“I wish I could give you a grand leading vision.”
It’s the first thing Heartland CEO Bob Carr says as he sits down in the media room at Money20/20, the modern white leather couch clashing with his holiday sweater. We’re talking about the buzz around the bitcoin blockchain, the technology’s decentralized ledger, and how it relates to the future of his New Jersey-based payments firm.
Frankly, I’m surprised he arrived. With all the chasing that goes into setting up meetings, it’s a bit startling the CEO of the fifth largest merchant acquirer in the US would venture down to the press room for the kind of theoretical conversations bitcoin and blockchain discussions often spiral into, especially when it was only loosely on our schedules.
My hesitation for the meeting was not without reason. We’re both not exactly sure what to talk about, both armed with the awareness that the narrative around the technology is shifting away from Heartland’s specialities like payment services and e-commerce.
When Heartland signed a deal to refer its merchant customers to BitPay in March of this year, the industry was just a few months removed from Microsoft’s decision to accept the digital currency, and even then, payments director Joe Wysocki expressed how the company was moving slowly on the technology.
Despite warnings signs at the time, there was still optimism that other big-name merchants would quickly follow, but data from Q3 illustrates this resurgence hasn’t came to pass. This doesn’t seem to bother Carr, who gives the impression that he’s still genuinely interested in the technology, even if he struggles to see its practical applications for his business.
We wade into conversation, and talk comes slowly and with ample pauses on either side. In a way, it’s honest, devoid of the eager soundbytes that come when meeting payments firms that seek an easy headline opportunity.
Carr told CoinDesk:
”I’ve noticed a lot more discussion about blockchain. I have been asking experts, ‘What should we be doing here?’, ‘How much time should we be spending on this?’ Usually the answer is stay tuned and see how things develop.”
It’s not much to work with – the admission that, like Money20/20, the finance industry is a crowded room, filled with technologies and products that come and go, and that in this light, it’s just not clear what the next steps for his company will be with the technology.
Still, he seems inclined to believe that the promise of distributed ledgers is the real opportunity given the increasing momentum toward this use case.
“It seems to me that the play is for banks [to use blockchain] to settle between themselves. There’s trillions in very high-end transactions going back and forth across borders between businesses,” he said, adding without any real vigor:
“That might be the breakthrough.”
Carr continues pragmatically, noting he sees evidence of this elsewhere at the conference.
More top of mind than any blockchain product for Carr is Chase Pay, the new mobile payments app rolled out by the US bank to a swirl of promising headlines. Interestingly, he sees how its design mirrors the underlying strengths of distributed financial technology.
As Chase Pay works by cutting the major credit card processors out of transactions, Carr notes the app removes interchange fees for merchants in the same way the blockchain does when consumers pay merchants directly for services in bitcoin.
Given innovations like Chase Pay, however, Carr doesn’t see as strong a use case for bitcoin as a consumer-facing digital currency, the use case most of his merchant clients are most interested in.
“I think blockchain is a more serious technology, whereas bitcoin is an implementation of technology that has a lot of questions,” he added, though he admits he’s not exactly an expert on the subject.
Heartland, he suggests, operates on a need-to-know basis, and right now, there might just not be that much pragmatic, customer-focused businesses need to know about bitcoin and the blockchain.
As the conversation ebbs on, it’s still not clear which camp to put Carr into, whether he’s a pragmatist or cautious optimist.
Carr, however, begins to offer more insight, eventually identifying himself as an evangelist for payments technology as a whole. He smirks often when talking about how others may dismiss innovation, as if he’s a gambling man, or at least someone who lives by a kind of never-say-never philosophy.
It comes out over discussion about the attention on bitcoin and blockchain technologies at the conference. Given the breadth of the content, many of the industry attendees seem to feel a natural falling off in enthusiasm, if only for the girth of other options.
“I think bitcoin and blockchain have gotten a lot of trade press,” he counters. “There’s a lot of evangelists out there and a lot of copy, but there’s also a lack of adoption by credible people, though I think it’s happening slowly.”
Carr places bitcoin and the blockchain as part of the larger story of payment technology, where a small pool of believers eventually bring about seismic change in the financial industry. He compares this to the ATM boom that brought cash vending machines to corners across the developed world.
“You get to the famous tipping point, where you get past early adopters and there’s a more rapid adoption ratio,” he said. “I think that’s what we’re going to see with these technologies.”
With the conversation fading out, he gets up to leave, his skeptical optimism leaving a bit of a wake. He turns and asks me where I think it’s heading. I don’t have a strong answer.
“Well, someday you’ll look back and say you were there at the beginning,” he says, maybe at last revealing his hand.
Image via Pete Rizzo for CoinDesk