It wasn't exactly a showdown.

In fact, the dream team panel of five technology outsourcing firms that convened Monday at the Solutions '96 conference in San Antonio was downright civil. The participants found common ground in their efforts to develop stronger partnerships with banks and reach beyond their classic roles as core account processors.

The roundtable session marked the first time the top five -Alltel Information Services Inc., Bisys Group Inc., Electronic Data Systems Corp., Firserv Inc., and M&I Data Services Inc. - have squared off on a conference dais.

The main competition between these fierce rivals in the world of back- office services was to see who could be the most polite.

But some panelists could not resist a little gentle repartee.

"I used to walk into a bank and look at the sign-in logs to see if one of these guys had come in before me or if they were scheduled to come after me," quipped Leslie Muma, president of Milwaukee-based Fiserv.

Once the panel got down to business, the executives said that longer- term alliances - especially with the largest banks - will be the key to the growth of the outsourcing business over the next decade.

Such arrangements include more flexible service contracts, more flexible pricing, and more intimate collaboration with senior-level bank executives.

Members of the panel expressed confidence that their companies are well positioned for the coming years.

"Banks will become more integrators and distributors of products rather than product producers," said Collins Andrews, president of Little Rock- based Alltel. "We will become a strategic necessity."

A question from the audience regarding the near-term availability of Internet-related services prompted the most animated discussion. Opinions were mixed on who would ultimately control the direction of on-line banking - banks, outsourcing firms, or consumers.

"You're going to take us where you want us to go," Mr. Muma told the audience.

His response was quickly countered by Coley Clark, group executive and corporate vice president of Plano, Tex.-based EDS. "We may not know where we're going, but we have an obligation to make sure that every financial institution in the country stays in the mainstream."

After some debate, Joseph Delgadillo, president and chief operating officer at M&I Data, a Marshall & Ilsley Corp. subsidiary in Brown Deer, Wis., summed up the panel's conclusion: Ultimately, consumers will decide the best solution, and their opinion will drive the services that both banks and outsourcers offer.

Beyond Internet issues, panel members discussed how consulting services are making up a larger part of each of their businesses.

"We try to cultivate long-term relationships in which the boundaries between us and the bank are hard to see," Mr. Andrews said.

Bankers gathered over cocktails in the exhibit hall following the session agreed that the quality of consulting services often determined which outsourcing firm they signed deals with.

But a few bankers said the firms' focus on large banks might be misguided.

"You have to wonder whether the large banks are really their market," said Richard Ercole, president of Huntington Treasury Management Co., a unit of Columbus, Ohio-based Huntington Bancshares.

He said the firms might not be able to offer the array of services with the speed that would satisfy the needs of larger banks. Their efforts might be better aimed at community institutions, he said.

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