Originally created 06/02/04

New payroll cards sub for pay, benefit checks



PHILADELPHIA -- Many car salesmen looking for their latest commission no longer ask if the check is in the mail, but if the money is on the card.

GMC truck, Mazda, Suzuki and other dealers are among a fast-growing number of companies using stored-value cards instead of checks for bonuses and commissions, plus paychecks.

More than 1,000 companies, including FedEx Corp., UPS Inc., McDonald's Corp., U-Haul, Coca-Cola Co., Blockbuster Inc., and Office Depot Inc., have started offering to pay employees with Visa Payroll cards instead of checks since Visa launched the cards in 2001.

"We're seeing well into the triple-digit growth rates for this category," said Todd Brockman, Visa's vice president for prepaid products.

The payroll cards are an outgrowth of stored value cards that contain consumer rebates, and gift certificates that carry a company logo. They can be spent or used to obtain cash and can be recharged.

The potential market is huge. About $11 billion in payroll payments and $4 billion in benefits payments such as commissions and incentives were loaded onto prepaid cards in 2003, according to a study by the Mercator Advisory Group in Shrewsbury, Mass.

Such payments are growing at more than 11 percent a year, said Tim Sloane, Mercator's director of debit advisory service.

If cards replaced checks issued each year to 130 million employees who lack bank accounts, are temporary employees, or work at remote locations, such payments could reach an annual $109.8 billion, Sloane said.

The trend is a bonanza for Conshohocken, Pa.-based Ecount, a provider of the card account technology, said Matthew Gillin, chief executive.

As the business has evolved, the cards were first used for consumer incentives or gift certificates. For example, the Starz! cable channel offers new customers a $20 Visa gift card, and AT&T offers a $15 MasterCard virtual gift card for online purchases, both using Ecount's technology.

Now about 30 companies, including the EB Games video game store chain, nearly 50 Burger King restaurants and poultry giant Pilgrim's Pride Corp., offer to pay employees with Ecount Visa or MasterCards. About 30 others use them to pay benefits such as sales commissions, Gillin said.

Ecount said it has issued more than 1 million cards and has seen payments issued on its cards boom, from $18 million in 2002 to $97 million last year to a projected $300 million this year.

Because of their immediacy, the cards shine for paying commissions or incentives; Ecount this month began providing incentive and commission cards for some 3,000 GMC, Chevrolet and Isuzu truck salespeople.

"You've sold the car, you get an e-mail, 'Your payment's here,"' Gillin said. "Or you call the 800 number if you're in the car to check if the payment is there."

Employees can use the cards at the grocery, the gas pump, stores, restaurants or the money machine, and companies increasingly use them in lieu of checks, particularly for youthful or transient workers.

"A lot of our employees are young," said Maria Wagner, payroll manager at West Chester, Pa.-based EB games, estimating that 10 percent of the video game store chain's 6,000 employees opt for the card. "We wanted to reduce our number of checks we generate. We wanted to increase our direct deposit number. Ecount works just like direct deposit."

Bob Hughes, payroll manager for Pittsburg, Texas-based Pilgrim's Pride, said many of its employees live in rural areas and a lot don't have a bank account. He said about 10 percent of the poultry processor's 36,000 employees in 40 states use the cards.

Companies avoid the costs of issuing checks, tracking whether they've been cashed or deposited, and stopping payment and issuing replacements for lost or stolen checks, Gillin said.

"Certainly most organizations are trying to be cost-effective and meet the needs of employees," said Vandra Huber, a professor of management and organization at the University of Washington's School of Business Administration.

And the faster commissions are paid, the better, Huber said.

"The value of incentive payments is it links pay to performance. The best motivation is actually handing over hard, cold cash to employees immediately after performance," Huber said.

At Mazda, selling some models may earn a salesperson a "spin," in which a spin of a wheel bestows an incentive payment anywhere from $25 to $100, said Eric Johnston, director of marketing for Mazda North America Operations in Irvine, Calif., which has used the cards for more than three years.

Whenever the salespeople whip out the cards with the Mazda logo and picture of an RX-8 sports car, he said, "We reinforce the behavior right away. They sell a car today, we can pay them electronically within 24 hours. We could never do that with a check."

On the Net:

Ecount: http://www.ecount.com