH service to handle their mutual payments through a joint venture called Pariter Solutions LLC. Bell said there are no plans for Banc of America Merchant Services to work with Pariter.
Adil Moussa, an analyst at Aite Group LLC, said the venture with Bank of America could help First Data win more large merchants.
"You really need a bank, a big solid bank, to work with the large merchants," he said. "One of the most challenging aspects of getting one of the large merchants" is that they typically want a broad suite of financial capabilities including payments, loans and lines that they can typically only get from a bank.
"If you have a bank to work with, or if you have a couple of banks to work with, you're really securing the processing part of the deal," Moussa said.
Philip J. Philliou, a partner at the consulting firm Philliou Selwanes Partners LLC, said the new venture pairs "two dominant players" in the payments technology market, but he questioned their ability to deliver next-generation technology.
"Mobile is certainly top-of-mind for merchants," But other areas the companies plan to address, such as prepaid and online commerce, are not especially new, he said.
However, he said merchants are demanding more attention from payments services providers. "I'm happy to see activity in the merchant processing space."