Brightwell is attempting to carve out a niche in the crowded prepaid card market by focusing on reducing the amount of cash carried at sea by ships' crew members.

The Atlanta-based Brightwell is expanding beyond its OceanPay Visa Prepaid program to offer Brightwell Navigator, a payroll product aimed at ship owners. Cruise ship lines have primarily used OceanPay and Brightwell, which specializes in maritime technology, is learning that other categories of shipping have different payroll management needs.

"The demographics are different," said Ken Goins, the CEO Brightwell. "There are fewer people and there are more engineers and [senior level] staff that need a better tool with more sophisticated functions."

Cruise ship and other maritime workers use the older OceanPay for remittance to Western Union agents and as a general-purpose prepaid card. For Brightwell, it's a way to eliminate cash payments for large cruise liners, considered a risk given the amount of paper money involved. "You have two or three thousand workers in a single spot, so that's well suited for the OceanPay card."

But for other ships, such as freighters, the time at sea can be longer, the overall itineraries longer, and the financial relationships and payment needs more complex for higher paid, skilled workers that are more likely to have bank accounts.

Brightwell Navigator makes payroll disbursements to a batch-funding process, with one or two wires each pay period. The platform ties to the ship manager's payroll software. Employees chose how to receive pay (either to a bank account or their OceanPay card), the amount distributed to each account, and the currency. Crew members can manage their accounts while at sea.

"Navigator operates more like an e-wallet," Goins said. "There may be some need to move money home quickly, and the crew member may be out at sea for more than two weeks."

The combination of Navigator and OceanPay counters the prevailing practice of paying ship staff in cash, generally in U.S. dollars staff members exchange for local currency when they reach port. "That's an inconvenient and at times dangerous way to receive pay," Goins said.

Brightwell has placed Navigator with two companies that will launch the product in the second quarter. Brightwell did not disclose the names of the companies, though it did say it hopes to sell the product to users outside the shipping industry to companies with a geographically dispersed workforce. One of the companies currently has 100 people in a department that does wire transfers alone to handle payroll, and corrects errors in these transfers, Goins said.

Once Brightwell moves into mass payments for companies outside of the maritime industry, it will encounter more competition.

Tipalti, for example, specializes in international mass payments, and research companies and other firms that rely on a  global network of contributors, such as advertising agencies, use Tipalti to simplify payroll execution and compliance. Dwolla's model also accommodates mass payments.

Brightwell may also find competition from companies that offer currency conversion.

"I guess the key question is who is setting the FX rates," said Gareth Lodge, a senior analyst at Celent. "There is a danger that the recipients may be able to find a better rate through an alternative provider."

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