Versatel

It was in mid-1983, when I returned to Miami from a periodic visit to my transition team in Panama, that my boss, Conrad Planas, presented me with my next assignment. He explained that the Bank of America (BofA) Country Manager for Peru, Roberto Anguizola, had requested managerial support in developing his vision of a system that could give the bank country-wide if not regional leadership in retail banking systems.

Within a few days, I was flying south.

And for most of the next week, whenever Roberto could make himself available, we brain-stormed his proposed system for Peru. His idea was to have a telecoms link between the clients and the bank’s computer systems. The clients would be able to access their accounts, up-load their payroll, their staff would receive a competitive rate of interest, and with a card, pay for their groceries and withdraw cash at branches of the main supermarket chain in Lima.

No big deal, I can hear you think, but you must remember that the IBM PC had only just been developed in Boca Raton and was not yet universally available, and there was no Internet as we know it today. Access to computer systems and their data was via a dumb terminal at the end of a cable and few people had a credit or debit card linked to their bank accounts. And as far as we knew at that time, nowhere could clients withdraw cash, pay for their purchases, and have their bank account updated in real time from a retail environment. Life as we knew it then was very different.

For the client, their staff, the supermarket chain and Bank of America, this system could be a win-win-win-win.

In that era, personal security in Peru was poor, and the terrorist organization, Sendero Luminoso, was in control of large parts of the country and threatening the physical infrastructure of Lima.

For clients, direct access to their accounts and the ability to upload their payroll directly to the accounts of their staff was both a productivity and a security gain.

For the clients’ staff, the ability to withdraw cash in a secure environment, at the same time as they pay for their shopping, was an attraction, thus avoiding to having to queue in a bank or to use a potentially vulnerable ATM.

For the supermarket chain there was the resulting incremental business and a reduction in the amount of cash they had to carry, potentially reducing their insurance costs.

And for BofA, there was the possibility of a profitable long-term relationship with the client and their staff.

Long before the end of my visit, I was convinced of the commercial potential of such a suite of systems, and Roberto was keen that I undertake the management role. Before I left to return to Miami, he sent a request that I be transferred to Lima. The administrative wheels turned rapidly, and in a short time, I was back.

When I arrived, I found that Roberto had provided everything that I had requested, and more. I had a large development room with all the equipment we could ever need. I inherited a small team of developers – José Luiz and Vicky Basurto, Miguel Ruiz-Conejo and Luz Maria Fernandez, together with Rueben Uchina, responsible for the computer systems.

For several months we worked intensively on the development. I felt that I had the support of all the involved departments of the bank, and we met whenever we reached a decision point.

From time to time, I got involved in presenting our system direction to existing and prospective clients. I remember on one such occasion presenting to a major Japanese company, with the aid of Luz Maria, who knew some Japanese. Fun times!

Before the development was completed, Roberto was promoted and transferred to Panama to manage a very much larger business. His role was taken by Bill Schoeningh. Despite Bill having had no prior involvement in the project, he gave me his full support, without reservation.

While the software development was being completed and tested, Luz Maria led the design and production of the debit cards, the marketing materials, and the booths that would be installed in the supermarkets.

Part of the marketing materials, including my Versatel debit card
Miguel Ruiz-Conejo, Jose Luis Basurto, Luz Maria Fernandez, Vicky Basurto, and yours truly
The first Versatel booth waiting to be moved to a supermarket

Sadly, for me, once the software was accepted, my further involvement in the project was no longer required, and I had to return to Miami. It remained to the local Peruvian team to deliver the implementation of Versatel.

Once back in Miami, I learned that I was to be transferred to Buenos Aires to be involved in the integration of the systems of a recently acquired Argentine bank.

Argentine work permits were applied for, but after several weeks, there was no material progress. Unfortunately, my US bosses did not seem to understand that an employee with a UK passport was not exactly welcome in Argentina, following the very recent Malvinas (Falklands) war.

While this application process was stalled, I received an offer from the Managing Director (MD) of a UK company, P-E International, for which I had worked for several years as a contractor with Shell Oil in London, Lagos, and Caracas. I had previously told him that I would never consider joining his company if I didn’t have a realistic crack at his job.

‘Now is the time’, was his response!

Suspecting that Argentina would turn out to be a dead-end opportunity, I moved to the UK. I have had no regrets.

Believe it or not, I have never found out what ever happened to Versatel. Not long after I left Bank of America, I remember reading that Peru had stopped paying its international debts, and that some, if not all, of the American banks were closing their operations and withdrawing from the country. For lack of any better information, I assumed that Versatel had not survived.

Which would have been a great shame, for the system could have been a market leader.

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