He Always Keeps the Window of Opportunity Open

Total Merchant Services is a stellar example of how wide a window can open when a door closes. Its founder and President/CEO, Ed Freedman, saw opportunity through that window and plotted a course that has enabled Total Merchant Services to successfully sail through the payment-processing seas.

Founded in 1996, Colorado-based Total Merchant Services is a credit card merchant account acquirer that puts ISO peace of mind at its helm. Its captain started out in the bankcard business working for other ISOs and was told that the way to make money was through selling and leasing terminals. Through business seminars and research, however, Freedman determined the money was in processing.

"Would the ISOs share that revenue with me? No way," says Freedman. "That door was shut. So I decided to start a company and get a direct relationship with a bank and a processor. I started talking to other agents, pooling other salespeople together who also felt they were being cheated and wanted to share in the revenue."

With a business philosophy centered on forming a consortium of independent salespeople sharing in revenue associated with merchant acquiring, Total Merchant Services was created.

"We offered a package of ownership to the common sales guy," says Freedman. "Being a salesman myself, I knew someone had to underwrite and deploy, do risk management while the agents sold. So I set up the back office for support services and let our sales guys focus on selling. We helped other people get out of selling equipment and get into sharing in revenue."

That model has translated into a core competency focused on a comprehensive sales and marketing training program, a robust risk-management system and an aggressive underwriting policy.

"We are able to approve accounts no other company can," says Freedman. "The key to success is writing merchants and not take losses on them."

In addition to Total Merchant Services' risk-management, sales and marketing programs, Freedman lists technology, online application capabilities and its unique training program as clear-cut differentiators. "We offer a free three-day training event that includes airfare, hotel and food," says Freedman. "We want to make it easy not only for them to get to know us but for us to get to know them."

TMS also offers a free Web site to its agents that includes an affiliate marketing software package, affiliate tracing software and other goodies. "No one else offers free copies of Authorize.Net or VeriSign, the two leading gateways," says Freedman. "We do." Freedman believes these offerings will attract the sales professionals who want it all. "This is very competitive market," Freedman says. "If you are an independent and you investigate our programs, I think you'll see ours stands out from all the others from both a contract and a financial standpoint." Already, more than 200 ISOs have boarded Total Merchant Services.

TMS provides for a lucrative compensation plan. In fact, Freedman boasts that his CHOICE program is the most lucrative compensation plan in the country, though he's quick to emphasize that's not the only reason to do business with Total Merchant Services.

TMS's CHOICE program allows agents to select, on a merchant-by-merchant basis, either a revenue-sharing program or a buy-rate program. The reason behind this dual offering: TMS wants ISOs to maximize earnings without having to work with more than one provider.

"I always explain that the key to success is getting an agreement that protects you against losing your monthly residual commissions," Freedman says. "Our sales partners are protected from ever losing their residual commissions. Our agreement has no liability for merchant losses and has no exclusivity requirements. Smart sales professionals are figuring out, oftentimes the hard way, that their agreement for residual income will be the determining factor as to whether they will be able to survive in this great business."

According to Freedman, the target market for this great business is across-the-board merchants, though TMS's main success has been with small to midsize merchants. At present, more than 15,000 merchants are aboard with TMS.

Since Total Merchant Services sees two emerging markets - wireless processing and government card processing - its hottest products and services currently focus on them. The demand is huge for its Internet commerce solution, a solution that provides for automatic approval and online application process.

"We offer a fast and easy enrollment," says Freedman. "It takes 24 hours for completion from the time the ISO submits the app. If they don't get it back in 24 hours, it's their fault, not ours."

Freedman continues, "Our wireless processing is flexible, reliable - meaning it works. That's key. A lot of companies offer solutions that aren't working. We also support it."

Partnerships and alliances are also key to Total Merchant Services' success. Consider the companies TMS has inked deals with:

It is a Member Service Provider (MSP) of HSBC Bank. For back-end settlement of merchants' daily and monthly transactions, and for chargeback and retrieval processing, Total Merchant Services works with Global Payments. Total Merchant Services also works with a number of front-end authorization networks, including NDC East, NDC Central, NDC West, VisaNet and Paymentech.

As mentioned above, for Internet merchant accounts TMS is hooked up with several Internet gateway providers, including VeriSign, Authorize.Net and Plug 'n Pay Technologies Inc. For wireless merchants, TMS works with the leading wireless service providers, including Cingular (RAM network) and U.S. Wireless Data (CDPD and Motient networks).

"We've been through a minefield of vendors in the past," says Freedman. "Our partners are the main differentiator factor. We've pooled together such a high level of service from the vendors we now work with."

Another high level of service that TMS is proud of is its agent support. Six months ago, the entire Total Merchant Services staff of 40 moved to a new 10,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art office space to support its sales partners. "In our corporate offices in Colorado, that's all we do," says Freedman. "For merchant support, we outsource to Global."

Through TMS's sales-partner portal, its agents get real-time Internet access to all of their account data. They then can log onto a Web-based portal and view anything TMS's internal staff sees.

"Our agents can view not only the status of their accounts but can look at compensation, merchant notes, etc.," Freedman says. "Here's a huge ability for them to review their accounts at any time." What does TMS look for in its agents? "We look for people that are honest not just with us but also with the merchant," says Freedman. "Size doesn't matter, but quality does. How do you represent Total Merchant Services, how do you service your customers - that matters to me. They are the front line of Total Merchant Services. Our reputation gets built by them."

Which is probably the reason TMS provides good pricing, good support, solid communication, free three-day training, manuals, marketing materials, brochures, videos, letterhead, business cards and the ability to customize Web sites with the agent's name, address and phone.

It would appear that Total Merchant Services is shipshape, ready to face any storm. So where is its biggest challenge? According to Freedman, it's the commitment to continue to grow the business, continue to develop relationships with good ISOs and continue to get its message out.

"From a challenge standpoint, we need to do more of the same," says Freedman. "The hardest thing is the day-to-day grind, to be able to sit down and do this every day ... to scale up the model."

Freedman anticipates that Total Merchant Services will triple in size within the next two to three years, especially in light of the strong infrastructure that is already in place. "We all know that if you build it, they will come. Well, we've built it," says Freedman. "We are a flagship company in the ISO world, not just for offering the best compensation but because we treat people fairly. That's been our mission - i.e., protecting their rights and ownership in their contracts."

Freedman also anticipates that the industry will change as well within the next few years. "Through a lot of pressure, the industry is cleaning up its act," he says. "Five years from now, you won't hear about bad ISOs. We will be considered an industry where there are only good ISOs.

"Anybody who is not taking a proactive approach in cleaning up this business won't be in this business. We must be responsible not only for services delivered to merchants but what their reps are saying out on the street. The ones who do it will be the leaders in this business." Total Merchant Services is banking on being one of those leaders.

And toward that end, Freedman extends a special message to the industry: "I would like to encourage anyone interested in developing a long-term relationship to call me personally. I want them to know me personally. Not a lot of company presidents' phone lines are open - mine always is."

SOURCE: 06/01/2002, The Green Sheet