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Seven Regional Banks Sign On With B2B E-Commerce Venture

eScout-a two-year-old B2B network composed mostly of smaller independent banks-has been gathering momentum.

Amid the hoopla surrounding the B2B initiatives launched by big banks, eScout-a two-year-old network composedmostly of smaller independent banks-has quietly been gathering momentum.

The service, which earlier this year was spun off from UMB, a Kansas City, Mo.-based regional bank, boasts some 1,200 independent banks as members, along with about 5,000 of their business customers with a combined purchasing power of $18 billion.

In September, seven regional banks-California Federal Bank, Citizens Financial, Regions Financial, First Tennessee Bank, All First Financial, Marquette Bancshares and First State Bank of Texas-announced they were joining, bringing combined assets of $150 billion and 500,000 business customers.

Cal Fed will use eScout as a portal for its 100,000 business customers to buy and sell goods and services and to obtain financial services from Cal Fed. "Our business customers will come through the Cal Fed business site into eScout. Our customers can then buy with the power of a very large company," said Lelah Jenkins, senior vice president of e-commerce strategy at $60 billion Cal Fed. A full rollout is planned in early 2001.

By combining the customer buying power of many small financial institutions, eScout gives community and regional banks a chance to level the e-commerce playing field with money center banks. "I think we're going to have a robust marketplace much sooner. They eScout have some 6,000 businesses already purchasing goods through their site," said Jenkins, noting that eScout is committed to keeping big banks out. "Those banks are already developing their own anyway."

eScout is unique among B2B marketplaces in that the entire process, from purchase order to payment, is electronic. Once an invoice has been accepted by the buyer, an ACH debit is issued to the customer's bank account. But instead of the money being immediately credited to the supplier, it's placed in escrow for about 14 days. "The money goes into a clearing account at eScout, and is not put back to the supplier until the buyer has accepted the goods as ordered," said Sandy Kemper, founder and CEO of Kansas City, Mo.-based eScout.

Kemper declined to provide the number of weekly transactions processed by eScout, but said it's in the thousands.

Built at a cost of $30 million using the Commerce One platform, the service is offered to banks on an ASP application service provider basis. "We ASP this solution out to banks and their customers for a fraction of that cost," Kemper said.

eScout is a part of Commerce One's Global Trading Web (GTW), a collection of e-business trading sites using the Commerce One infrastructure. "We interoperate with the other GTW partners in the Commerce One alliance," said Kemper. "Most of the other GTW partners are vertical. We are one of the few horizontals."

A number of large banks, including Bank of America, Citibank and ABN AMRO, have launched B2B projects with e-commerce software providers like Ariba and Commerce One. All are aimed at creating online bazaars for businesses to buy and sell goods and services, with the banks fulfilling their traditional role as middlemen for commercial trade.

Yet to Kemper, the big banks are no friends of small business. "A long time ago, the money center banks turned their backs on small and midsize business. It's unnatural for them to now all of a sudden find religion about small business," he said.

Kemper's populist leanings led him to launch e-Scout in 1998, when he was chairman and CEO of UMB, as a way for smaller companies to pool their buying power into a giant electronic cooperative. UMB began by offering eScout to its own business customers, and then encouraged independent banks throughout the Midwest to join, bringing their customers along with them.

As seen through Kemper's eyes, the battle with the big banks assumes almost Biblical proportions. He recalled how, as head of UMB, he used to compete for small business with Bank of America, whose office in Kansas City was directly across the street. "They did not know how to handle small and midsize business," he said. The point of contact that a community or a regional bank has with its customers is different from that of a national bank, he added. "A national bank's point of contact is a 1-800 number."

A Bank of America spokesperson said in a statement, "The point of contact at Bank of America is any way our more than 2 million business customers choose it to be-whether in person at a banking center, on the telephone or online."

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