Most people think of Mail Boxes Etc. as a great place to ship packages, pick up mail, and maybe get business cards printed. But if its CEO has his way, they will also think of it as a place to make deposits to their bank accounts and seek loans and small-business financing.
James H. Amos, who has been president and chief executive of Mail Boxes Etc. for four years, considers his 4,100 outlets the brick-and-mortar solution to Internet financial services firms' distribution problems. For a year he has been signing deals with Internet companies in which Mail Boxes Etc. gets the revitalization that ostensibly comes from entering new business lines, and the partners get access to branches scattered around the world.
For Mail Boxes Etc., of San Diego, "it's essentially the reinvention of a 20-year-old company," Mr. Amos said.
Mr. Amos, 53, fits the profile of an emerging class of entrepreneurs American Banker has labeled the New Bankers: people who see the profitability of the financial services sector, find a way to fit banking products into their core businesses, and try to use the New Economy to get a piece of the action.
Like many of these companies, Mail Boxes Etc. has had some big wins, and some big moments of doubt. But Mr. Amos would rather talk about his big plans in financial services and the contracts he has landed with online banking companies.
The first was with PeopleFirst.com, also of San Diego. PeopleFirst makes car loans online, and Mail Boxes provides borrowers with notary, faxing, and copying services. It furnishes similar services for PeopleFirst's used-car sales business, and has a stake in the company.
In its partnership with CBS Payroll, of Fort Worth, Mail Boxes Etc. is issuing checks to some of the Internet company's 11,000 corporate clients, companies that would otherwise incur costly overnight delivery charges.
The two most recent deals were with the year-old, private-label National InterBank, of Indianapolis, and Wilmington, Del.-based Juniper Financial, which was founded by the former First USA executives Richard W. Vague and James Stewart and will go live this fall. Customers of both Web companies will be able to make deposits free at any Mail Boxes Etc. store.
"We have long acknowledged internally that a brick-and-mortar establishment is critical to our success," said Ron Hynes, vice president of marketing and strategic partnerships at National InterBank. "Deposit mailing is just the beginning."
Despite the enthusiasm shown by some people involved in these deals, there are reasons for concern. For one thing, Mail Boxes Etc.'s future is a little iffy: It is soon to be spun off from U.S. Office Products, the large public company that bought it in 1997. The Washington outfit supplies all manner of office products, furniture, and coffee services; after an acquisition spree in the late 1990s, it has been in deep financial trouble, and its stock and credit rating have fallen.
In August, U.S. Office Products announced it would sell up to 100% of Mail Boxes Etc. in an initial public offering scheduled to close in early 2001. In the meantime, the subsidiary is something of an orphan. Laura Smith, U.S. Office Products' vice president for investor relations, called it a "noncore business."
That business had sales of $1.5 billion last year, and Mr. Amos, who ran Mail Boxes for a year before it was bought by U.S. Office Products, is making additions that he says will make the company bigger and better. For example, in May 1999 he embarked on a plan to spend $15 million to construct a satellite-based digital communication network linking all Mail Boxes outlets to the San Diego headquarters, and to one another.
"Hundreds of e-commerce and dot-com companies have come to us looking for a distribution platform," Mr. Amos said. "I've worked in business-format franchising for 25 years, but leveraging Mail Boxes Etc.'s locations is the greatest opportunity of my career."
Not everyone, however, thinks taping "bank" on the windows of Mail Boxes Etc. outlets will bring in banking business.
The skeptics include Robert Schmermund, director of communications for America's Community Bankers, in Washington. "I am having difficulty with the synergy," he said. "You can talk about a one-stop shop, but the convenience has to come within the context of the relationship."
Mail Boxes Etc.'s franchise structure could also pose some headaches, but Mr. Amos says his plans are supported by all his franchise owners. And he dismisses an incident in April in which a Boston franchise was fined for processing applications for payday loans with interest rates exceeding 476% (Massachusetts has a 23% usury ceiling).
Mr. Amos says the small-office/home-office market is promising for his company. Citing data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, he said 95% of the nation's roughly six million Soho offices are located within five miles of a Mail Boxes Etc. outlet.
"We want to be a one-stop shop for the Soho market," he said.
Several Mail Boxes Etc. franchise owners said in interviews that they think Mr. Amos' business model makes sense for them - for Mail Boxes Etc., and consumers.
Andrew Squassoni, who owns a franchise in Mineola, N.Y., said, "I think people still need to see a window with a sign in it, not just a virtual cloud."