Automated collections have emerged as an important growth opportunity for the banking vendor Online Resources Corp., but the long-term gains may not come fast enough to satisfy a dissident shareholder who is taking an increasingly active role in its management.
Six of the top 12 card issuers use the company's collections service or are planning to do so, which is why it expects to deliver significant revenue gains — in 2011.
But near-term performance is subpar, and resulted in a management shake-up.
Online Resources cut its earnings forecast Tuesday as it announced the abrupt departure of founder, chairman and chief executive Matthew P. Lawlor, who lost a proxy battle in April with Tennenbaum Capital Partners LLC, a hedge fund that then seated its own slate of directors.
Online Resources cast Lawlor's departure as a retirement, but analysts said they suspected it had more to do with the company's weak performance.
"The trends are still not that great. I don't think Matt would necessarily be retiring if the fundamentals were better," said Thomas McCrohan, an analyst at the Philadelphia investment bank Janney Montgomery Scott LLC.
The lower fourth-quarter guidance is the latest example of a long-standing problem at Online Resources, McCrohan said. "The trend has been disappointing results and extreme, off the charts enthusiasm about the pipeline."
Raymond T. Crosier, the Chantilly, Va., company's president and chief operating officer, who was named interim CEO, conceded that the increased collections "will be a 2011 revenue story."
Most of the big issuer clients have signed up this year, hoping to boost revenue as the poor economy has increased delinquencies, Crosier said. "We'll get many of them lit up in 2010."
Online Resources' Virtual Collection Agent is an automated service that sends e-mail notices to past-due borrowers and encourages them to go online to pay overdue bills. The approach is both less costly than using call-center operators to pursue debtors and less confrontational, and Crosier said it can yield higher payments, often for debts that have been written off.
Most of the collections clients prefer not to be identified, but Online Resources said during its third-quarter earnings call in October that Citigroup Inc. has agreed to use the service.
Besides credit card collections, the New York banking company has also tested the collections service with a handful of other lending products, Crosier said in an interview Tuesday, though he would not provide any other details. (Citi did not provide an executive for an interview.)
Another Virtual Collection Agent client announced in October is the health insurer WellPoint Inc.
Customers were able in November to collect $35 million in debt that already had been charged off, Crosier said. "That's like finding free money."
John Dorman, one of the directors who had been backed by Tennenbaum earlier this year, led a conference call with analysts Tuesday to discuss Online Resources' strategy.
Dorman highlighted collections as a long-term bright spot, and said he expected increased demand next year for the company's online banking and bill-pay software.
He noted that almost all of Online Resources's competitors are now part of larger companies. Its most direct rival, and Dorman's former employer, Digital Insight Corp., was acquired in February 2007 by Intuit Inc. of Mountain View, Calif.
"We are the largest provider focusing exclusively on the online delivery channel," Dorman said. "There are plenty of institutions that would prefer a best-of-breed independent provider rather than their core processor."
Tennenbaum said in February that it had accumulated 21.9% of Online Resources' stock, and has continued to increase its stake. It reported in a regulatory filing last week that it acquired 365,500 shares of the company's common stock for $1.9 million, in a series of transactions from mid-November to December. Tennenbaum said it now controls 8.4 million shares, 24.3% of the total.
Dorman said he, Crosier and Barry D. Wessler, a director since 2000, would oversee the transition and seek a new CEO. Lawlor will remain as chairman until Feb. 15, and serve as a director after that, Dorman said.
Online Resources said it expects its fourth-quarter net loss to be 2 cents to 3 cents a share, rather than the 2-cent loss to break-even forecast in late October.