Visa Inc. is hoping to get off to a quick start in supply-chain management by launching a business-to-business payments network with one of the most venerable players in the field, U.S. Bancorp.
Visa announced Wednesday that it had formed a joint venture with U.S. Bancorp to handle payments between corporations and government agencies.
Syncada LLC, as the venture is called, will face stiff competition from similar services that have been available for years from some of the industry's biggest names, but observers said that combining Visa's connections to banks all over the world and U.S. Bancorp's experience handling domestic corporate payments could help the new entrant succeed where others have struggled.
"We're aspiring to create the gold standard in global B-to-B payments," said Robert T. Abele, the president of U.S. Bancorp's corporate payment systems unit. "There's a tremendous opportunity to create efficiency, drive automation and lower the cost of doing business for companies and governments."
Darren Parslow, Visa's head of global commercial products, said Syncada would be "the first global supply-chain network that focuses on payment processing, electronic invoicing and trade finance."
The centerpiece asset of Syncada is U.S. Bancorp's PowerTrack system, an electronic invoicing, payment and trade finance network that processed its first transaction in 1998, for the Defense Department. Today, Abele said, the network serves hundreds of corporate and governmental buyers, interacts with thousands of suppliers and processed more than $18 billion in invoices in 2008.
Business-to-business payments networks have become increasingly common in recent years, and the concept caught on in a big way in 2007. American Express Co. introduced in March of that year its S2S eInvoice&Pay service to automate payments between big corporations and their suppliers. The network was based on Amex's purchase three months earlier of Harbor Payments Inc.
JPMorgan Chase & Co. rolled out a similar service, AP Trac, in September 2007, using technology from its purchase of Xign Corp. that May. And in October 2007 MasterCard Inc. introduced its Payment Gateway service, aimed at automating payments for midsize companies.
Several big banks have rolled out their own electronic B-to-B services since then, including Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc. and BB&T Corp.
However, the corporate world has remained firmly tied to nonelectronic processes, and businesses continue to use paper invoices for most of their ordering and paper checks for 75% of their payments.
"There are a number of more closed-loop models taking shape in the industry via competitors," Abele said. "We don't think they are nearly as comprehensive as our approach."
The PowerTrack platform not only provides a network for invoicing and payments, but also performs invoice matching at the line-item level and can automatically make payments to suppliers, U.S. Bancorp has said.
And though the Minneapolis banking company has accumulated a lengthy list of Fortune 1,000 clients over the past decade, "we're challenged as a domestic bank" to extend those services around the world, Abele said. "We're not on the ground in Asia," but Visa's presence there would allow a U.S. corporate buyer to automate its connections to suppliers around the Pacific Rim.
Syncada is structured as a 50-50 partnership between U.S. Bancorp and Visa, though Parslow said the partners are "talking to a number of banks today" about taking equity positions or participating as nonequity partners.
The venture is starting out with 550 employees, primarily from U.S. Bancorp, along with the operational and technological infrastructure, and PowerTrack's intellectual property, which Abele said includes 30 patents. Parslow said Visa has made a capital investment in the venture, but would not say how much.
Syncada is based in Minneapolis, where most of the employees are located, but also will have operations in Chicago, Toronto, Brussels, Mumbai and Memphis.
Richard G. Langer, a senior vice president at U.S. Bancorp and the longtime general manager of PowerTrack, has been named chief operating officer of Syncada.
Nancy Atkinson, a senior analyst at the research and advisory firm Aite Group LLC, said the combination of U.S. Bancorp's long experience in the business and Visa's global reach would make Syncada a strong competitor.
"It could be a significant market changer, especially for the card markets," Atkinson said.
Other contenders lack the integration to make their offerings entirely compelling to corporate clients, she said. For instance, JPMorgan Chase has both e-payment and logistics capabilities through its Xign network and the trade management firm Vastera Inc., which it bought in 2005, but they largely operate as discrete businesses, she said.
The Amex system, by contrast, is largely a supplier-centric invoicing network, Atkinson said.
"In the last three to five years, it's the payables side of companies that are driving this," she said, noting that corporate buyers have more clout to enlist their supplier networks into supply-chain systems than suppliers have with their customers.
Parslow said that business-to-business payments could generate $300 billion in annual revenue for the financial industry, an opportunity that is largely untapped. "There's plenty of headroom for Visa, U.S. Bank and other financial institutions to increase our collective commercial and revenues in this space."