Peter J. Kight, chief executive officer of Checkfree Corp., makes two predictions about on-line banking.

He says that 1996 will be remembered as the year banks learned the power of the technology, and that the number of consumers banking through electronic channels will more than triple in 1997.

The statements carry more weight than they would have a year ago, because Mr. Kight's company has transformed itself into a formidable force in the interactive banking market.

Once known primarily as a processor of electronic bill payments, Checkfree has acquired four companies this year, giving it a soup-to-nuts line of electronic banking products and services.

Behind the acquisitions lies Mr. Kight's vision of banking's future. "Every major bank in the country will be in the market with an electronic banking product within the next 18 months," Mr. Kight said. "It's following exactly the same curve as credit cards."

For Mr. Kight, these developments represent the culmination of 15 years of hard work.

Just last week, Checkfree announced an agreement to acquire the processing subsidiary of Intuit Inc., which will give it access to the latter company's Quicken product, its customers, and bank partners.

"This is what I paid my dues for," Mr. Kight said. "This is what we built the company to do."

On Wednesday, Checkfree announced partnerships with BellSouth, Capstead Mortgage Co., and the Small Business Administration. The arrangements will let the companies and the agency collect bill payments electronically.

Mr. Kight founded Columbus, Ohio-based Checkfree in 1981, when he was 24. The previous year, he was managing a chain of fitness centers in the Southwest. While pondering the best way to sell health club memberships, he hit upon the concept of automatic monthly payments.

At the time, only a handful of companies - most of them insurance providers - were collecting payments electronically.

By 1982, a year after he set up his electronic funds transfer service company, Mr. Kight was named an "entrepreneur of the year" by Ernst & Young. Last year, Checkfree went public.

This year the company has acquired Servantis Systems Inc. in Atlanta; Interactive Services Corp. in Portland, Ore.; Security APL in Bloomfield, Ill.; and Intuit Services in Downers Grove, Ill.

"Each step, if you look at it, has been one to strengthen our position and our strategic capabilities," Mr. Kight said.

Checkfree has kept its headquarters in Ohio, but the acquisition of Servantis' campuslike setting in Atlanta has begged the question of whether the offices might move. Intuit Services employees will remain in Illinois, where the work force likely will expand.

Mr. Kight, 40, divides his time between Atlanta and Columbus and said he will decide within a year whether to initiate a formal move.

The union of Checkfree and Intuit Services is something of a remarriage. Checkfree was the original processor of payments emanating from Quicken software before Intuit Inc. acquired National Payment Clearinghouse Inc. National designed the banking connections for the rival Microsoft Money personal finance package, and the rechristened Intuit Services Corp. went on to handle the lion's share of payments for PC banking customers.

"Essentially, Intuit enabled Checkfree to really prove the efficacy of electronic bill payment," Mr. Kight said of the early days. "If it hadn't been for Intuit and the link of Checkfree and Quicken, we wouldn't have gotten to the point where we could prove to the banks that this really does work.

"Even though the banks didn't like the fact that we and Intuit did that without them, at the time, they weren't doing it. So what we did is we proved it, to get them to pay attention."

What followed was a fairly messy divorce, in which Intuit withdrew its business from Checkfree, and Checkfree sued Intuit for patent infringement.

Mr. Kight said he managed to stay friendly with key Intuit executives. He and Scott Cook, Intuit's founder and chairman, had "a great deal of mutual respect," he said.

The relationships proved central to the recent acquisition. A telephone call at the beginning of this year from Mr. Kight to Intuit chief executive officer William V. Campbell started the ball rolling.

Mr. Kight said a news article about technology companies jockeying for position in electronic commerce prompted him to pick up the phone.

He said he told Mr. Campbell: "You've got stress at your bill payment service, but you're growing like crazy. I'm growing like crazy. You're signing up banks, I'm signing up even more banks. Maybe if we work together ... and he said, 'I think you're right.' And that started it."

Mr. Kight said he and Mr. Cook agreed each company would do best to focus on its core competency: Checkfree on transaction processing, Intuit on its software.

"Part of Intuit's strategy didn't work too well, which was signing up more banks" for its processing service, Mr. Kight said. "But part of its strategy worked extremely well - the power of Quicken working with the banks."

The acquisition will boost Checkfree's bank customers to 181, and the number of individuals for whom it processes transactions to 1.2 million.

Seeing 1996 as a turning point, Mr. Kight said he hopes bankers will accelerate their moves into electronic banking now that they have easier access to Quicken.

Until now, banks that wanted to be compatible with Quicken had to become customers of Intuit Services.

Checkfree's main competitor today is Visa Interactive. Looming on the horizon is Integrion Financial Network, a partnership of 15 banks and IBM.

"Right now, we're 100% supportive of Integrion, but to the extent that Integrion chooses to work in our business, we'll be very tough competitors," Mr. Kight said.

Mr. Kight and numerous industry observers are still trying to make sense of Integrion. Phoebe Simpson, an electronic commerce analyst at Jupiter Communications in New York, said: "It's going to boil down to Checkfree and Visa Interactive in the long run. It's yet to be determined whether Integrion plans to build an entire payment processing unit."

But David E. Weisman, who covers the same ground for Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., said it will be a three-way race.

He said "Checkfree's in good position here because they've got more volume" than Visa or Integrion.

John A. Russell, chief spokesman for Integrion member Banc One Corp. in Columbus, Ohio, called the Intuit acquisition a "good move" for Checkfree - of which Banc One is a longtime customer - as well as a competitive boost.

"It's key for Checkfree to do exactly what they're doing, and that's to get big quickly so they can realize the economies of scale in this manufacturing process," he said.

Mr. Kight agreed that such economies of scale would serve his company well as on-line banking gains vogue.

"I don't believe that the Internet is going to happen quite as fast as the Internet-focused people believe it's going to," Mr. Kight said.

"I think there's going to be a trend toward banks providing more service to their customers (when they) can connect directly to the bank without the Web being involved. I think we're going to see that evolution over the next three or four years."

But, Mr. Kight added, "I do believe that electronic banking is absolutely on a critical mass-adoption curve as we speak."

Success and growth haven't changed Mr. Kight's down-to-business mentality. When asked how he celebrated last week's deal closing, Mr. Kight said, "By getting on a plane and flying to Chicago to meet with the ISC work force."

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