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Intuit investors brace for post-Harris era

Last week's departure of chief executive Bill Harris took the wind out of Intuit's shares at a time when the company is preparing to face increased competition.

The week since Bill Harris's resignation from Intuit has been rough on investors, but it could prove to be a prelude for what's to come.

Harris, whose resignation announcement caused a 10 percent drop in Intuit stock, leaves the company after overseeing its transformation from being primarily a software maker to also providing Internet-based personal financial services. The Internet divisions generated 20 percent of the Intuit's revenue in the last six months.

But it is the very success of the entire financial sector's migration onto the Net that leaves Intuit facing greater competition, as services offered by online banks, brokerage houses, and other financial firms begin to intrude on its turf.

"There is no doubt that this industry is extremely dynamic and you have a variety of different players who are basically going to meet at some point in some kind of a cross-product battle," said Scott Kessler, an analyst at S&P Equity Group.

During the past year brick-and-mortar banks and brokerage houses have either jumped on the online bandwagon or have made clear their Net intentions--including giants such as Citibank and Merrill Lynch. The space also is filling up with Web-only players such as WingspanBank, E*Trade, and Ameritrade.

Many of these competitors are hoping to attract customers by simplifying online finances. For example, after a transaction, consumers must update their stock or banking information on their personal finance software. Online banks and brokerage houses hope to automate that process for customers.

"I expect all major online brokers to move in that direction," said Dan Burke, the senior brokerage analyst at research firm Gomez Advisors. "They don't want to give up eyeballs to places like [Intuit's] Quicken.com and Yahoo Finance where people can track their stocks."

Nearly five years after Microsoft dropped its $1.5 billion bid to acquire Intuit, the software giant remains Intuit's primary competitor with Microsoft Money gunning to dethrone Intuit's flagship Quicken software.

"When you have Microsoft breathing down several of your markets, it obviously keeps you on your toes," said Kessler. "The key to Intuit's success is to continue building its brand, developing new products, and garnering customer appreciation."

A good thing going
Analysts said they expect little change in the company's overall strategy. The chairman and former CEO Bill Campbell, who will be the acting chief executive, said last week that with Intuit revenues strong and its Internet strategy firmly in place, the company will remain on course.

"I expect them to continue looking for opportunities on the Internet and probably to move more toward the small-business area," said Steve Shepich, an equities analyst at Olde Discount.

Still, the sudden resignation of Harris has rocked Intuit's stock, dropping it about 10 points since the announcement last Thursday.

"Any time a senior executive resigns unexpectedly, you are going to see such an impact," said Shepich. "[Harris] was a key player in the move onto the Internet--a strategy that has been extremely successful. His departure has some people concerned."

Although Harris plans to remain as a member of the company's board and help find his replacement, he said he left the company to step back from day-to-day management to focus on his entrepreneurial interests.

Analysts agreed that the corporate culture at Intuit has evolved in recent years as the company swelled to a market capitalization of more than $5 billion. To run this emerging behemoth, the company will need a chief executive that is inspired by operational issues and day-to-day management, and who can move at Internet-speed.

Intuit stock has climbed nearly 40 percent this year, prompting some analysts to note that investors are seeing this as a good time to unload their holdings in the company.

Others see this as a good time to jump onboard.

"I perceive the sell off in the stock that is currently in effect to be a buying opportunity and an attractive entry-point," said Kessler, who maintains an "accumulate" rating on Intuit.

Intuit dipped 4.27 percent or 4 points today to close at 89.75. The stock has traded as high as 110.75 and as low as 34.5 during the past 52 weeks.