William H. Harris is not harboring visions of sweeping change as he settles into his position as president and chief executive officer of Intuit Inc.
"We seem to be hitting all cylinders," said Mr. Harris, who in August was promoted to head the company best known for Quicken, its market-leading personal financial management software. "My job is to make sure that I don't drive the car off the road."
His position among financial services firms is especially precarious, as Intuit generates both respect and ire in the banking community. Mr. Harris, 42, must walk a fine line between those banks attracted to the prospect of distributing products through Intuit's growing network of financial Web sites and those that disdain the practice.
About a dozen financial institutions participate in each of Intuit's Web sites for on-line mortgages, insurance, small-business loans, and investment services. Intuit also has relationships with 61 banks that offer its Quicken personal financial management software and 23 that offer a more streamlined version, Bank Now.
The company earns 60% of its revenues selling tax and accounting software, such as TurboTax and QuickBooks, to small businesses.
Intuit is on an upward track, though it reported a net loss in the fiscal year that ended June 30 because of a $400 million acquisition of Lacerte Software Corp., a Dallas-based developer of tax software for professionals. On a pro forma basis, the year's earnings were $46.7 million, 38% higher than the prior year.
Paul Harrison, CEO of the bank-owned Meca Software, describes the line Mr. Harris is walking this way:
"Bill is genuinely committed to working with financial institutions, because he believes it is important to the future of his business. But he has a serious challenge, because he is a $650 million public company with virtually no revenues generated by the financial services industry."
Mr. Harris acknowledged the challenge of putting resources into pleasing an industry that plays a somewhat tangential role to generating its profits. He said the company has been very focused on consumers but may not have put nearly enough effort into satisfying banks.
Pleasing banks is increasingly important as Intuit relies more heavily on them to execute its strategy of reaching more consumers through the Internet.
That is one relationship that cannot be developed easily overnight," he said. "We need to put just as much energy into understanding" banks as the notoriously consumer-oriented company puts into understanding consumers.
But bankers and industry observers who work with them are still divided on whether Intuit is friend or foe.
"I don't know anyone that is more threatening to financial services' view of what they want to do than Intuit," said an official at one technology company, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The kinder, gentler Intuit is more sensitive to banks' interests," the official said. "But at the end of the day, it is effectively becoming a financial institution" through its cultivation of consumers' trust.
What Intuit is doing "is all about financial services, asset management, asset allocation," said Gary Meshell, executive vice president of Benton International, a wholly owned subsidiary of Perot Systems Corp. "It continues to amaze me that banks give their rates to a set of consumers who self-select on nothing but price," he said.
Financial institutions that have worked with Intuit disagree that it is out to steal their customers.
"I believe that Intuit is recognizing that the banks are the portal to the consumers and that Intuit is not able to do it on its own," said Patrick J. Swanick, executive vice president of KeyCorp's electronic commerce group.
Intuit draws "valuable customers, and as long as the Key brand continues to be dominant, that is a win-win for banks, Intuit, and consumers," said Mr. Swanick.
As Mr. Harris navigates the changing tides of banks' sentiments, he has no intention of following paths blazed by Intuit's two previous chief executive officers. These leaders successfully linked contemporary technology with trends in consumer behavior, Mr. Harris said.
Founder Scott D. Cook combined his insight of consumers' hatred for balancing checkbooks, with the proliferation of personal computers in the 1980s. William V. Campbell led the effort to provide on-line banking through Quicken, soon after he took the company's reins in 1994.
Mr. Cook is now chairman of Intuit's executive committee. Since Mr. Harris' appointment in August, Mr. Campbell has become chairman of the company, filling the role Mr. Cook previously held.
Mr. Harris came to Intuit as the chief operating officer of San Diego- based ChipSoft Inc., when it was acquired by Intuit in 1992. He intends to make his mark by latching onto the Internet's growing influence.
Intuit has abandoned its strategy of generating revenues through on-line banking agreements with banks. This change in direction was cemented when Intuit sold its Intuit Services Corp. payment processor to Checkfree Corp. last year. In addition, selling copies and upgrades of Quicken is no longer seen as the backbone of the company's future.
Intuit now is a "software toolmaker in search of a business model," Mr. Harris quipped at a recent conference on the future of financial services.
"Everything is changed in the connected world," he elaborated from a utilitarian conference room at the company's Mountain View, Calif.-based headquarters.
"We are in the process of adopting our desktop products to the connected world and building entirely new products," he said.
An example includes an electronic tax filing service that lets individuals calculate their 1998 federal income tax using an on-line version of the 1040 form. For a $10 fee, they can electronically transmit the return to the federal government.
Intuit's formal Web strategy has three prongs. The company intends to generate advertising revenue from its well-trafficked quicken.com Web site. It also will earn transaction fees by aggregating on-line financial products such as mortgages and insurance. And it will charge banks that want to use portions of the Quicken software on their Web sites.
Mr. Harris has been involved in honing Intuit's Internet strategy for some time. As Intuit's executive vice president, he led negotiations to acquire Galt Technologies Inc., an early provider of investment information, and Interactive Insurance Services Corp. in 1996. More recently, he struck deals to distribute quicken.com through America Online, Excite, and CNN's financial news Web site.
Whatever the future holds, Mr. Harris appears up to the challenge. Throughout his career, he has relished the chance to use technology to enhance information. After graduating from Middlebury College and the Harvard Business School, he spent the next decade working for Time Inc. and U.S. News and World Report. During this time, he received a patent for developing a computerized mechanism for customizing mass-circulation magazines.
It is clear he is not in unfamiliar territory when it comes to treading fine lines.
"Software and the information business were on a collision course," he said.
"Few people in the information business appreciated technology, while few people in technology appreciated the need for marketing a project."