First Data is under pressure on a several fronts. While tasked with easing its debt, the Atlanta-based processor is also responding to the many disruptions brought by mobile technology and other innovations.
"We're transforming from a big payments processor to a solutions company, whether it's EMV or secure transactions, perks or loyalty products," says Frank Bisignano, who became CEO of First Data in 2013 and was additionally named chairman in March. "We want to be in business to help the client in whatever way they want to be helped."
First Data recently got some help from its owner, KKR & Co., in the form of leading a $3.5 billion private placement. KKR is a private equity company led by Henry Kravis and George Roberts. The infusion will lighten First Data's debtthe interest on its $23 billion debt load had consumed more than 75% of First Data's cash flow.
Improving that financial picture provides more flexibility for the company's technology and merchant services strategy, Bisignano says.
"It takes us from a place where we had a four-to-one debt-to-equity ratio to two-to-one," he says, adding this makes it "a lot easier to grow."
First Data, like most large processors, faces a "crossroads" that challenges its traditional payment processing model, says Richard Crone, a payments consultant.
First Data and similar companies face competition from new organizations such as the retailer-led Merchant Customer Exchange, which uses cloud-based payments technology and thus threatens the processor's traditional model.
"All processors are challenged to move from being a utility, like electricity or water or cable TV, to interpreting and packing and importing the data and leverage all of the functions provided by mobile," Crone says. "It's hard to do, but if the investments that they are making work out, it will be a huge win for First Data."
The processor's strategy includes investment in the company's Clover Station tablet point of sale product, an expanding security program and deeper geographic penetration into markets such as Brazil.
"The growth will be across the board," Bisignano says, adding First Data now has a presence in 35 countries. "Being in that many countries is a strategic advantage" and appeals to merchants, he says.
First Data's Security services address the top current risks for merchants and payment companies, Bisignano says. First Data recently partnered with TrustWave to bolster data security and with VeriFone to secure payments at gas stations.
"Our mindset is as an industry we need to galvanize around security, and we all have to take a leadership position," he says.
First Data also hopes to benefit from the emergence of EMV-chip cards in the U.S. As part of its security push, First Data has EMV routing partnerships with Visa and MasterCard; and has also extended its U.K. EMV partnership with Oberthur Technologies to the U.S..
First Data's hardware sales stand to benefit from the EMV migration as well as the adoption of mobile payments. The company's PD35 console, for example, provides ports for a PIN pad, EMV card reader, an NFC antenna and a magnetic-stripe card reader. First Data hopes to position itself to appeal to the merchants who have not fully converted to EMV.
"The EMV migration is a great opportunity for us, to be there for our clients as they work on adhering to the standards," Bisignano says.
First Data's Clover Station is also another catalyst for the company's service diversification strategy, Bisignano says. The tablet-based point of sale system has been adding capabilities over the past year, most recently enabling employee and consumer feedback, a move that counters Square's addition of similar technology for its tablet point of sale system. First Data also needs to stay competitive with other processors such as TSYS.
But Clover is not the focal point of the company's strategy, Bisignano says. "We have a multi-pronged strategy that includes security and loyalty products that can be offered without Clover."