In October, Brad Volmer, assistant treasurer of Sun Microsystems Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif., attended his first SWIFT International Banking Operations Seminar (SIBOS). He had plenty of corporate treasury company. More than 285 corporates attended SIBOS in September, up from just 80 a year earlier--and even that number was unprecedented for what had long been a gathering of international banks. This year, a special two-day forum featured corporate uses of SWIFT--and "most corporate sessions were standing-room only," Volmer reports.
Anyone who doubted that throwing open SWIFT (the Society for Worldwide International Financial Telecommunication) to direct membership by nonfinancial companies was a revolutionary move, would have seen clear evidence at SIBOS of the sea change in thinking it has spawned. "We went to talk to banks about our services for them," reports Jonathan Eber, director of product management at New York-based ACI Worldwide, "but we ended up talking about services for corporate treasuries. They challenged us to extend our product set beyond financial institutions."
It's not just large multinationals either, notes Colin Day, vice president of market insights for SunGard's banks and corporations business. "Middle market and purely domestic companies are showing interest. It seems to depend more on the number of bank accounts than on revenue size."
The big technology players used SIBOS as a springboard to launch new products that could directly or indirectly serve corporate treasuries. For example, SunGard is taking its SWIFT service bureau, called SunGard Transaction Network for SWIFT, to the next level by making it a member concentrator.
The benefit for corporate clients, Day explains, is that with a service bureau, clients still have to communicate with SWIFT about some matters. A member concentrator acts as an agent on behalf of its clients, who only have to communicate with the concentrator. "Basically, it simplifies administration," Day explains. The cost is about the same. No companies are using SunGard's concentrator service yet, but two deals are in the pipeline. SWIFT surveys show that 85% of the corporates expecting to join SWIFT want indirect connectivity through a third party, rather than building and hosting the infrastructure themselves, according to Day. Of the 18 firms listed by SWIFT as member concentrators, most are large global banks. "We appeal to some corporate treasuries because we are not a bank," he says. "Some treasury staffs don't want a bank to have all their company's proprietary information."
SunGard was one of the first vendors to see that SWIFT for corporates would be big, and it tipped its hand with its October 2006 acquisition of Trax. The deal gave the dominant provider of treasury workstations a proprietary SWIFT service bureau. "AvantGard Trax sits on top of the SWIFT infrastructure and links back to the treasury workstation and the ERP systems," explains Hans Cobben, chief operating officer of AvantGard Payments and former Trax CEO. "The treasury workstation uses Trax to communi- cate with banks. Trax also collects payment instructions from ERP systems and sends them out to banks via SWIFT. It's the unifying layer. It can also consolidate ERP information and feed it directly to the workstation. And it's useful for automating reconciliation."
One happy Trax user is PGGM, a Dutch pension company that uses only three banks and has little exposure to currency risk outside the euro. PGGM makes a lot of payments--225,000 a month--and uses AvantGard Trax to house its evolving payment factory. "I want one point of authorization for all payments going through all banks, and Trax is that point," insists Roelof van der Struik, team manager for payments and settlements. "That leaves our back-side applications clean and standard."
SWIFT "makes you change your way of thinking," van der Struik says. "Before, we would send a file to the bank and authorize it while it was sitting at the bank. With SWIFT, you send it, and you've effectively executed the payment. Precautions must be taken, however, to make sure unauthorized payments don't hit the SWIFT server.
San Francisco-based, digital authentication solution provider IdenTrust Inc. also is expanding its horizons beyond financial institutions. Originally a joint bank venture, it now is less than 8% bank-owned and is working to link its technology to treasury systems like those of SunGard, Thomson, Kyriba and XRT.
Although digital authentication would still be issued through a bank, a single IdenTrust authentication mechanism could be used across a large number of banks, explains Andrea Klein, chief marketing officer. "A large corporation might have a drawer full of tokens and have to search for the right one to use for a particular account at a particular bank. We can consolidate all that, which means a big reduction in time and overhead, especially at corporations that might now have thousands of identity devices." While awareness of the need for sophisticated access control is now widespread, actual use of high-tech identity verification is just getting started, Klein reports.
IdenTrust announced two deals at SIBOS--one with XRT, which sold part of its workstation business to SunGard last year--and one with VocaLink, a SEPA-compliant clearing service for euro payments.
One of the new SWIFT message products coming out of SIBOS is the trade services utility (TSU)--an attempt by banks to give themselves a better shot at providing trade finance services in open account commerce, which now represents 80% of global trade. Traditional trade financing services like letters of credit (L/Cs) and documentary collections--typically the banks' domain--have dwindled to just 20%, notes Chris Principe, ACI senior account executive for trade finance. In this new world of TSU-supported trade finance services, exporters and importers will simply become buyers and sellers, because the new generation of trade finance services will be just as much for domestic commerce as for cross-border commerce, he adds.
While the TSU is a bank-to-bank application, corporate treasuries can expect to see a flurry of bank offerings to provide financing to either the buyer or seller, based on their new access to purchase orders, invoices and other commercial transaction documents, and their ability to provide matching services. "Before, a large global bank could insert itself in the supply chain and provide financing services to either party if it was the bank both parties were using and had data from both sides," explains Olivier Bertier, Paris-based head of product management for trade services at Misys Banking Systems. "With TSU, the buyer and seller can use different banks, and those banks can share information and watch the flow of commercial transactions."
Speranza Systems, based in Portland, Maine, announced the availability of its new Command Center software, developed in cooperation with Shell Oil, the first treasury user of the software. Command Center will automate much of the workflow around bank account mandates and administration. It will use SWIFT as its communications network to send XML messages between banks and corporate treasuries, explains Glen Solimine, Speranza's CEO.
Speranza had been following the efforts of TWIST (the European-based Transactions Workflow Innovation Standards Team) to develop electronic bank account management communication standards, but Shell couldn't wait and worked with Speranza on its own solution, called electronic bank account management or eBAM. Speranza uses bank proprietary forms and standards, Solimine explains. "With Shell, we're using the banks' proprietary formats to recreate the banks' forms," he explains, "but we will move to industry standards as they emerge." With 3,500 bank accounts held for 1,600 legal entities at 200 different banks in 86 currencies, Shell has much to gain from automating banks' communication.
But moving to SWIFT is still harder than it should be, says Sun's Volmer. "At SIBOS, we saw that a lot of good work is going on, but my peers say that it still takes a lot of time to go through all the bank negotiations."