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Fascination with computers put Dalton on path to Fiserv

Dalton stands with financial transaction processing machines in 1977. Fiserv originated as the processing department of Midland National Bank of Milwaukee in 1964. Midland was acquired by First Bank System in 1977.

Dalton stands with financial transaction processing machines in 1977. Fiserv originated as the processing department of Midland National Bank of Milwaukee in 1964. Midland was acquired by First Bank System in 1977. Photo By Journal Sentinel files

Nov. 18, 2011

But for a chance encounter with a pile of old computer processing cards, George Dalton might have grown up to be a butcher.

Instead, he became a co-founder of Fiserv Inc., the Brookfield-based firm that is now one of the world's largest data processors for all kinds of financial institutions.

The magic moment happened when he was 16 and saw a friend run a deck of punched cards through an early computer. As Dalton later said, he "fell in love with the computer business then and there."

George D. Dalton died of natural causes Thursday, following months of health problems since surgery in April. He was 83.

Before he began Fiserv, Dalton played a key role in the development of the TYME network. Dalton was then at Midland National Bank and had already started an independent network called Cash Plus. That reportedly spurred other banks to begin talking about creating their own network, but they planned to exclude Midland. Dalton's boss, John Kelly, embarrassed them into changing that plan.

"Dalton was the only guy who knew what the hell he was doing," said Mike Milunovich, who became a First Wisconsin representative on the TYME consortium, speaking in 1997.

"I never felt one company could own an ATM network," Dalton said. "I kept saying, 'You have to share these facilities in order for them to have real value.' "

As for Fiserv, it's hard to overstate how much happened at the company on his watch.

Dalton founded the firm with Leslie M. Muma in 1984. By the time Dalton stepped down as chairman in 2000, Fiserv had acquired more than 90 businesses. The number of employees grew from 264 to 14,000. Fiserv was an industry leader, with revenue that increased from $21 million to $1.4 billion in 15 years.

The company then had more than 10,000 clients in the banking, insurance, securities and trust industries, including international customers.

It now has 19,000 employees worldwide, with 16,000 clients in 106 countries, according to a company spokeswoman. Revenue totaled $4.1 billion in 2010.

"It's a wonderful legacy, a magnificent legacy," said James McKenna, CEO at North Shore Bank and a longtime friend. "It's something all of us in the Milwaukee area and southeastern Wisconsin should be grateful for."

For his part, Dalton had his own reasons to be grateful.

"Whenever I get lucky, I just look up and say, 'Thanks, mom,' " he liked to say. "My mom was a tough little Irish lady. She was a disciplinarian, a driver, a person who had a thirst for doing her best. She was never satisfied."

There were lessons in that for young George.

He also recalled another lesson early in his business career, this one courtesy of his boss at Bell and Howell.

"Geez, George, any fool can find the bad stuff. Look for the good stuff," his boss told him.

Dalton took that to heart, too.

"If you look for the good in people and let them know you see it, you develop a different attitude in people," he said.

Friends and colleagues agreed that was just what Dalton tried to do.

"He genuinely liked people," McKenna said. "It was sincere. It wasn't an act. And people would gravitate to him and trust him. People could sense that."

"He cared about people," said Jeff Yabuki, president and CEO of Fiserv. "Every single person George interacted with felt important, because they were."

Dalton was an only child, born and raised in Chicago. His mother, Caroline, worked as a dressmaker; father Leo printed handbills on a press in their basement.

He worked odd jobs as a teenager, first thinking that he wanted to be a butcher until that encounter with computer cards.

Then came military service after high school, marriage, jobs in a meat market and as a taxi driver. Dalton attended night classes at Northwestern University, but moved into more work instead of toward a degree.

He came to Milwaukee in 1953, joining the former Marine National Exchange Bank as head of its automation program.

In 1964, a friend, John Kelly, left the bank to form Midland National Bank. Dalton went along and started Midland Data Processing. Sometime after the bank was sold to First Bank System, Dalton and other investors bought the First Data Processing unit in a leveraged buyout in 1984.

By then, Dalton was friends with Muma, who was running Sunshine State Systems, the data processing unit of Freedom Savings & Loan Association in Tampa, Fla. Muma got the chance to buy its data processing unit.

Fiserv was born in July 1984 when the two merged their operations.

It was just the beginning.

Master of acquisitions

Dalton became the man who handled acquisitions for the firm. He believed in buying only companies that were well-run and keeping management and staff in place.

"I'm acquiring you not because you're a bad company, I'm acquiring you because you're a good company," Dalton would say. "Otherwise, I would not have come here."

That kind of business savvy was part of the reason Dalton was honored as Wisconsin Business Leader of the Year in 1995.

"George Dalton is undoubtedly corporate Wisconsin's most skillful shopper," said Jeff Squire, then business editor of The Milwaukee Journal. "The fact that he has been able to buy more than 50 businesses and meld them into a cohesive whole bears testimony to his management skills."

A short man, Dalton joked that his negotiating strategy involved saying, "Let's sit down to talk."

"Dalton is the front guy, the guy who buys the companies," Muma once said. "I sweep up after George's parade. That's OK. He deserves all the accolades he gets."

When Dalton made plans to step down, he announced that Muma would become CEO and the "bumper in front of the car."

Within a few months, though, he was ready to unretire. Then 72, he launched a new business called Call Solutions. He hoped to duplicate the scope and success of Fiserv in the fragmented call center business. Dalton sold the business, now NOVO 1 Inc., in 2009.

In his personal life, Dalton's first marriage ended in divorce. He later married the former Pauline Minorik.

He was involved in civic life, including with the boards for the Milwaukee Public Museum, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, the Milwaukee Blood Center and the Waukesha County Economic Development Corp.

An animal lover, his favorite cause was probably the Wisconsin Humane Society, where the main facility on Wisconsin Ave. was named in his honor.

"His tireless advocacy and inspiration saved the lives of literally tens of thousands of animals," according to a statement on the society's website. "They say all dogs go to heaven, so the welcoming committee for him must be quite a sight."

He was the major donor and a driving force behind the campaign that made the building project possible. A large painting of Heidi, his beloved German Shepherd, is displayed, as is a smaller photo of George and canine friends.

"They will always be there to greet people and welcome them to the humane society," said Angela Speed, director of community relations and development. "We have lost a good friend."

Dalton also believed in helping other entrepreneurs get started. In 2008, that meant announcing that he would be eating breakfast regularly at the Perkins Restaurant in Brookfield. He would be there at 6 a.m., willing to talk to anyone who showed up.

"If you want to be an entrepreneur, you've got to get up in the morning," he declared.

In addition to his wife, Pauline, survivors include daughters Linda Dalton, Carol Dalton, Nancy Harmeyer; sons Wayne and Glenn; his wife's daughter, Shelli Marquardt; his first wife, Loretta; grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Visitation will be from 3 to 7 p.m. Nov. 28 at the Becker Ritter Funeral Home, 14075 W. North Ave., Brookfield. The funeral service will be at 11:30 a.m. Nov. 29 at Gesu Church, 1145 W. Wisconsin Ave.

 

 

 

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