Fast Company

Born Again

Bowne Internet Solutions is learning to balance tradition and technology in order to create a customer-friendly financial-services solution for the 21st Century.

When Bowne & Co. first opened the doors of its printing enterprise, the Bank of the United States was still a glimmer in Alexander Hamilton's eye. In fact, so was the United States itself.

The fate of Britain's defiant Western colony was dubious at best in 1775, but entrepreneur Robert Bowne was deterred neither by political uprising nor by raging war, and subsequently launched what is now a respected stalwart in the world of financial printing. 224 years later, that pioneer spirit and ironclad vision are guiding Bowne & Co. through perhaps the most fascinating insurrection since the Boston Tea Party: The Internet revolution.

"You would be hard-pressed to find a more traditional brick-and-mortar company," says Greg Koorhan, Bowne Internet Solution's vice president for marketing and corporate development. "We are the second-oldest public company in America?but nobody knows who we are because of the traditional business we've been in."

Voted least likely to ruffle its centuries-old feathers, Bowne surprised the finanical printing industry and its own employees two years ago when it launched an "Internet Solutions" division that creates e-commerce solutions and customer relationship-building mechanisms for other financial institutions. Today, the oldest company in one of the world's oldest professions is learning to balance tradition and technology in order to create a customer-friendly financial-services solution for the 21st Century.

In truth, Bowne's rebirth was not entirely unexpected. In the 1980s, the company began working with the Securities and Exchange Commission to formulate and test a groundbreaking electronic filing system called EDGAR. Along those same lines, Bowne Digital has been serving personalized print-on-demand financial statements since June 1995, and Bowne Global has been creating localized software for international clients since January 1997. And for decades now, Bowne has been monitoring the ebb and flow of financial tides, waiting for a time when regulations would be lifted and barriers to growth and creativity broken down. When industry leaders began predicting the convergence of investment banks, mutual funds, retail banks, and insurance companies in the early 1990s, Bowne began to visualize a new future for itself.

"Today, more traditional banking institutions are being driven to the Internet against their better judgement by smaller, more nimble companies," says John Van Pelt, senior interactive architect. "Until recently, the jury was out concerning the profitability of Internet ventures, but as more companies branch out, the profit and return on investment will become clearer. Still, a lot of the older institutions are just trying to keep up with the Joneses, and they're in a panic mode."

That panic represents a competitive advantage for Bowne Internet Solutions. As a seasoned participant in the financial process, Bowne has already won the trust of the world's leading institutions. And a reliable, experienced comrade is exactly what many of those transitioning companies need -- not to mention the practical applications of Internet technology, and consulting and development services that Bowne offers.

In addition to its old-world wisdom and new-world know-how, Bowne also provides a unique perspective that no wet-behind-the-ears Internet solutions firm could muster. Like many of its clients, Bowne has grappled repeatedly with the challenge of maintaining its tradition, reputation, and respected brand name while simultaneously working to introduce and cultivate a new identity that fits in the new world of work. It's a delicate balance that Bowne insists can be achieved.

"Traditionalists within the company initially thought Bowne Internet Solutions would result in lost business, but today, those people are becoming our biggest converts," Koorhan says. "Many of the print divisions are receiving more business because of our increased Web and translation services. They see the benefits of a company that can take information and translate it into the online world without any loss of efficiency."

In 1997, the expertise was in place and the vision was strong. By early 1998, all that remained was the need for technical partners that could carry Bowne Internet Solutions across the threshold. And so the acquisitions began. First, Bowne acquired Sitewerks and Quadravision, then Open Sesame and Mountain Lake Software. Finally, in June 1998, the solution was a reality, and customer service became the task at hand.

In the financial industry, privacy and confidentiality are fundamental. On the Web, they are not. Bowne Internet Solutions learned very quickly how to play both sides of this coin.

"On the one hand, our clients are trusted entities, and usually the trust relationship is central to their brand and their business. We can't do anything that remotely threatens that sense of privacy and confidentiality," Van Pelt says. "On the other hand, financial tools and services offered over the Net require users to enter full, true, and authentic information about themselves. It's a private environment, but it's not an anonymous environment."

Here, again, trust and reliability become Bowne's biggest asset. These qualities are perhaps even more crucial in a shifting financial environment where commercial banks, investment services, and insurance companies are consolidating at a staggering pace. As companies begin to offer more services, each customer becomes a more valuable life-long user. Meanwhile, as these vertical markets expand, communication across markets and across borders becomes a greater challenge.

In the international market, Bowne relies primarily on two things: the localization tools first introduced in Bowne Global and the company's overall aptitude and experience in financial services. Localization tools are needed to adapt materials for overseas clients. (Bowne has already localized Microsoft's "Encarta" CD-ROM and prepared 3Com's PalmPilot for the Japanese market.) The general finesse in financial services is needed to navigate the tangle of state, federal, and international regulations that often complicate business on the Internet.

These legal hazards commonly elude run-of-the-mill e-commerce sites, but Bowne does not necessarily view them as liabilities. It prefers the term "opportunity" -- opportunity to Wow! its clients, opportunity to uniquely serve millions of global customers, opportunity to prove that tradition and innovation can compliment each other in the New Economy.

"Customer service in the brick-and-mortar world is more concrete in nature," Van Pelt says. "It has to do with on-time delivery of physical artifacts like printed documents. In the Internet world customer service may be less tangible, but it still reflects strongly upon the continued reputation of Bowne & Co."

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