Visa International has run into snags in its attempt to sell its Visa Interactive remote banking arm.
Negotiations with the leading suitor, Integrion Financial Network, have stalled on pricing issues and concerns about how the 90 financial institutions that have signed with Visa Interactive will get their needs met, said an official familiar with the discussions.
It is still possible Visa will try to seek another buyer, perhaps an outside company that would keep the Visa banks from becoming a part of the large consortium, the official said.
Visa has not officially revealed its plans, but it is widely believed to be backing out of its direct role in home banking transactions.
International Business Machines Corp. and the 16 banks in its Integrion consortium are actively pursuing that opportunity.
"We have many conversations with many companies," said Visa Interactive president Christopher F. Schellhorn when asked about Integrion. "We continue to work with our membership to find ways to enable them in the entire remote banking arena."
Though it has kept a low profile in recent months, Herndon, Va.-based Visa Interactive is serving more than 125,000 customers, up from less than 50,000 six months ago, said an official close to the company.
"There is not a single aspect of the business that has not shown improvement," said Mr. Schellhorn, who was put in the job by senior Visa International executive Wesley C. Tallman last summer.
With Mr. Tallman's unexpected departure in January, many observers suspected Visa Interactive had lost its support from headquarters in San Francisco.
Even before that, speculation had been rife that it was only a matter of time before Visa would sell the remote banking unit it formed in 1994 after acquiring its initial components from U.S. Order-now Intelidata Technology Corp., also of Herndon, Va.
Like MasterCard's deactivated MasterBanking program, Visa Interactive offered itself as a utility that banks could rely on to reach customers through a variety of devices, including personal computers, telephones, and the Internet.
Of Visa Interactive's bank partners, 41 are currently offering remote banking services to the public, 12 are in pilots, and 20 are in various stages of implementation, said Visa Interactive spokesman Greg Jones.
Yet even some of Visa's staunchest supporters are complaining the organization can no longer meet all their remote banking needs.
"We have signed up for Checkfree to enable us to offer Quicken," said William W. Hall, senior vice president of Zions First National Bank in Salt Lake City, referring to Intuit Inc.'s personal financial management software.
"Visa Interactive has not been able to fulfill that product," the banker said. "And our philosophy with on-line banking is to provide what our customers want to use, not what we want them to use." He said the service would be available in June.
Over the next two months, several other Visa Interactive banks are expected to turn to Checkfree Corp., the leading bill-payment processor in the home banking market.
"We will be announcing greatly expanded relationships with some important banks that have previously signed with Visa Interactive," said Checkfree chief executive officer Peter J. Kight. "We are also continuing to sign banks that are a part of the Integrion consortium."
Although Integrion and Checkfree are not direct competitors, an Integrion acquisition of Visa Interactive would pit the two companies against each other. Seven of the 16 Integrion banks have contracts with Checkfree for on-line bill payment.
Other banks are beginning to fret that Visa Interactive, which they viewed as the premier bank-friendly home banking facilitator, might run out of steam in any head-to-head race with Integrion.
"While we are using Visa Interactive today and are committed to working with them to improve their existing platform, we are equally committed to a longer-term partnership with Integrion," said David A. Fingerman, vice president of interactive banking for Fleet Financial Group, one of a few institutions with an investment in both systems.
He applauded Integrion's "substantive progress" at building a system that will permit high-volume traffic over a bill payment network six months after it was announced publicly.
In April, Integrion member Banc One announced the first home banking pilot on the network.
And the company has been upping the number of technical and marketing employees in its dual offices in Philadelphia and Atlanta.
Concerns about Visa Interactive are also being felt by other major banks.
Visa Interactive ranked as the on-line vendor of choice in an April survey of the top 100 banks and top 20 thrifts by Credit Suisse First Boston Corp.
"We got a lot of positive response for Visa Interactive in the written survey," said James M. Marks, vice president and survey author.
"But when we followed up by telephone, the responses were curious. 'We are using them, but we really don't know what the status of the service is,"' Mr. Marks recounted.
"There was a great deal of uncertainty about how exactly Visa Interactive is proceeding from here," he said.
"I would be disappointed if it went out of Visa's hands," said Mr. Hall of Zions Bank. "At least I have some say in the Visa organization. But through Integrion, given its ownership, "the biggest banks in the country are potential competitors of Zions."
Some are floating the idea of an alternative consortium that might grow out of Visa Interactive.
But others said such an entity could hinder the development of home banking by fragmenting the market.
"It would be best for the banks to band together in a single network that would leverage the largest scale to reduce costs instead of having fractious networks," said Mr. Fingerman of Fleet.
"But anything can happen in this game."