Steeped though it may be in a certain religious tradition, Salt Lake City has never seen J. Scott Lowry's brand of brimstone.
Mr. Lowry, a former banker and real estate dealmaker and in no way a technologist, literally rode down from the mountains east of the Mormon capital a couple of years ago in search of a new career challenge.
Harris H. Simmons, chief executive officer of Zions Bancorp. and Zions First National Bank, told him of a new business they were starting on the seemingly remote frontier of digital certification.
The subsidiary then being organized, Digital Signature Trust Co., needed a president. Mr. Lowry, a one-time vice president of international banking at Chase Manhattan and head of Great Western Bank in Arizona, was it.
He wears the suit of a banker, but to emphasize that something different is afoot he had his office walls painted red. He presides over an organization that has more in common with a Silicon Valley skunk works, and he talks like a missionary.
"I have come over to this from the dark side," Mr. Lowry said recently. "I am a zealot now."
He said he is "single-handedly proselytizing" to wake an entire industry up to an emerging opportunity in electronic commerce, in particular the role banks can play in certifying the identities of people doing business on the Internet.
In that virtual space, where buyers and sellers do not make face-to-face or even voice-to-voice contact, there is call for an intermediary to serve as authenticator. A lack of trust is said to be hindering acceptance of Internet shopping; authentication could raise the comfort level.
A form of data encryption technology, the digital signature, has been primed for this task, waiting for something like Internet commerce to come along. Mr. Lowry's job is to fulfill Digital Signature Trust Co.'s destiny as one of the enterprises that capitalizes on the Internet's mass-market potential.
He thinks big enough to believe the trust company-it obtained approval from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency to become a national bank operating subsidiary less than two months ago-can blaze this trail both as an innovator and as a provider of the service to other institutions.
The competition is already formidable. Verisign Inc., for example, has what may be the only widely recognizable brand name in the digital authentication business. It had backing from companies like Visa and Microsoft and recently made a big splash with an initial stock offering.
But neither Verisign, Microsoft, International Business Machines Corp., nor other well known e-commerce aspirants can claim what Mr. Lowry calls "the last mile," a term from the telephone industry that describes the line that reaches the customer's premises.
Banks have that last mile, in the form of their customer knowledge and relationships. Mr. Lowry says it is the banks' to lose, and Zions stepped up first to forestall that outcome.
He said Mr. Simmons and the bank, consistently one of the most profitable in the industry, have an unusual "ability to embrace change, and this is one example of that."
"I told Harris that now we have a seat at the table," Mr. Lowry said after the Comptroller's Office had put Digital Signature Trust Co. through the chartering paces. "There are enormous opportunities out there if we just push ahead."
"Whoever would have thought that a new technology like this would come along, and the first bank to take it up would be in Utah?" said Thomas P. Vartanian, the Washington partner of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson who has become one of the leading lights in cyberspace law.
Mr. Lowry, who serves on various association and payment system committees, said he often feels frustrated at how long it takes members to get excited and make decisions. One reason, he said, is that technology personnel's understanding of the business has not crossed over to senior management.
That was not the case with lawyers like Mr. Vartanian. Their often maligned profession has been on the digital signature bandwagon for years. Utah in 1995 became the first state to pass a law legitimizing the identification technique, and it opened whole new vistas of practice and debate.
By last July, when a House Banking subcommittee held hearings on digital signatures, Mr. Lowry counted 36 state legislatures that had passed or been considering laws like Utah's.
But each was in some way different, leading Mr. Lowry and many others to call for some form of federal standardization or "common denominator" in state laws.
By dint of its location, Zions Bank seized early on the opportunity to establish itself as a certificate authority, or CA. This is the "trusted third party" that does the actual vouching for on-line entities' identities, akin to the way banks verify ink signatures at branches.
Zions won the first CA license from the state of Utah, the result of a bidding process Mr. Lowry was initially brought in to manage. Zions' base in Utah and heritage as a bank were instrumental in getting the designation.
