Big banking tech companies recently have been hungrily gobbling up smaller companies and the question is, Will this consolidation continue? The other question, Is this good, or bad, for credit unions?
Recent acquisitions include Brookfield, Wis.-based Fiserv swallowing Glastonbury, Conn.-based Open Solutions Inc. for around $1 billion, mainly debt assumption; Jacksonville, Fla.-based FIS digested Larkspur, Calif. based-mFoundry for about $120 million; and Naples, Fla.-based ACI Worldwide bought Chantilly, Va.-based Online Resources Corp. for about $263 million.
The common wisdom is to buckle up because there will likely be more such deals.
“We are seeing credit unions and banks limiting their number of vendor relationships,” said Christine Barry, a research director at Boston-based Aite Group.
Partly this is fueled by mounting pressures from regulators to do in-depth due diligence on vendors, the fewer there are, the easier to comply. And partly it’s an upshot of continuing mindfulness of financial institutions's thin margins, and it sometimes is simpler to negotiate better terms when many services are involved.
“Every financial institution is squeezing every penny because of the interest rate environment,” said Matt Herbert, president of the $900 million Northrop Grumman Federal Credit Union in Gardena, Calif. “There will be a streamlining of vendors because it makes your life easier to manage fewer vendors.”
Even one of the players involved in acquisition concurred with this thinking.
“Financial institutions want to work with fewer vendors. That is driving consolidation, and this is a trend that won’t reverse,” said John Kraft, a vice president at ACI Worldwide. “But,” he added, “that doesn’t mean they want to deal with only one vendor.”
As for precisely why ACI Worldwide wanted Online Resources, Kraft indicated it had become the last of the independent bill-pay companies. He elaborated that in the last few years, Fiserv had bought CheckFree; FIS acquired Metavante; and Jack Henry acquired iPay. That, said Kraft, left Online Resources as the only bill-pay company in play. Before the acquisition, ACI Worldwide offered its customers bill pay through third parties. With the acquisition, it owns its bill pay service and that, said Kraft, is win-win for ACI and its customers.
“ACI Worldwide needed a bill pay provider,” said Randall Pearson of Tucson, Ariz.-based Pearrari Solutions Inc., a financial tech consulting firm. “ACI will be able to tightly link to ORCC. That should provide a tighter user experience.”
Scott Hodgins, a research director for Cornerstone Advisors in Scottsdale, Ariz., added: “ACI has a reputation for being strong on the commercial side but not retail. ORCC brings them more credibility in retail banking.” He saw little that troubled him in the acquisition.
The same cannot be said of the Fiserv acquisition of Open Solutions. About that, negative voices are loud. Said David Gibbard, a senior vice president at core company EPL in Birmingham, Ala: “Acumen has never been successfully implemented. It is nothing less than a black mark for Fiserv. DNA solved a problem that was embarrassing for Fiserv, but I am not sure this is in the best interest of the marketplace.”
“Fiserv had no choice. They had to do it. But what’s good for Fiserv isn’t necessarily good for the credit union industry,” said Kirk Drake, CEO of Hagerstown, Md.-based Ongoing Operations, a CUSO focused on technology.
Less choice when it comes to core providers is part of the worry of these critics, but there’s more. Several experts noted a worry they had about the Fiserv acquisition is that the company may not make it easy for a credit union core customer to integrate non-Fiserv ancillary products (such as online and mobile banking). And that would have a disturbing impact on technology innovation and the ability of credit unions to access best of breed solutions.
Fiserv declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this article.
The FIS acquisition of mFoundry produced a mixed bag of responses. In an instant, FIS has rocketed past Fiserv, with its estimated 1,000 mobile banking customers, into the lead in the fast exploding mobile banking niche. mFoundry brings around 900 financial institutions to this party. FIS itself had an estimated 600 (many of those a light repackaging of the mFoundry tools because FIS had owned a significant minority interest in the company), so between them that is 1,500 financial institution customers for mobile banking. That is a huge lead in a sector that may well be the financial tech battleground over the next couple of years.
Both mFoundry and FIS declined to comment for this article.
“With this deal, FIS significantly ups its mobile offering,” said Aite’s Barry, who stressed that a motivator for this acquisition is that “nowadays financial institutions are looking for deals,” typically from their core providers who are pressured to throw in at a discount or even free of charge services such as mobile banking.
That is putting downward revenue pressure on standalone technology providers, such as mFoundry on its own, and it also may have a negative impact on innovation, said some experts who indicated that free is not a price point that will sustain significant product advancement.
But the FIS purchase of mFoundry had been long expected, as FIS sought to broaden its financial tech offerings and to better position itself to meet financial institution demands for price concessions. “FIS shocked a total of no one with this acquisition,” said Hodgins. “Will they nurture mFoundry or suck the life out of it? We don’t know yet. But we do know they are very different corporate cultures.” And, suggested Hodgins, blending the laidback Marin County style of mFoundry into the more buttoned-down FIS will be a corporate coupling to watch.
“Products get diluted in massive companies,” shrugged Robb Gaynor, a co-founder of Austin, Texas-based Malauzai, a much smaller mobile banking apps company that has around 100 financial institutions.
Gaynor elaborated that with a torpid IPO market, “These are the kinds of deals you have to expect when small companies can’t go public.”
“You need a lot of gas to keep expanding,” said Gaynor, meaning cash on hand to fund continuing rounds of the product innovation tech start ups need to wow new customers. He declined to characterize the mFoundry acquisition as good or bad, saying, “These are things that just happen.”
Gaynor did think that possibly the FIS purchase will create opportunities for competitors such as Malauzai. “It will take FIS at least a year to digest mFoundry. This will create disruption and that means opportunities for others.”
A bottom line that resonates throughout all of these deals, and that will recur as yet more consolidation occurs in banking technology as 2013 plays out, is that while most deals, on their own, may look good, in their aggregate there may be a different, more worrying conclusion. “Consolidation is negative for our clients,” said Hodgins. “There are fewer and fewer vendors and that’s not good for the industry.”