UMB Financial Corp. of Kansas City, Mo., has raised $25 million in venture capital for its fast-growing business-to-business Web site and is setting its sights on going public with the subsidiary.
The $8.1-billion asset community banking company said it will use the money to expand eScout.com, a one-year-old site that helps small banks and independent businesses to obtain bulk-discount rates from large vendors. Specifically, UMB plans to expand eScout.com beyond its Midwest stronghold by adding other large community banks around the country as hubs to recruit correspondent banks and their commercial customers.
"Right now I'm focusing on bringing more members in," said Alexander C. Kemper, UMB's president and chief executive officer. "Once the market accepts what we've done and sees our vision, then eScout could become a public company."
UMB retains a 75% stake in eScout.com. Mr. Kemper said the bank had to attract the venture capital to continue aggressively expanding and, ultimately, to open the door to a public offering.
The timing of an offering would depend on market conditions, Mr. Kemper added. However, the lead outside investor said eScout.com would probably go public by the end of this year or early next year.
"There will be an offering eventually," said Yogen Dalal, a general partner of the Menlo Park, Calif.-based Mayfield Fund, which invested $10 million in eScout.com. "The challenge now is to capitalize on the things they started last year."
Launched in March 1999, eScout.com pools the buying power of its members to get better deals from such vendors as Gateway Inc. and Boise Cascade Office Products Corp. The site is growing at a rate of about 400 new members a month and now has 1,028 community banks and 3,477 independent businesses as members.
Its value is also rising rapidly. Mayfield says its $10 million investment is equal to a 10% stake in the site, indicating that eScout is now worth $100 million. The stock market capitalization of UMB, with which five generations of Mr. Kemper's family have been involved, was about $670 million on Thursday.
Mr. Kemper said the site is successful because banks and their business customers can join for free and gain instant cost savings on products. The site earns a small percentage on each purchase.
For instance, RCB Bank in Claremore, Okla., bought three photocopiers using eScout.com for about $8,000 each. When it shopped for bids on its own, it got quotes of about $12,000 for the same equipment.
The site also is expanding to allow banks and businesses to buy and sell products and services among themselves and other members online, Mr. Kemper said.
Tom Roberts, a businessman who sells heating and cooling equipment, said he is very interested in taking advantage of this feature. He said he wants to sell his commonly used products such as air filters through the site.
Mr. Roberts said setting up a stand-alone Web site would be too time-consuming and expensive for a small business such as his, which annually rings up about $20 million a year.
"It's hard for a business person to give existing customers the daily attention they need and delve off into the new venture of pursuing unknown customers in the world of e-commerce," said Mr. Roberts, vice president of CFM Distributors Inc. in Kansas City, Mo.
Community banks also stand to increase loyalty if they help their small-business customers begin selling online, said Tom Bayless, chief financial officer of $474 million-asset RCB Bank.
"Small businesses, in a lot of cases, have concerns about how much it will cost to get on the Internet, or they don't know where to start," he said. "That's where eScout can help."