Somehow, the drudgery of data processing has kept George Dalton young.
At 70, the man who built Fiserv into a pacesetting outsourcer is working as hard as ever-and seems to play just as hard.
The chairman and chief executive officer of Fiserv Inc., Brookfield, Wis., tools around town on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and has been known to drive race cars at more than 100 miles an hour.
Fiserv is exceeding speed limits, too. Last year's revenue, $974 million, was 46 times higher than the $21 million recorded in Fiserv's first year, 1984. The company is currently on pace for $1.1 billion of revenue.
During the last 10 years, Fiserv has grown 692%, according to Computer Based Solutions Inc., Dallas. Much of that can be attributed to acquisitions. It had completed almost 80 through the end of last year, including Information Technology Inc. and Mellon Data Services.
"I would not be here unless I was a risk taker," said Mr. Dalton. "Otherwise we couldn't have become as big as we are in so short a time."
In the past nine years, the company has signed 34% of all outsourcing contracts, more than any other vendor, Computer Based Solutions said. Fiserv has 7,000 financial institutions as customers, 2,300 of them in long-term outsourcing agreements. The processor employs 11,000.
Net income jumped 47% last year, to $90.8 million. As for 1998, the hard-charging Mr. Dalton said, "We are having a good year."
Business is, indeed, booming. There is no longer any shame in banks of substantial size deciding to turn over all or part of their operations to an outside vendor. And a company like Fiserv is seen as dependable in addressing technology uncertainties, such as the year-2000 glitch.
"A lot of people don't know they are not going to make it yet," Mr. Dalton said of the year-2000 hazard. "It's a great business opportunity for us."
Still on the acquisition trail, Fiserv is showing a desire to evolve with banks as they overcome Glass-Steagall hurdles. One of the most important takeovers, Mr. Dalton said, was that of BHC Financial last year for $212 million in stock.
The processor brought Fiserv into the securities clearing business and "sets a whole new image of this company," Mr. Dalton said.
He has traveled a long road to bank technology leadership. After two years at Northwestern University, succeeded by Army service in Panama, Mr. Dalton moved through a multitude of jobs to support a growing family.
He worked for an advertising agency by day and drove cabs at night. He worked weekends as an apprentice butcher, saying, "It was one of those things that as a young boy I thought I was going to be."
A stint as assistant head of tabulating at Celotex Corp., a Chicago manufacturer, proved fortuitous. It led to a job in 1953, at age 25, as head of tabulating at Marine Bank of Milwaukee, which many years later would be bought by Banc One Corp.
"That was the punch-card era; there were no computers," he said. "Back then, the term 'data processing' did not exist."
In 1964 he left Marine to help form Midland Bank of Milwaukee and a subsidiary service bureau, First Data Processing.
Mr. Dalton remained head of data processing operations until 1983, when First Bank System of Minneapolis, which had bought Midland Bank in 1977, decided to withdraw from the business.
The opportunistic Mr. Dalton, through a combination of commercial bank loans and venture capital, raised $18 million to buy Midland Bank's data processing arm.
Also tapping the same venture capital firm at roughly the same time was Les Muma, an employee of Tampa-based Sunshine State Systems, which also was spinning off a service bureau for about $3.5 million.
Mr. Dalton and Mr. Muma, friends since 1971, did not take long to realize the benefits of joining forces in a business influenced by economies of scale. Both buyouts were completed the same day, Friday the 13th, in January 1984.
Luck was on their side, however. The merger of Mr. Dalton's and Mr. Muma's companies was completed July 31 that year, the start of what is now Fiserv.
Mr. Muma, 53, runs the day-to-day operations and gets involved in significant acquisition deals. Mr. Dalton spends most of his time looking into potential acquisition candidates, a daunting task considering that Fiserv has averaged six acquisitions a year for 14 years.
"I sweep up after George's parade," Mr. Muma joked.
Mr. Dalton has vetted 1,300 potential targets and is a stickler for certain qualities, such as an enthusiastic work force. Most of those that made his most-wanted lists have caved in.
He remains in hot pursuit of some companies, which he refuses to name.
"I look out there at my competitors," he said, "and ask, 'Who is out there hurting me?'
"They are hurting me because someone likes their products as good as ours or better," he said. "If that is what they want, that is what I will give them."
Mr. Dalton is patient and persistent. Fiserv's acquisition of FIS Inc., Orlando, in 1997 had taken 13 years to realize, but he was more than happy to snag the "dynamite little business."
Mr. Dalton spends much of his energy on cementing relationships, especially with the community bankers who are the majority of his customers.
James McKenna, president and chief executive officer at North Shore Bank in Fiserv's hometown of Brookfield, with $1.2 billion of assets, has known Fiserv's front man for 25 years. They are both Harley enthusiasts and will mount their "Hogs" together for early Sunday morning romps in the countryside.
"I have always had a tremendous amount of respect for George simply because he finds a way to build a better mousetrap," said Mr. McKenna. "You have to have the technology in our markets to play against the big boys. That is why we look to Fiserv."
James Mariangel, executive vice president of $106 million-asset McHenry (Ill.) Savings Bank, said a good third-party vendor can help his institution survive.
With just three branches and 80 employees, Mr. Mariangel decided to switch to Fiserv after unpleasant experiences with another servicer. He and his wife, Kathleen, chairman and CEO of the bank, wanted to deal with a company that was more decisive and attuned to their needs.
He said he told Fiserv's sales representatives, "We are just a little bank in a little town, and my wife and I are just little folks who happen to own it.
"We said we would be interested in going to Fiserv if we were working on an owner-to-owner basis."
Being of similar mind-they were both racing enthusiasts, for example-the two easily moved on to building business and social relationships.
Soon, Mr. Dalton was signed up for race car lessons at Bondurant Racing School, Phoenix. "I was racing around the track at 100-and-some miles an hour in a real racing machine," Mr. Dalton recalled.
At a meeting after McHenry Savings had become a Fiserv customer, Mr. Dalton tossed Mr. Mariangel a set of keys to his custom-built pickup truck, a specially designed General Motors vehicle built for speed.
Recalled Mr. Mariangel, "We went out there and thrashed it a few times and had some fun."
Mr. Dalton has no intention of winding down.
"Age is in the mind, not the body," he said. "I know guys who are worn out at 50."