Fiserv Inc.’s purchase of four check processing centers from Marshall & Ilsley Corp., announced Monday, is less a prelude to an outright merger between the Milwaukee rivals than an indication of how each is approaching the slow-growth business of processing checks, analysts say.

The centers, which are in Iowa, Missouri, and Minnesota and serve 90 financial institutions, add 200 million checks to the 4.5 billion that Brookfield, Wis.-based Fiserv already handles a year through more than 40 centers. The deal leaves M&I, of Milwaukee, with eight centers. The price was not disclosed.

The purchase further establishes Fiserv as a major player in a traditional but still thriving business that requires coast-to-coast processing capabilities and economies of scale to be profitable.

Fiserv, which has built check processing into a $170 million business, said it expects to get an additional $5 million to $6 million of revenue a year from the acquired centers. It has invested heavily in imaging technology and counts J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. as one of its major check imaging customers.

M&I, meanwhile, has not put as much emphasis on check processing. Its check processing business was passed over for inclusion in Metavante, a separate subsidiary M&I created in July to focus on fast-growth technologies. The division remains within the parent company’s support services group.

Check usage is only growing 1% to 2% a year, but Leslie M. Muma, president and chief operating officer of Fiserv, said that is enough to keep it in the game. “We think check processing is a good business to be in over the long haul. Check processing is an integral part of banking.”

The deal raised the specter that a larger merger between Fiserv and M&I, both located in the Milwaukee area, may be in the offing. Consolidation in the bank data processing industry over the years has narrowed the field to only a handful of players, and a merger of these two titans has long been the subject of speculation.

Mr. Muma declined to discuss the possibility of an out-and-out acquisition of M&I or Metavante. Some analysts said they doubted such a deal would happen.

“I would be very surprised if Fiserv made an acquisition of Metavante,” said Craig Peckham, an analyst at Jefferies & Co. “This acquisition is very consistent with the acquisition strategy that we have seen out of Fiserv in the last 25 years. They acquire lots of small companies complementary to their core business to generate operational efficiencies.”

Jon Arfstrom, a financial services analyst at Dain Rauscher Wessels, said the deal is more about the two companies’ check processing strategies than about a larger overture in the works by Fiserv.

“M&I is interested in de-emphasizing their slower-growth businesses, like item processing and check processing, and these data centers were not the highest contracts for them,” he said. Conversely, “Fiserv has developed a lot of scale and will be a winner with the ability to process checks coast-to-coast.”

Mr. Arfstrom predicted that Fiserv, along with the Federal Reserve and Bank of America Corp., will become the largest providers of item processing services. “Item processing is a business that requires scale, and the largest providers are the ones that are going to survive and make money, and for those not willing to spend the money it will be a losing business.”

But M. Arthur Gillis, president of Computer Based Solutions Inc., said there are many logical reasons for Fiserv to merge with Metavante, which withdrew an initial public offering in November.

“Everyone is watching Metavante because of its failure to go public despite its announced intentions, and Fiserv is ready to make a big announcement because they have had so many nickel-and-dime deals in the past few years,” he said.

Michael Hatfield, senior vice president and secretary for M&I, said the company “will probably not” sell the rest of its check processing centers. “The eight centers that remain have significant relationships with the people that we process for at Metavante,” he said.

The ones it sold to Fiserv, he said, do not represent “very many relationships with Metavante or our correspondents.”

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