Belfast Telegraph

Chasing the paper trail in a digital age

Pitney Bowes has the US mail franking market licked, but its CEO tells Stephen Foley the future's digital

Apparently, there is a photo. "But, no, you can't have it," Murray Martin says with a grin. There is a Simon Cowell mask in the corner of the Pitney Bowes chief executive's office, but it is not the time he wore it that he is being coy about.

It is the time he dressed up as Steven Tyler, the Aerosmith frontman-turned-American Idol judge, for the company's "Innovation Idol" competition, when Pitney Bowes employees are feted for suggesting promising technological ideas. (The winner this year, since you ask, was an idea for embedding more interactive information into QR codes, those barcode-type squares on ads that you can snap with your phone.) "You should have seen me in the Steven Tyler wig," he says.

"But, no, you still can't have the photo."

Behind the razzmatazz of Innovation Idol is a serious purpose for Mr Martin, who is racing to remake Pitney Bowes and pushing the company in all sorts of new directions.

Messrs Arthur Pitney and Walter Bowes created the first franking machines in the US almost a century ago, eliminating a lot of stamp licking at the nation's businesses, and the company is now a $4bn (£2.5bn) goliath which dominates mail franking and whose machines can now do much more than just stamping the envelope. It also prints and sends millions of bills and junk mail on behalf of big customers. But...

"Nothing wrong with postal machines at all," Mr Martin says, "however the volume of mail is not increasing." Although email and the internet haven't quickly killed Pitney Bowes, they are the grim reapers on the horizon, so the company has been inventing ways it can muscle in on the digital communications between companies and their customers.

Inventing, and acquiring companies, too.

Last year it paid £44m for a UK-listed company called Portrait Software, one of 80 takeovers in the past decade.

In the UK, home to 2,400 of its 30,000 employees, it helps retailers including Marks & Spencer choose the location for new stores, based on its databases of demographic information.

Mr Martin has also taken a leaf out of Apple's playbook. The latest franking machine for small business - it's called the Pitney Bowes Connect+ - is a "platform", not just a machine.

As with the iPhone, app developers are being encouraged to design extra features for the machine.

Soon, it won't just print the postage but may also be able to check the accuracy of addresses or target direct mail to the right type of household. It is all a far cry from the first hulking postage meters on display at Pitney Bowes' Connecticut headquarters, complete with Dickensian-looking pots where operators had to put the ink - but let's not forget those machines were on the cutting edge in their day. "Pitney Bowes has always been an innovative company," its chief executive says, "and it continues to reinvent itself. That's why it has been here for 90 years".

One interesting thing about our interview: at no point does Mr Martin utter the word "paper". Not once. When he means paper, he says "physical", as in, not digital.

He has been scanning and saving his mail in digital form for about five years, he says, an experiment that, through some twists and turns, led to Pitney Bowes's latest big idea - a web service called Volly where consumers can collate all their bills in one place, from credit and store cards to utility bills.

It is going live in the US around the turn of the year, and ought to be available in the UK by the end of 2012.

Pitney Bowes's Volly offering enters a competitive and fast-changing arena, where start-ups and multi-national companies alike are fighting to persuade consumers to bring all their log-ins and online activity into a single place.

Some analysts are sceptical that Pitney Bowes is spending its money in the right place. How fast will consumer adoption be?

We will have to see.