Intuit Inc., maker of the popular Quicken line of personal computer software, has moved to strengthen its banking industry ties by acquiring a leading bill-payment processor.

Intuit said Monday that it had agreed to buy National Payment Clearinghouse Inc. of Downers Grove, Ill., for $6.8 million in stock.

The processor, known as NPCI, has a relatively high profile in the emerging home banking field, primarily through an alliance with Microsoft Corp., the most powerful of personal-computer software companies.

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Butting Heads

Ironically, Intuit and Microsoft are butting heads in the fast-growing market for personal money-management software, but the companies' potential interconnection through NPCI is not unusual amid the corporate jockeying for position along the vaunted information superhighway.

Intuit's pending acquisition merely adds another layer of complexity to the increasingly complex web of alliances and partnerships among the financial institutions, credit card associations, equipment manufacturers, and software providers in the superhighway's banking lanes.

Intuit has appeared to be among the most opportunistic. Its Quicken packages are more widely distributed with personal computers than Microsoft's more recently introduced product, and Intuit plays a key role in Visa U.S.A.'s home banking program.

Intuit is also testing the waters of retailing, payment processing, and personal finance via interactive television with EON Corp. of Reston, Va.

Microsoft, meanwhile, has an initial group of three banks -- First National Bank of Chicago, Michigan National Bank, and U.S. Bank of Oregon -- offering banking services to users of the Microsoft Money PC program. NPCI eletronically links the banks and the software users.

Quick About-Face

NPCI's chairman and chief executive officer, Bruce Burchfield, gave Microsoft a strong endorsement last year when he helped craft the software giant's banking alliance. And now Intuit, about which Mr. Burchfield was less enthusiastic in conversations last year, is buying him out.

Sources said NPCI had rejected a buyout offer from Microsoft before accepting Intuit's. A recent Newsweek article, making note of Microsoft's failings in the financial management segment, mentioned chairman Bill Gates' intention to buy a "small check-clearing outfit."

But the Chicago-area payment processor will be a subsidiary of Intuit, with Mr. Burchfield keeping his titles and Alex Sarelas remaining president and chief operating officer.

"I'm pleased that Intuit has agreed to make us their standard for electronic banking," Mr. Burchfield said.

Experience Was the Draw

NPCI's banking expertise and relationships -- many attributable to Mr. Burchfield's experience at First Chicago Corp. and MasterCard International's Cirrus automated teller network -- attracted Intuit's interest, said Scott Cook, chairman of the Menlo Park, Calif., software company.

"NPCI is a proven leader in PC-based banking and the only independent company that lets consumers access their bank accounts electronically with their PCs," Mr. Cook said. "This acquisition is a significant step forward in Intuit's commitment to provide the banking industry with the electronic banking system that consumers prefer most."

Mr. Burchfield said NPCI will have no problems continuing its relationship with Microsoft. "We're absolutely committed to supporting Microsoft Money," he said, adding that his bank customers are responding positively to the Intuit deal.

Nonexclusive Relationship

"We're extremely pleased with Microsoft and their product," said Rick Comandich, senior vice president and manager of convenience banking at U.S. Bank. "But we've made it clear all along that we were going to work with other vendors, just like they made it clear they were going to work with other banks."

The banks will be able to offer their customers access to Quicken software, which Intuit officials say has 70% of the personal finance market.

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