"Banks have a centuries-old history as reliable repositories of trust," Mr. Lowry said last Nov. 19, which Gov. Michael Leavitt declared "Digital Signature Signing Day" with a digitally signed proclamation.
"DST's association with Zions Bank makes it ideally suited to perform the role of trusted third party, which is essential in issuing, storing, and certifying digital signatures," the signature unit's president said.
Certco, one of several certification companies Digital Signature Trust has alliances with and which also has banking roots-it began inside Bankers Trust New York Corp.-provided the technology for accrediting Utah CAs.
"We have pioneer advantage," Mr. Lowry, 53, said in a recent interview. "We are in this business today. It will be 12 to 18 months before everyone else is in. We have to make the most of that."
Zions' pioneering may have paved the way for other banks, now that the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency is educated. It definitely excited another part of the legal community-the banking bar.
Alston & Bird in Washington issued a client alert after the OCC's Jan. 12 approval order to Zions. It called the decision "extremely important"-a precedent for a national bank operating authority and an entree into a potentially important business activity.
But the firm warned of difficulties later because of a failure to address conflicts between state laws and the possibility that restrictions imposed by the OCC might handcuff banks in competition with nonbanks.
Writing in the Feb. 10 American Banker on the OCC's "sweeping legal analysis" in the Digital Signature Trust case, Philip S. Corwin of Federal Legislative Associates in Washington said the regulator set "momentous precedents. In the information age, banks may be able to employ their core competencies in security, data management, and telecommunications in a broad range of activities beyond the bounds of traditional banking."
Mr. Corwin said banks can be "serious contenders" as digital certifiers because of their historical strengths and traditions. He, too, noted the problem of interstate incompatibility and said it could hasten a congressionally imposed uniformity.
Mr. Lowry acts and sounds like the clock is ticking.
He does not speak in the gentlemanly tones of the bank boardroom. His message fits with a lot of what can be heard on the technology conference circuit: If banks don't seize the opportunities, nonbank competitors will.
But in a speech recently to a group of mortgage executives, Mr. Lowry turned that into an ultimatum: "Five years from now, if you look back and see that you did not move your organization dramatically and swiftly into this arena, you will have failed your organization. You will be at a serious competitive disadvantage."
At that conference, called Midwinter '98, a high-level gathering in his hometown of Park City, Utah, he said mortgage banks "own one of the killer apps in this business. There is no reason it can't be done totally paperless. You have the opportunity to own that business.
"You own the last mile," he added. "Don't blow it."
His rejoinder to the nonbank threat-and what he is betting on-is that "somebody, somewhere, sometime has to have met you as an individual" in order to issue and stand by a digital certificate.
"If the world is willing to accept on-line registration of digital certificates, the banks have probably lost this business already," Mr. Lowry said. It would then be dominated by Verisign and others that are gearing up for mass issuance without controlling the "last mile" to the customer.
Mr. Lowry puts down the Verisign model as "drive-by certificates," which he says will not prevail if the banking industry asserts its advantages.
"Financial institutions have the only leverageable relationship that people outside the industry would be willing to accept," he said. "If the process gets into the hands of somebody like MSFDC (the joint electronic billing venture of Microsoft and First Data Corp.), then we have lost the customer in the electronic age."
The trust company has been busy for months, working long before the OCC approval to put an infrastructure in place. It is bidding for contracts and forming alliances with companies like Certco and GlobeSet Inc., another Bankers Trust offshoot, to be ready to issue certificates on demand.
Mr. Lowry and a few people reporting to him occupy part of a floor at Zions Bank headquarters. They made a deal to use a nearby site owned by Questar, the natural gas company, as their "maximum security" back office.
Mr. Vartanian said he wonders if Zions will stay the course if the trust company is still in development mode in a couple of years.
Mr. Lowry said the question, "How do you make money on the Internet?" is misplaced. "It's like the telephone-a medium, not an end. It's only limited by people's imagination.
"Digital signatures are like cars in 1910," he said. "We are having conversations about things people never had conversations about before. If bankers can't get excited about that ... ."