Block Financial Corp. is back.
The H&R Block software subsidiary had faded from the home banking picture after it completed the sale last year of Meca Software Inc. to BankAmerica Corp. and NationsBank Corp.
Now the Kansas City, Mo., unit has returned with a program aimed at bringing community banks into the age of the Internet.
Through a Web site called Conductor, Block is offering banks a utility to provide account access, bill payments, and connections to other on-line services.
Its marketing focus squarely on community banks, Block Financial does not expect to compete directly with the Meca's Managing Your Money product, now controlled by five major banks.
Instead, it will offer community banks the kind of transactional Web capabilities employed by about a half-dozen leading-edge banks. Unlike most of those sites, however, Conductor hopes to offer consumers a bundle of financial information from a variety of sources and financial institutions.
"When it comes to service, I believe that community banks will always have a real function that big banks can't match," said William P. Anderson, president of Block Financial. "But when they try to get Intuit, Microsoft, or Meca on the telephone, they don't call you back.
"We concluded that we would go to the smaller market - community banks and other financial services," he said.
On-line credit card accounts have been available on the Conductor Web site since January. Through a recent alliance with the data-processing and software company Jack Henry & Associates, next month Conductor will begin offering real-time access to checking accounts at participating banks.
Also in September, customers of any financial institution will be able to pay bills electronically from the site.
Block Financial is negotiating with financial news agencies and mutual fund and insurance companies to provide additional services, Mr. Anderson said.
Conductor's flexible Internet package can provide a bank with full transactional capabilities for less than $50,000, said Michael E. Henry, chairman of chief executive of Monett, Mo.-based Jack Henry & Associates.
Speaking about his company's 1,240 bank customers, Mr. Henry said, "From the last two years of listening, we feel this really is the direction they want to go."
"It allows our customers a local option while providing them with a convenience that the big banks are beginning to offer," said Stephen F. Christy, president and chief executive of Mascoma Savings Bank in Lebanon, N.H. His $350-million-asset bank will be the first to offer home banking through Conductor.
"Like a lot of banks, we have a spent a fair among of money on technology, and this seems to have interest to our customer base, Mr. Christy said. "It allows them to conduct business from wherever they want."
Block Financial's reentry into home banking market comes at a time of jockeying for position on all sides.
In addition to home banking connections through Microsoft, Intuit and Meca - the three largest providers of personal financial software - megabanks including BankAmerica Corp., Wells Fargo & Co., and First Union Corp. are offering full-service home banking through Web sites and through the major on-line computer services.
In addition, Security First Network Bank and its sister software company Five Paces Inc., creators of the first FDIC-backed Internet bank, are seeking to license their model and sell consulting services to large and midsize banks.
"H&R Block left an opportunity on the table when they neglected to recognize that home banking will be the real driving force in the future," said Daniel M. Schley, chairman and chief executive officer of Home Financial Network, a Westport, Conn., company providing Web-based financial services for banks.
Chairman of Meca Software when owned by H&R Block, Mr. Schley said he resigned because of a lack of commitment by the parent company to personal financial products.
"The 1980s model was to provide an integrated personal finance manager and maybe allow people to pay some bills," Mr. Schley said. "But the future lies with electronic transaction engines that also allow some analytical tools on the side. My impression is that Conductor's emphasis on transaction processing adheres pretty well to this view of the future."