For the past two and a half years, Experian Inc. has been on fast- forward.
The consumer information company, familiar to bankers and consumers for many years as TRW, has bought 10 companies and has itself been purchased twice.
Last month, when its veteran chief executive officer retired, his boss announced a sweeping reorganization aimed at acknowledging the importance of new lines of business.
John Peace, the current chairman and CEO, is trying to dispel the notion that Experian is still just a credit bureau. The company has been assembling an arsenal of consumer data and transforming itself into one of the most diversified and powerful information companies.
"The great perception is that (our) biggest sector is financial services," Mr. Peace said. "But we are already established in the catalogue and retail sectors," primarily through acquisitions in those fields.
A quarter of Experian's $1.6 billion of annual revenue now comes from compiling marketing lists for banks, retailers, insurance companies, and others.
The shift toward consumer marketing has been so pronounced that in last month's corporate reorganization direct marketing represents half of what Experian does. The other half-called "information services"-consists primarily of the credit data business, a core service that dates back decades.
Driving the market-data push are Metromail and Direct Marketing Technology, the acquisitions that together cost Experian $1 billion. Metromail specializes in compiling data from public records, and Direct Marketing Technology-known as Direct Tech-is a direct-mail vendor.
"We probably have more data bases and content than anyone else," said D. Van Skilling, the chairman and chief executive officer of Experian's North American operations until his March 31 retirement. "Today we are able to provide a much more complete suite of products and services."
Mr. Skilling, 65, had reported to Mr. Peace. Mr. Peace has not filled the No. 2 job and has parceled out its responsibilities to other executives, including himself.
The new organizational chart is the latest face on a company that seems to have been in constant metamorphosis since November 1996. That was when Experian-then TRW Information Systems and Services Inc.-was spun off from its industrial parent, TRW Inc.
The separation energized executives at Experian, which never really got its due as part of a conglomerate focused on the aerospace, automotive, and defense industries.
But there was little time for Experian to adjust. The two Boston investment firms that bought Experian out from TRW-Thomas H. Lee Co. and Bain Capital Inc.-turned around the next month and sold the credit bureau to Great Universal Stores PLC of Britain, a diversified retailing and marketing company whose most visible brand was Burberry.
Great Universal Stores' informational bent, resulting from its catalogue sales and data base activities, has proven a good match for Experian. Instead of its old stepchild status, Experian is viewed as a breadwinner and rising star within its corporate family.
While Experian may be Great Universal Stores' most profitable venture, it is only one of six business divisions. Others are dedicated to retailing, consumer finance, and home shopping. Mr. Peace, 49, sits on GUS' board of directors.
In the six months that ended Sept. 30, 1998, Experian was the best- performing unit within Great Universal Stores, with profits that rose 22%, to $135 million. Total sales were up 41%, to $721 million.
Experian maintains headquarters in Nottingham, England, and Orange, Calif. Of 11,500 employees, 7,500 are in the United States.
The North American operations contributed $488 million of sales during those six months, versus $233 million in the United Kingdom and other international markets. Profits for the North American unit rose 23%, to $105 million.
Some recent acquisitions are said to be helping the bottom line. Mr. Skilling would not specify which divisions have been the most profitable, but he said in a recent interview, "all of these things have come together in the past 18 months. When you add them all up, we have had a good year and a half."
Last April brought the noteworthy purchase of Metromail, a Lombard, Ill., company that compiles public record information. It culls data from telephone directories and county real estate records and tracks, for example, how long a person has lived in a home, the property's current assessment, and whether there are liens.
Metromail tracks state certification licenses-for hunting and fishing, for example, or for occupations like beautician or manicurist. It also operates a mailing production facility, something Experian did not previously own.
Metromail "significantly enhanced Experian's ability to compile publicly available data," said Jim Womble, who heads the financial services unit of Acxiom Corp., Experian's largest competitor in demographic information.
Acxiom, based in Conway, Ark., helps retailing, financial services, and insurance companies target new customers by providing information on buying habits. Its clients include Citigroup and several other large credit card issuers.
"Experian has gotten into the business of building data bases,"said Jim Ivey, group leader of Acxiom's financial services support group. "Experian is now selling the fact that they can combine their credit bureau data with their Metromail demographic data, which makes for a stronger presentation of their ability to provide a whole solution."
Not being a credit bureau, Acxiom cannot sell bureau reports directly. It does work with Experian and the other two of the Big Three bureaus, Equifax and Trans Union, to provide packages that combine demographic and credit information.
