John B. Benton, a major influence on banking technology as a behind- the-scenes consultant, has switched to a bigger stage.
Mr. Benton decided to sell out-though he is hardly making a sellout-to Perot Systems Corp.
The chairman and chief executive officer of Benton International in Torrance, Calif., is no shrinking violet. Cashing out and riding into the sunset after more than 20 years close to the banking industry isn't his style. His firm will retain its identity as an independent subsidiary. Perot wouldn't have it any other way.
John King, his new boss at Perot Systems in Dallas, called Benton International "the leading strategy firm in the retail banking industry"- indicating Perot's regard for the 50-employee firm and its desire to keep it intact.
Together they want to capture a good part of the growth in financial industry consulting and technology services.
"It might have been a tempting alternative to sell out," Mr. Benton, 54, said recently. "But staying in the game another 10 years sounded a lot more interesting."
That personality and drive had everything to do with Mr. Benton's choice of a company whose name alone makes waves.
Much of Perot Systems' management had long-standing ties to EDS and its founder Ross Perot, starting with chairman Morton Meyerson. Mr. King, also ex-EDS, was a Perot Systems co-founder in 1988.
But Mr. Meyerson has shaken up the mix, naming former IBM executive James Cannavino last year as chief executive officer. He also recruited James Champy, the former CSC Index consultant who co-wrote "Reengineering the Corporation."
Similarly, Mr. King in March named Lynn Dukes, former chief of operations and technology at Barclays Bank's BZW investment banking arm, as head of his European division.
Mr. Benton, another in this wave of new blood, says Perot Systems can help him accomplish what he could not as a boutique.
After on-and-off conversations with Perot over two to three years and a final flurry of negotiations that began last fall, Mr. Benton was fully satisfied that the companies' cultures, values, and goals fit together, he said.
But he and Mr. King laid them out in ways that did not sound like the usual post-merger platitudes-even more impressive considering that the Benton group comprises maybe 1% of the work force of a $700 million organization.
"We had things Jack didn't have, and he had what we didn't have," said Mr. King, head of Perot Systems' fast-growing global financial services group. With flagship clients NationsBank Corp., Barclays, and Swiss Bank Corp., the unit brings in more than 40% of Perot revenues.
Perot aspired to go beyond the mechanics of computer services, even beyond the profit- or equity-sharing aspect of its "stakeholder" relationships with key clients. Mr. King described it as "thought leadership."
"That is a term John King introduced me to," said Mr. Benton, apparently unaware until then that he was filling that bill. Mr. Benton thinks about breaking down the barriers that day-to-day pressures create between technology and basic business goals.
"If a meeting starts between the CEO and the IT (information technology) executive, it becomes an IT problem," Mr. Benton said. "What gets lost is: What is the enterprise and what is it really trying to do?
"Thought leadership is about not letting the focus on the customer get lost in the face of the difficulty of the technology challenge."
On the hot topic of virtual banking, Mr. Benton said technology is its bones, the optimal use of information its flesh and muscle.
"We understand the information need and what has to be created," he said. "In Perot I see technology strength that is unbelievable compared to anything ever at my disposal."
Mr. King, noting that his own background in general-purpose and government computing left some gaps in financial services, said, "We had the technical expertise, but not the thought experience of Jack's team that grew up in that world."
Benton International was thus a key to helping Perot "get beyond the 2% to 6% of costs generally attributable to IT, and get at helping clients expand their businesses," Mr. King said. "That requires industry expertise. When we looked at opportunities in financial services, what came up was new ventures, thought leadership, and the contacts and impact that a firm like Benton could bring."
"Jack had no reason to sell if he saw no value to it," said J.A. "Gus" Blanchard, chairman and CEO of Deluxe Corp., whose close relationships with Mr. Benton and Mr. Meyerson played a part in bringing their companies together.
"Perot gets credibility and intimate knowledge of the world banking, and especially electronic payments, arena.
"Both parties are very comfortable with each other and see great benefit in partnering."
"We had just come off the best year in our history," Mr. Benton said. "Our only question mark was deciding how to remain an industry player. It amazed us that they were as sure as they were that we were a piece of their puzzle."
Mr. Benton has helped solve a lot of puzzles. In the mid-1970s he won what was in retrospect a plum assignment as staff director of the National Commission on Electronic Fund Transfers, a multi-industry panel appointed by the President.
Mr. Benton took some credit for its finishing on time and under budget in 1977. It published a solid report on electronic banking and its potential consequences that included the framework for the EFT Act of 1978, the consumer protection and disclosure rules now known as Regulation E.
Benton International in its present form dates back to 1978. Mr. Benton has a strong No. 2 in president and chief operating officer Louis Buglioli, formerly of Citibank and Crocker National Bank and based in Tampa. International activities led to the opening of offices in Buenos Aires, Bogota, and London, as well as New York.
Regarded as thoughtful, opinionated, and having an insider's knowledge of some of the premier banks and electronic banking operations in the world, Mr. Benton will give the occasional speech or press interview but reserves most pieces of his mind for clients.
Benton's "unique value to clients begins with consulting on industry trends, covers alternative distribution systems that are less dependent on branches-PC banking, private networks, E-commerce, ATMs, point of sale-and then moves into implementation," Mr. King said.
Some of its more public impacts were in debit cards (the firm managed Interlink, the California-based POS network, before it was turned over to a full-time CEO and eventually to Visa), the turnaround of Deluxe Corp.'s electronic transactions unit (Mr. Benton was interim CEO for half of last year), and the recent revitalization of the Electronic Funds Transfer Association, which was a private-sector outgrowth of the EFT commission.
"He is a true visionary," said Kurt Helwig, executive director of the EFT Association. It has relied on Mr. Benton, an executive committee member, for "content support" as well as organizational and recruiting matters for the last year and a half.
"He has said he'll have at least as much flexibility to work with us as he always did," Mr. Helwig said.
"We look to him for out-of-the box strategic thinking. We couldn't easily hire that kind of talent. I just hope I can pick up some of his knowledge."
By all accounts, Benton International has maintained objectivity and integrity while juggling its many assignments.
Mr. Benton said he will not push Perot on clients that don't want or need it. At the same time, he said, such relationships are increasingly accepted, if not wanted: "Things are happening at warp speed. Instead of conflict of interest, the question is: 'How do we get it done and share risk. We've studied enough; let's get going!'"
"Jack has always been dispassionate-and passionately customer-focused," said Mr. Blanchard of Deluxe. "I know he has established ground rules that put the customer first.
"Jack's customer is and always will be the financial institution. There will be times when what's best for the client will be a relationship with Perot Systems, and Jack will bring them more of those than they would have gotten otherwise."