The newly named president and chief executive officer of Transpoint faces plenty of challenges.
Lewis Levin, who formerly headed Microsoft Corp.'s desktop finance division, is taking over an electronic bill presentment venture that has been plagued by delays, and four of the nine U.S. institutions that signed up for pilots have suspended their tests.
Transpoint, which was started by Microsoft and First Data Corp. in 1997, originally scheduled its bill presentment system to go live in early 1998. Now it finds itself trailing its main competitor, Checkfree Holdings Corp., which is presenting bills to retail customers of Bank One Corp. and First Union Corp. through its E-bill service.
"It's time for somebody to take over at Transpoint and move them forward, because they've been in limbo for some time," said Scott Smith, president of Tera Group, an information technology consulting firm in McLean, Va.
Mr. Levin said the launch of Transpoint's service is "imminent." The company is moving all software to its production center in Denver, he said, a sign that the introduction is near.
"We would really like to get the system live, launch with a lot of billers, and launch with a lot of places customers want to go to get their bills," Mr. Levin said.
He attributed the delay to making sure Transpoint comes out with the best product possible.
"One of the things we're focused on is to make sure bill presentment is a real business and a real system," he said.
Despite the delays, Mr. Levin-who played a significant role in developing Transpoint well before his current appointment-said the company's vision has been on track all along.
He recited the guiding principles: "Consumers don't want to go to multiple places to see their bills; billers want to design their own bills; the biller's bank and the customer's bank are usually not the same ... and banks want to remain central in this process."
He said Transpoint "really delivers" on a final piece of the vision- enabling corporations to use their bills as marketing tools.
Mr. Levin acknowledged that Bank One Corp., Merrill Lynch & Co., and Wells Fargo have temporarily suspended their pilots. A First Union official said that bank had put its Transpoint pilot on hold as well.
As for Bank One and Wells Fargo, Mr. Levin said, "What the banks seem to mostly want is a standards-based solution that will enable them to aggregate bills from multiple providers. It's a good thing to want, but that will actually get in the way of the (year-2000) moratoria. I think for everyone around the table, aggregation is not going to get done soon."
In a statement, Wells Fargo said it was "committed to working with Transpoint," but that the pilot was temporarily suspended. "Our efforts going forward will focus on a standards-based solution enabling us to present bills from multiple providers to our customers."
Bruce Luecke, president of interactive delivery services in Bank One's retail group, said his company had not scheduled a second phase of its pilot with Transpoint after finishing the first.
When asked whether Bank One would continue working with Transpoint, Mr. Luecke said, "We plan to continue working with a number of people. We hope there will be more providers."
Mr. Levin attributed the suspension of Merrill Lynch's pilot to that company's desire for "pay-anyone" capability-enabling customers to pay bills to recipients who cannot receive them in electronic form.
"I believe they'll still work with us on bill presentment," Mr. Levin said.
Industry observers have called Transpoint's lack of a pay-anyone service a major shortcoming. Mr. Levin said Transpoint is working on that.
First Union put its Transpoint pilot on hold because other projects took precedence, according to Parrish Arturi, vice president of channel development at the Charlotte, N.C.-based bank.
He said a "number of resource constraints at First Union" are "holding up development efforts" on Transpoint.
Other pilot participants are KeyCorp, Mellon Bank Corp., PNC Bank Corp., Wachovia Corp., which announced its participation last month, and Citigroup. Citi is a minority partner in Transpoint along with First Data and Microsoft.
PNC is using Transpoint in a pilot with Xerox Corp., a major corporate client. The bank presents bills to Xerox trading partners using the system. PNC also plans to begin testing Checkfree's E-bill service in June.
At KeyCorp in Cleveland, Transpoint's customer service system is making a favorable impression, officials said. "Customer service is a critical element for keeping this business," said Paul Ayres, manager of on-line services.
"I would like to say it's going faster," Mr. Ayers said of Key's pilot. "But it's meeting expectations right now."