"I think Experian has a vision of integrating data processing, storage, and management capabilities," said Harry Gambill, president and chief executive officer of Trans Union LLC in Chicago.
For 10 years, Experian-by way of Great Universal Stores-has offered credit card account processing in Europe, in competition with the U.S.- based leader First Data Corp. Experian handles several private-label card portfolios, plus overseas credit card accounts belonging to MBNA Corp. and Beneficial Bank.
Mr. Gambill said Experian persistently proves itself a formidable competitor. "I just hope they run out of money before they start buying things I want to buy," the Trans Union CEO said.
One of the advantages of being part of Great Universal Stores is the deep pockets that have allowed Experian to acquire so many companies, executives there say.
By contrast, Equifax-Experian's biggest rival in the credit bureau business-is pursuing alliance arrangements.
"Most companies realize that growth by acquisition is an expensive proposition that cannot be sustained in the long run," Thomas F. Chapman, president and CEO of Atlanta-based Equifax, said in a recent speech at a recent credit card conference.
Experian purchased Direct Tech of Schaumburg, Ill., in 1997. It processes 13% of U.S. advertising mail, 10 billion pieces a year. The largest supplier of computer services to the catalogue industry, it provides data base marketing, list processing, and consulting services.
Experian also bought 20% of an Internet company, Intellipost, which markets customer loyalty programs that reward people for reading on-line advertisements. Among its clients are E-Trade Group, GE Capital Services, CBS SportsLine, and Sprint Corp.
"We will be doing a lot more with electronic commerce," Mr. Skilling said.
Experian's other acquisitions were companies in Europe and Latin America, most in the credit bureau, debt collection, and credit evaluation businesses.
Mr. Gambill described Experian as the product of "a bewildering array of acquisitions," but Mr. Skilling took umbrage at that.
Great Universal Stores has "been very supportive of our plans," Mr. Skilling said. The acquisitions "are part of a strategy we developed several years ago.
"It would be nice if you could afford the luxury of sitting back and digesting, but the world is changing so rapidly."
Mr. Skilling retired after 29 years with TRW and Experian, the last 10 in the top job. Though he retains his seat on Experian's board and continues to chair its consumer advisory council, Mr. Skilling's retirement marks the end of an era.
The reorganization also pared four main divisions down to two. "Information solutions" includes credit bureau activities in the consumer and business sectors, automotive information such as registered vehicles, and property information. "Marketing solutions" consists primarily of Metromail and Direct Tech.
"There has to be more consistency within our organizations," Mr. Peace said in a telephone interview.
He said several senior executives heading separate business units oversee what Mr. Skilling used to.
"We wanted an organization structure (that lets) customers buying products and services in America get those same services and products in Europe," Mr. Peace said.
As Experian's data repositories grow, so might regulatory scrutiny. With its long history of defending itself against the Federal Trade Commission, which enforces the Fair Credit Reporting Act, Experian will need to maintain solid walls between credit bureau data and marketing data.
"I would divide Experian into those businesses that are regulated under FCRA and those that aren't, and I would be darn sure to keep them independent of each other," Mr. Gambill of Trans Union said.
Trans Union has had its share of trouble in that area. Since 1994 it has been battling the FTC over its right to sell direct marketing lists. The government maintains that Trans Union may not do so because it is extracting information from credit reports to develop the marketing lists. Trans Union says the lists do not contain credit information.
David Medine, associate director of financial practices at the FTC, said that if Experian chose to "apply its expertise to other types of data," it would "not complicate matters so long as they keep the credit bureau data separate."
Experian said it combines what is called the "header" information of a consumer credit report-including name, address, and Social Security number- with marketing data.
This is considered a valuable combination. "It is the best source of a good address," said Martin E. Abrams, Experian's director of privacy and consumer policy. "A significant portion of the U.S. population moves each year or has multiple addresses."
Less than 10% of Experian's business involves selling products directly to consumers, but that "will be a growing part of what we do," Mr. Peace said.
A sign of things to come may be Car Data Check, which Experian has been selling in the United Kingdom for 18 months. For $49, a consumer interested in buying a used car can purchase a report that says if that vehicle has ever been stolen or involved in an accident.
Car Data Check is a joint venture with Britain's Automobile Association- a nine-million-member organization akin to AAA in the United States-and Experian has sold more than 100,000 reports so far.
"Experian is unique in the breadth of capabilities we have," Mr. Skilling said.