After arranging to scale back its exclusive processing agreement with MasterCard International, Checkfree Corp. has been quietly positioning itself to sell its electronic bill payment processing services to the industry at large.
For the past two years Columbus, Ohio-based Checkfree has processed almost exclusively for financial institution members of MasterCard's home banking program, known as MasterBanking.
The arrangement - a result of a deal struck in 1992 - gave Checkfree sole processing rights to about 400,000 electronic bill payments a month, hailing from 34 MasterBanking institutions.
But Checkfree officials, apparently convinced that they can get more business on open market, decided late last year to modify the MasterBanking arrangement. Starting tomorrow, Checkfree will be allowed to strike up its own deals with banks.
Having MasterCard as the sole distribution channel for Checkfree's services was "more limiting than anticipated," said Hugh H. Fraser, the director of wholesale banking for Checkfree.
Neither Mr. Fraser nor MasterCard officials would disclose more specifics about the revised deal.
However, the one change made public is a sign of how active the home banking market is expected to become in the next few years. Alluding to that anticipated activity, Mr. Fraser predicted that Checkfree would have about 100 financial institution customers by year's end.
Checkfree has been positioning itself to attract business from banks for several months.
Two weeks ago it made its first big marketing splash in two years, at the home banking forum sponsored by Faulkner & Gray.
"The mere fact that we're here is a de facto announcement that Checkfree is ready to do business with the banking industry," Mr. Fraser said at the conference.
In April, Checkfree formed an alliance with Fitech Inc., a Heathrow, Fla.-based provider of home banking software and services. Through this deal Checkfree expects to gain entry into the community banking market.
A month before that agreement was inked, Checkfree moved to expand an agreement with Society National Bank of Cleveland, a unit of Keycorp. The new deal involved bill payment services via screen telephones.
Checkfree will also start flexing it remittance processing muscles later this year, Mr. Fraser said, putting it into competition with partner MasterCard, which also does remittance processing for banks.
Through these varied actions, Checkfree is "grasping for life ... trying to reposition itself" in anticipation of the fast-approaching home banking boom, said Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications, a Bethesda, Md.- based consulting firm.
He said Checkfree was trying to spread its wings even though the bill payment business remains fairly stagnant.
One of the major factors driving Checkfree's decision to expand its range of alliances and activities is the likely loss of this summer of processing business from Intuit Inc.
The long-standing contract between the bill payment processor and the software company that has cornered the personal finance market with its Quicken product will reported not be renewed after it expires in the next couple of months.
Although Checkfree has a wide array of other banks and software companies as customers, the Quicken transactions were said at one time to account for the lion's share of Checkfree's processing business.
In an earlier interview, William Lane, the chief financial officer for Intuit, estimated that his company's business amounted to as much as three- quarters of Checkfree transaction volume. Mr. Fraser called such estimates exaggerated but did not offer figures to refute Mr. Lane's claims.
Since last August, when Intuit purchased its own processor, National Payment Clearinghouse Inc., the software company has been reducing its reliance on Checkfree. Earlier this year, Checkfree sued NPCI for infringement of its bill payment processing patent. The suit was reportedly settled out of court.