Four of Verifone Inc.'s smart card experts have gone into the consulting business-without leaving the company.
Led by Michael J. Shade, the group operates independently and internationally as the Centum Consultancy, offering their combined 100-plus years of experience and expertise ("centum" is Latin for century) to financial institutions, retailers, and anyone else trying to make sense of what Mr. Shade calls an "astronomical rate of change" in payment technologies.
But under the Centum logo are the words "a Verifone enterprise," indicating the blessing and involvement of the world's biggest supplier of transaction automation systems.
Mr. Shade, who participated in some of the earliest stirrings of electronic funds transfers in the 1970s and spent the last few years as Verifone's point person on smart cards, said Centum is a logical extension of consulting-type work that Verifone provided in the normal course of business.
The difference now is that demand for assistance and advice has skyrocketed amid the profusion of smart cards and smart phones, broadband communications and electronic commerce opportunities-what bankers lump together in the category of alternative delivery.
"You can't do everything you have to do to run a bank or a big processing operation while also keeping up with the changes in technology, products, competition, and service delivery," Mr. Shade said in an interview last week.
In hopes of helping clients through the confusion and getting paid more explicitly for doing so, Mr. Shade launched the consulting venture in January. He is senior consultant and general manager of Centum. He said it has already completed several engagements but remains in an "educating and prospecting mode" to build its identity and credibility.
Mr. Shade's "partners" are A. Alan Gural, Thomas E. Reynolds, and Thomas H. Sak. Mr. Gural and Mr. Reynolds are former bankers with strong technology credentials. Both worked for Mr. Sak in Verigem, a joint venture formed in 1993 by Verifone and the smart card manufacturer Gemplus.
Verigem was a forerunner of Centum, "a model for how a supplier can also do solid consulting," Mr. Shade said. He considers "our individual knowledge and Verifone's knowledge of the payments business" an unbeatable combination.
But he conceded that Centum's ties to Verifone can cut two ways.
"Through Verifone we have access to experiential data from 100 countries that cannot be matched," he said. "The big question people will have, because we are a part of Verifone, is, 'Can we be unbiased?' I think so."
He said Centum faces the same challenge that the consulting firm A.T. Kearney had when it was acquired by Electronic Data Systems Corp. Likewise, International Business Machines Corp.'s computer services affiliate ISSC had to assert its independence, putting clients' interests at times ahead of its parent's.
"We are independent of but tied to Verifone," said Mr. Shade, 62, who joined the company in 1991 after such experiences as helping to build the bank technology infrastructure for post-Communist Hungary, managing the North Carolina Automated Clearing House Association, and developing the first point of sale EFT system in the United States.
"We will demonstrate that we can do high-quality work in an unbiased fashion," Mr. Shade vowed.
Some of that missionary work had to be done internally, beginning in January at a "global summit" of Verifone's salespeople. "We have to prove we are a help and not a hindrance," he said.
One of Mr. Shade's last assignments may have eased the internal education task: When Verifone about three years ago decided smart card technology was of long-term strategic significance, Mr. Shade was responsible for spreading the word and embedding the relevant knowledge throughout the global organization, from product development teams through the sales force.
"It's still not clear how the evolution from the magnetic stripe to smart cards will take place," Mr. Shade said. Adoption is more rapid in the Asia/Pacific countries than the United States, for example, but Verifone wants to be prepared for any eventuality.
Centum, like Verifone, puts a premium on market-specific knowledge and flexibility-to the point of being a "virtual company" with no formal headquarters. Only Mr. Sak is listed at Verifone's Redwood City, Calif., head office. Mr. Gural and Mr. Reynolds are in Atlanta, Mr. Shade in Sarasota, Fla.-but because the four are constantly traveling, E-mail is the most dependable way to reach any of them.
And Centum, despite its youth, has been all over the world, providing anything from "Smart Card 101" courses to full strategy formulation and product development.
One project example Mr. Shade cited was a competitive analysis for a major U.S. card processor that wants to plan for both short-term and longer-term revenue growth in view of delivery-system changes and new card products like Mondex and Visa Cash.
Outside the United States, "the work tends to be more fundamental, such as how to move from credit to debit cards to other things. We can bring real-world experience to the table in stored-value cards and loyalty programs.
"We are helping a major Indonesian financial institution understand its environment and develop a strategy for a stored-value offering that will probably evolve in something more than stored-value," Mr. Shade said. "In Greece we are doing a life-cycle analysis for an institution in the credit card acquiring business, which wants to understand the opportunities at this stage of the life cycle."