Mr. Aubrook is an atypical firebrand, a soft-spoken Briton of patrician bearing and formal turns of phrase. But since his appointment early this year as chief executive officer, he has articulated a strategy and a focus that the Atlanta-based operation had previously been groping for. MDS has had its critics, including ex-employees who left the company in disgust or impatience as its parent, the CCN Group, tightened its grip in recent years. Mr. Aubrook and a reconstituted management team are writing a more positive scenario. They see MDS - now the MDS division of the Nottingham, England-based CCN Group - making its mark as something other than an also-ran to Fair, Isaac & Co. in the fast-growing market for tools that aid in lending and marketing decisions. "We just completed another record year, our third, in North America," Mr. Aubrook recently boasted. "And CCN Group had a very good year in the United Kingdom and internationally," posting the equivalent of $155 million in revenue, up about 30%. Characteristically, he chose those words carefully. They not only reflect favorably on CCN and its progress, but they play on its trump card, which is global. At 2,300 employees worldwide, CCN Group has more than twice the staff of California-based Fair, Isaac. If consumer credit and its growth are global phenomena, then CCN believes it has an advantage. "The U.S. is ahead of the rest of the world, but not as far ahead as people here may think," Mr. Aubrook said. As an example, he pointed out that banks in CCN Group strongholds like Britain and Australia are generally better than American institutions at relationship banking - serving customers with multiple accounts. CCN can help with what it has learned in those countries. "There are lots of demand deposit accounts in the U.S., and that means a lot of cross-sell opportunity," Mr. Aubrook said. "The penetration of bank cards is typically 10% to 30% of a bank's DDA base. If you can get that to 50%, you can get a lot more profit from those customers." In other words, CCN is positioning itself for the brave new world of target marketing and customer retention across the entire consumer banking spectrum. "Information is the key to being productive, and you should not be losing your best customers to other providers," Mr. Aubrook said. "The more share of wallet you get, the more likely you are to retain the customer." To be sure, traditional credit scoring is still king, and that is where CCN has the most ground to make up. Fair, Isaac set the standard and dominates that field. CCN has a more diversified business mix that includes consumer credit reporting - it runs the United Kingdom's biggest credit bureau - card processing, and credit training for bankers. Because Fair, Isaac is No. 1 in the United States, the world's biggest credit card and consumer loan market, it automatically claims a leadership position and is as intent on international expansion as CCN Group is on new U.S. opportunities. And Fair, Isaac has a potent data base marketing weapon in its Dynamark subsidiary. With revenues surpassing $100 million, Fair, Isaac is roughly three times the size of the MDS division. MDS, which has 140 employees, in turn dwarfs a number of boutiques that have sprung up and are thriving on a smaller scale, testimony to the growing sophistication of consumer credit and the demand for decision- support systems. Mr. Aubrook strikes a philosophical but aggressive pose - realistic about being No. 2 while searching for growth, including potential acquisitions. "We focus our strategy where we are strong to start with, where we have a strong track record," he said. That includes relationship banking, automobile and captive finance, and telecommunications, with an eye also toward emerging opportunities in mortgages, small business, and the credit union field. But no market segment is more closely tied to CCN Group's past successes or future outlook than retailing. It represents the company's and Mr. Aubrook's roots. The fact that consumer bankers increasingly say they want to be more like retailers may only enhance CCN's prospects. CCN literally grew out of retailing, as a subsidiary of Great Universal Stores PLC. It began as that mail-order merchandiser's in-house credit bureau, and was spun out as an independent business in 1980. That may help explain CCN's close relationship with Sears, Roebuck and Co., which recently gave the company an award for its scoring tools and other aids to profitability. CCN has other star clients including Citicorp, Household International, GE Capital, MBNA Corp., and several software- distribution partners. Mr. Aubrook, 47, has spent 23 years with the Great Universal organization and 25 years in the software-intensive endeavors that he calls "decision systems." With an educational grounding in mathematics, physics, and operations research, he introduced credit scoring to Great Universal Stores in 1974 - in the form of Fair, Isaac models. Mr. Aubrook formally moved over to CCN Group in 1983 and helped meld its "solutions approach" to risk management for financial clients - a combination of credit scoring techniques, software, and consulting. Meanwhile, back in the United States, MDS was established in 1976 by an entrepreneur, the late Bruce Hartley, and two PhDs, Gary G. Chandler and John Y. Coffman. CCN Group bought into the company in 1985. By the time it took 100% control, in 1993, MDS sustained a fair share of turnover . In 1993 John Erskine, fresh from building a successful Asia- Pacific base of operations in Melbourne, Australia, was named president of the MDS division. Mr. Chandler stayed with CCN/MDS until 1992 and still has close ties. An adjunct research scholar at Purdue University's Credit Research Center, he was a speaker in October at the annual CCN Credit Conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., attended by 300 customers. Mr. Coffman also left in 1992 and in 1994, with MDS veteran Barbara Thornton, opened a competitor, Credit Strategy Management Inc., also in Atlanta. Mr. Erskine, 42, said that when he took over, "profitability was not where it should have been. ... A lot of fundamentals and benchmark processes had to be installed." It was never his intent to "jettison the legacy" of MDS and its brand identity, preserved in the current CCN/MDS name and logo. But he acknowledged that his infusion of CCN culture was not universally applauded. "A change in the way a company does business leads some people to leave, but others are recharged and energized," he said. There is still a core of energized veterans, like J. Stephen Darsie, senior vice president for small-business and installment loan products, who dates back to 1977. But there is a newer generation of senior managers, typified by vice president Robert J. Scopa and executive vice president James F. Huling, who in less than two years have placed firm stamps and enthusiastic styles on the company's marketing and technology, respectively. "The turnover is down, and most of those problems are behind us," Mr. Aubrook said. Not least in Mr. Huling's area, which employs 48 people in software alone, a field notorious for turnover. "There is a good talent pool in the Atlanta area, and some big companies like Delta Airlines, UPS, Holiday Inns," Mr. Huling said. "But a smaller organization is more attractive and more fun to a lot of these people. They find that at CCN, as well as a chance to be on the leading edge of technology." It will stay that way as long as Mr. Aubrook has anything to say about it. "My drive is to improve the technology, the software, the scoring, the total solutions for clients," Mr. Aubrook said. "My role is very much about vision, leading the development groups, and client relationships, which are extremely important to us. I am not an operations manager - John is the operational manager for the U.S." Mr. Erskine claims credit for Mr. Aubrook's involvement. Mr. Aubrook had long been part of the CCN senior management team with Mr. Erskine and John Peace, the deputy chairman, who also served as CEO for North America. Mr. Erskine said he asked for more of a full-time CEO - someone who could address vision issues and strategy while Mr. Erskine executed the business plans - and Mr. Aubrook filled the role as part of his global "decision systems" portfolio. "CCN sees the Americas as a growth opportunity, and I can't go after that without Roger's support from the U.K.," Mr. Erskine said. "With him directly responsible, our market's interests are better served." "I'm excited about the vision and where we are going," said Mr. Huling. "John Erskine changed the culture. Now the rest of us have the luxury of building on that foundation."
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