Industry alliances and cooperation among competitors took center stage at the National Electronic Check Presentment Conference this week.
Hosted in Atlanta by the Bank Administration Institute and the Electronic Check Clearing House Organization, the conference featured a volley of the usual calls for unity in fighting nonbank attempts to capitalize on bankers' investments in the payment system.
"We need more of a commitment to an industrywide, shared vision," said Thomas G. Ash, president and chief executive officer of SunTrust Banks Inc.'s technology unit, SunTrust Service Corp., in his keynote address to the 235 attending.
In contrast to many industry gatherings, the rhetoric of this one was supported with some action: Two vendors of check fraud prevention services, Primary Payment Systems Inc. and Payment Solutions Network Inc., announced an alliance.
Primary Payment, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., has a data base of 64 million checking accounts that banks and merchants can consult when deciding whether to accept a check. The data base draws from 65 financial institutions.
Payment Solutions Network, based in Dallas, offers a variety of network and information services that help banks share account information and fight fraud. Check fraud cost banks an estimated $600 million last year.
The two companies offer some overlapping services, and bankers said the alliance solves the quandary of whether to use one or the other.
The alliance "is an important statement about the noncompetitive nature of combating check fraud," said Leslie Michelassi, senior vice president at Primary Payment.
J.D. "Denny" Carreker, executive director of Payment Solutions, said, "We think this is the kind of thing that's going to happen more and more ... as the industry goes about the electronification process."
Conference speakers and their audiences generally agreed that banks' willingness to share information about checking accounts has improved in recent years.
But one presenter, Wells Fargo & Co.'s Dan Hoke, said lining up partners for electronic presentment of checks is not easy.
Wells has been doing electronic check presentment-the process of electronically exchanging payment data with other banks ahead of the actual paper checks-for about seven years. It has about a dozen electronic check presentment partners.
"Don't pretend when you begin this that you're going to get 25 partners," Mr. Hoke said. "You'll be lucky to get two."
In a panel discussion on the importance of the payment system to banks, David Van L. Taylor, executive vice president of the Bank Administration Institute, said it is imperative that banks work together.
He said banks can control their own destinies when it comes to the payment system and that increased cooperation among banks is helping financial institutions shake the image of lazy, sedentary dinosaurs.
"I prefer to see bankers as velociraptors, chasing these software people around the fields and valleys-and catching them," Mr. Taylor said, eliciting chuckles from the crowd.
Mr. Taylor said his organization has done a study with Payment Systems Inc. of Tampa that estimates annual revenues for intermediaries in payment system activities at $190 billion.
The closing speaker of the conference-Catherine Allen, president and chief executive officer of the Banking Industry Technology Secretariat- stressed that banks must work together if they want to hold onto their slice of this revenue pie.
"If we don't cooperate-both at the bank and industry association level- we're going to be picked apart by nontraditional players," she said.