Rickmansworth is sleepy. A few tired- looking shops greet you on arrival at the ramshackle train station, with rolling home-county fields dominating the backdrop.
It might only be an hour or so away from the organised chaos of the City of London but it feels much more remote. From this quiet retreat, though, a revolution has been painstakingly planned over the last year. And this week we will find out if the lead protagonist, Marion King, has been successful.
King is chief executive of VocaLink, the £500m company formed last year through the merger of the Bacs payment group and the Link cash machine network. The amalgamated group runs 60,000 ATMs with over 105 million card customers, processing something like three billion transactions annually. On a daily basis, it settles around £430m worth of payments.
VocaLink handles the bulk of Britain's electronic money transfers and is the key player behind Faster Payments, a new service that should radically change the payments landscape in Britain.
The project is the banking industry's much-anticipated response to government concerns over the slow speed of the UK's payment-processing system, where three-day transfers have remained the norm for decades.
But from this Wednesday on, the man on the street will usually only have to wait two hours for any transfer to go through.
"Faster Payments is a major move forward and people will really feel it," says King. "But it's a competitive arena and the products launched by each and every bank on the back of the changes will be different. It won't be uniform." Her caution is understandable given the false starts and delays that have hindered the project since its inception. However, if the banks do their bit, a step change is just days away.
If you had wanted to sell your car in the past, for example, you would have had to wait for the cash from the buyer to land in your account before you could do the deal. Under Faster Payments, theoretically, the buyer can transfer cash to the seller via their mobile phone pretty much instantaneously.
However, standing order payments will continue to be pro- cessed on the three-day Bacs cycle.
Faster Payments should also put an end to consumer gripes about banks profiteering from the slow movement of cash between accounts. "It's really a myth that banks make vast sums of money out of the float [three- day turnaround]," says King. "They never have."
King, of course, has a vested interest in keeping the banks happy. They are both her customers and her backers at VocaLink. Some 21 institutions, including Royal Bank of Scotland and Barclays, have stakes, though she points out that ownership of the group is just weeks away from a change.
Last month, advisers were hired to sell a minority stake in the company – a move she feels is vital to VocaLink's long- term strategy. "I imagine we'll have something done by the end of June," says a cagey King, who refuses even to disclose the name of any adviser. "We're looking at a different type of international investor that will allow us to develop our European operations."
Talk of a public listing is something King admits has been discussed, but "it's five years or so away at least".
The scramble for the European payments landscape is likely to dominate King's time for some time to come. She is days away from securing a deal with Scandinavian group BGC to process the vast majority of Sweden's automated payments. EU legislation means that the currently fragmented arena is likely to be transformed into a terrain ripe for consolidation.
VocaLink might enjoy a near- monopoly status in Britain but new initiatives are already in train. "We are the biggest ATM operator in Britain and Europe and we have some interesting plans," says King. "We are looking at offering foreign exchange capabilities to some machines, while deposit options will also be increased."
Through VocaLink's Monilink joint venture with mobile banking firm Monitise, King is also pushing the "The Bank in your Pocket" concept, where online banking processes are fully available on cellphones. Alliance & Leicester is already heavily involved in the project.
"The move away from the cheque is gathering pace," says King. "The Netherlands got rid of it and it will slowly fade in Britain too. From the banks' perspective, Monilink moves customers away from the paper-led, expensive model to a platform they are likely to prefer."
She agrees that the success of such ventures is linked to security: "We aren't saying this isn't a huge leap – it will take time. Security and issues around identification are the key, and we won't compromise on these."
She knows how to say the right things. Fourteen years at Reuters, where she ran the information group's Asian Bureau, served her well. Maybe a brush with the visiting Bill Clinton during her time in China also rubbed off.
"The key for VocaLink is that we never fail on a payment, and throughout our history we never have," trumpets King.
The Faster Payments rollout this week could lead to grander boasts. But for the moment, King and her banking paymasters will just breathe a sigh of relief if the new system goes without a glitch.
After qualifying as a public accountant for Luton Council, King joined Lloyd's & Scottish selling finace to the motor trade, working in a number of roles before going to motor dealer HR Owen, where she launched a new car-finance scheme.
1985-86: sales executive, Quotron – a firm supplying information systems to financial institutions such as the New York Stock Exchange.
1986-2000: managing director of Reuters' business information service, Factiva. Later became managing director for the company's East Asian operation.
2000-02: founded People PC, supplying internet-ready computers to companies wishing to provide the machines as employee benefits.
2002-present: chief executive of Bacs and than VocaLink following last year's merger.Reuse content