When CheckFree was the first company pushing Internet banking and billpay back in the 80s and 90s, founder Pete Kight remembers telling his team, "Remember, if you're in a room with 20 bank CEOs, and someone wheels in a table with a 'Way Back' button in the middle that could take banking back to the pre-Internet era, of the 20 banks in the room, all 20 of them would dive at that 'Way Back' button."
And yet Kight persisted. From the time he founded CheckFree in 1983 until he sold the company to Fiserv for $4.4 billion in 2007, Kight was one of the primary instigators of the Internet banking revolution. "The truth is the banking industry at its leadership level never actually wanted us to do what we did," he says. "The Internet, and electronic payments, and automating this whole area-at the end of the day for the C-level it was all just risk. It was all just dramatic change that exposed the banks to risks they weren't in a great position to be able to manage or defend because that's not their culture."
On March 31 Kight officially ends his tenure as vice-chair of Fiserv, though he'll stay on the board. Looking back, there are two things he's particularly proud from his CheckFree days: that the company repeatedly bet the farm "and was right" on what they saw as the way to go in consumer payments, and his ability to convince banks to sign on to his vision for Internet banking and payments. Kight recalls telling skeptical bankers, "I promise I won't do a Visa/Mastercard or Intel inside. Trust me, we won't steal this from you, consumers want it from you, not from me."
Things have come a long way, but the risk of disintermediation by faster moving non-bank competitors remains. That's because the industry's overall technology risk posture hasn't changed, Kight says. The operations and technology folks are still fairly disconnected from the C-suite, and banks cling to outmoded processes and bureaucracy. A current example? Consumers would love to have direct DDA payments from mobile devices, but banks all around are reluctant to embrace the model. This feels like the head-in-the-sand mentality that Kight saw 15 years ago when he warned about the 'Way Back' button. "I would love to see the banks develop more of a culture of, 'Let's take that risk, let's be the first to try this. Let's be first in this area because it's what our customers want us to do."
Pete Kight made thoughtful risk-taking and innovation part of CheckFree's DNA; in doing so he created much of what constitutes retail banking today. For this he's earned the industry's gratitude and recognition. And he's not retiring. The private equity firm he's involved with has already made acquisitions in the payments space. With any luck he'll continue to lead the industry into innovation from that vantage point.