It might be considered an eight-year warm-up to enter the most competitive economy in the world. After settling comfortably throughout Asia, Africa and Europe, India-based i-flex solutions ltd. now is ready to tackle the United States.

Having established a global presence, the once-fledgling software company appears confident of a warm reception in the U.S. banking market-a sector crowded with technology solutions providers that would love to eat the new guy's lunch before i-flex can establish a foothold.

The small group of i-flex consultants who have set up shop in New Jersey are determined to prevent that from happening. They're working quickly to launch the company's products in the United States.

Will they be successful? If experience in the financial services sector is an indicator, the answer could be a resounding "yes." But, again, winning the business of America's large and technologically sophisticated institutions is never a given. The competition is simply too abundant.

When i-flex grew out of Citicorp Overseas Software Limited (CITIL), an affiliate of Citigroup, its senior managers opted to focus not so much on cost effectiveness, but rather on "value and expertise," says Chief Executive Officer R. Ravisakar.

The advantages of creating products and services at competitive price levels will disappear over time, the CEO contends. Instead, it's his company's knowledgeable employees, most of whom have experience in the financial services sector, that will make i-flex a viable competitor in the United States, Ravisakar says.

In fact, he believes i-flex may possess an advantage over similar companies because it is "the only vendor that is truly global." With such a strong presence in European, Asian and African markets, i-flex has built a diverse clientele.

Customers include both large and small businesses, with varying degrees of IT in place. Its global footprint also means i-flex has experience with "turbulence in the economy"-a characteristic that is likely to come in handy given the timing of i-flex's launch in the United States.

Ravisakar believes that with such a varied international presence, i-flex in the United States will not be hindered by rocky overseas economies-in Africa, for example. A less global competitor, he says, might be negatively affected by tough times in any one of its major markets.

But, while that stability may be a key strength for i-flex, it doesn't change the fact that the company has chosen to enter the toughest market for bank technology in the world. I-flex's success in other markets certainly bodes well for its prospects in the United States, but the company will still have to prove to American bankers that it can deliver value-here and now.

The CEO is confident that his company can do just that. Whether a potential U.S. client is interested in data warehousing, Internet-related technologies, wireless banking or CRM, Ravisakar says, the customer will find that i-flex products, as well as its people, are on the leading edge.

In citing the company's human resources as a major strength, Ravisakar notes that i-flex programmers are not only skilled technicians but many are former bankers as well. Their experience in financial services enables the company's staff to talk knowledgeably with customers about the imperative of "being better than the bank across the street."

For better or for worse, i-flex was, in its younger days, known as CITIL. Eventually, the company began to see the association with Citibank as a negative, according to an industry analyst, and i-flex executives decided to change the name.

The Citibank association was something of "a double-edged sword," says Kimberly Collins, a senior analyst with Gartner.

"What Citibank did at the start of their business was give them a reputable name," Collins says, "but, at the same time, it left potential clients wondering, 'Are you a bank or are you a software company?'"

These days, Collins points out that "Citibank gives [i-flex] a referenceable client"-and a well-known reference at that. Citibank apparently holds no hard feelings, as Citibank International recently adopted Flexcube, i-flex's flagship product (see chart), which currently is being launched by Citibank in more than 90 countries.

Citibank's support for i-flex undoubtedly will catch the attention of other institutions.

I-flex's business relationships with some well-known players in the technology industry also should assist the company in its U.S. debut. Ravisakar says i-flex has worked hard to "build relationships with partners" in the United States.

Soon, the chief executive says, i-flex will introduce an extensive suite of products, in addition to IT services, in the United States. He says the Flexcube suite addresses virtually all areas of financial technology, including applications for retail and corporate banking, investor services and brokerage operations.

Beyond end-to-end banking solutions, i-flex offers a range of services in operations the company has dubbed its "Centers of Excellence." The centers focus on the development of complete solutions in particular areas-from concept and design to final deployment. Among other technologies, i-flex Centers of Excellence currently are focused on CRM and data warehousing efforts.

Gartner's Collins believes the centers represent a genuine "competitive differentiator" for i-flex, at least in the short term. "As companies are increasingly pressured to help validate their solutions in the market," proving grounds such as the i-flex Centers of Excellence "will become a competitive requirement."

Particularly in areas such as CRM, where the potential return on the IT investment is "soft, rather than hard"-at least until the technology has been in place for some time-Collins believes the i-flex development centers can be especially helpful. To make a real difference for i-flex, however, Collins says the Centers of Excellence will have to be impeccably organized and "provide the right kind of value to potential clients."

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