For years, the name TRW was synonymous with credit reports.

But in 1996, that changed. TRW Inc., the defense, space, and automotive conglomerate, spun off its credit bureau subsidiary to a team of Boston- based investment firms. Seven weeks later, those firms resold the company to a British retailing giant.

Renamed Experian Inc., but keeping its Orange, Calif., address, the company has started a new life.

"The changes in ownership have been an interesting roller-coaster ride," said D. Van Skilling, Experian's chairman and chief executive officer.

He insisted that, throughout, Experian never lost its strategic focus. "If anything it has probably caused us to sharpen our vision."

For 26 years, Mr. Skilling worked for Cleveland-based TRW, running a small unit of the sprawling company, which reports $10 billion in annual sales.

He was general manager of TRW Information Systems and Services Inc.-one of the nation's three largest credit bureaus-and executive vice president of TRW Inc. Until February 1996, Mr. Skilling had job stability of which many top executives can only dream.

But his data base-driven company never fit in with the other businesses of TRW, a manufacturer. As TRW's mandatory retirement age loomed, he decided to help facilitate the spinoff.

"We were always the smallest pig at the trough," Mr. Skilling said. "Their automotive, space, and defense businesses were clearly more important to them."

The bold move-in which Mr. Skilling's unit was sold to Thomas H. Lee Co. and Bain Capital Inc. for $1.01 billion in November 1996-reflected the dramatic changes in the information services industry. Industry watchers expected the Boston investors to give Experian the attention and resources it longed for; Mr. Skilling relished the prospect of being a privately held organization that could finally call its own shots.

Neither wish came true. In less than two months, the investors surprised everyone by selling Experian to a British retailing conglomerate, Great Universal Stores PLC.

While the divorce from TRW plunged Experian into corporate anonymity, Mr. Skilling, 64, said the new name is allowing his company to build a new brand image.

Like its main competitors, Equifax Inc. and Trans Union Corp., Experian has focused on developing products based on its data base management skills. The industry has made "greater use of the data as a predictor of risk," said Barry Connelly, president of Associated Credit Bureaus Inc., a Washington, D.C., trade group.

Mr. Skilling said new product lines would help Experian mature.

"I hope Experian will grow more toward a data solutions image that is broader than a consumer credit report," Mr. Skilling said, echoing his peers at Trans Union and Equifax.

Unlike Equifax and Trans Union, Experian provides data used for appraisals, tax services, and title insurance to the mortgage and real estate industries. In September, Experian signed an agreement with First American Financial Corp., a mortgage technology firm, to form a new company, as yet unnamed. Experian will retain a 20% stake and have access to the company's data base.

Experian also differs from the other bureaus by providing credit-check services in business-to-business transactions-Dun & Bradstreet is its main competitor there-and compiling lists of shoppers for catalogue marketers.

The three overlap most precisely in the consumer credit report market. All are trying to enhance their data bases with products that use modeling techniques, which offer richer information about the data. With modeling software, the companies can categorize consumers based on past behavior, and assign risk scores.

In the modeling business, Experian has perhaps the biggest advantage among the three credit bureaus-it merged with a prominent modeling concern. That company, another unit of Great Universal, was known as CCN Group until July when it became part of Experian.

Mr. Skilling had long ago recognized that CCN, of Atlanta, would be an asset for Experian. His company offered to buy CCN shortly after the spinoff from TRW, "but a funny thing happened on the way to the altar," Mr. Skilling said, referring to the second sale of his company.

Today, Experian offers credit-scoring products, consulting services, and software. Experian is second to industry leader Fair, Isaac & Co. in the credit-scoring business.

Great Universal is a catalogue marketer and owner of the Burberry brand. Reporting sales of $4.2 billion last year, Great Universal has retail subsidiaries in Austria, Canada, the Netherlands, South Africa, Sweden, Ireland, Switzerland, and the United States.

Experian, mostly through its merger with CCN, has clients in 40 countries, providing primarily marketing support and credit-scoring software. Great Universal's international scope has eased the pressure Mr. Skilling felt to expand Experian's reach overseas.

But he has mixed feelings about being a part of another conglomerate. "I'd be less than honest if I didn't say there were pluses and minuses," he said. But he emphasized that Experian is "a very important, growing, sexy part of Great Universal Stores' business"-unlike at TRW.

According to one industry consultant who played a role in TRW's spinoff, Great Universal paid $1.07 billion for Experian-$600 million more than the Boston investors-because Experian had built a new computer system controlling its consumer data base.

The consultant, A. Wayne Johnson, said Experian spent about $120 million to improve the accuracy of its consumer data base in what is called the "File One" conversion. The new system is supposed to avoid the problem of mixed files, a situation that occurs when consumers have the same or similar names.

File One "was an amazing technical feat," Mr. Johnson said. "It has given Experian a significant technical advantage for a significant amount of time."

Harry Gambill, chief executive of Trans Union, and Thomas F. Chapman, chief executive of Equifax, dispute that Experian has a technological edge.

Mr. Gambill said Trans Union invested tens of millions of dollars in upgrading its computer systems over the past four years, an investment "far deeper and bigger" than Experian's.

As for Equifax, Mr. Chapman said his company "does not need to overhaul what it continually maintains and enhances. You couldn't have the (market share) we have obtained if you didn't have quality of data."

Experian's technology did not spare it from a major snafu. Last August, Experian became the first bureau to deliver consumer credit reports over the Internet, but it did not anticipate the surge of requests that followed.

Within the first hour, 2,000 people asked for their reports. Soon 14 reports were delivered to the wrong people, including a reporter for The Washington Post who immediately wrote about his experience. Experian shut down the service.

Experian had not stress-tested its system for large volumes of requests, Mr. Skilling said. While he acknowledged that even one mistake was too many, he put a positive spin on the fiasco, saying that a "tremendous" number of people wanted to know when the service would come back.

"They had faith that it wasn't a severe problem and one that we would fix," he said. No date has been set for its return.

In the meantime, Mr. Skilling said Experian is looking at the utility industry for new sources of revenue. Experian has begun to serve a handful of energy and telephone companies, supplying credit information on consumers.

Deregulation has forced this industry, "to worry about attracting, finding, and managing customers," Mr. Skilling said.

The basic information in a credit report has not changed over the years, but more industries are using the reports, said Experian spokeswoman Janis Lamar.

Hal Muchnick, Experian's vice president for market planning and development, said Experian divides utility customers into segments, helping companies manage losses from customers who do not pay their bills.

While Experian has been pouring more marketing dollars into the utility sector, Mr. Muchnick does not expect it to surpass business in the financial services industry.

Mr. Skilling said the new products and business lines are meant to make Experian stand out.

"Our customers increasingly regard credit information as a commodity- like product," Mr. Skilling said. "I don't necessarily agree with that, but I think that is increasingly an issue."

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