This Under-the-Radar Payments Company Could Be a Great Investment

The financial sector is constantly evolving — especially the payments industry, which is home to countless new companies that are trying to change the way consumers trade with merchants. But some of the most important innovations haven’t come from young, exciting companies.

Founded in 1975, ACI Worldwide (NASDAQ:ACIW) is responsible for processing over $14 trillion worth of daily transactions and does business with 19 of the world’s 20 largest banks. Aside from becoming the target of an activist investor in 2020, this company is rarely a hot topic in investment circles. It hosts a modest valuation compared to some of the smaller disruptors in the sector yet has delivered solid growth recently, and is projected to continue doing so. It’s definitely worth considering for your portfolio.

A person paying with a credit card at a bakery.

Image Source: Getty Images

A variety of solutions

ACI Worldwide is ambitious. It strives to be a software-driven, one-stop payments provider for businesses of all kinds. It doesn’t just process transactions; it also offers billing solutions to assist businesses with customer interactions — and even a digital debt-collections service!

It reports revenue and EBITDA in three different parts to offer clarity on the best-performing areas of its business:


Q1 2021 Revenue (millions)

Q1 2021 EBITDA (millions)

Q1 2021 EBITDA Margin














The billers segment makes up more than half of the company’s revenue, but is the least profitable with the smallest EBITDA margin. Billers are typically companies that draw regular payments from customers, like a phone or utilities provider. The biggest margins come from banks, who use ACI’s white-label software to run online portals and internet banking for customers. This is particularly distinctive, because most other payments companies are focused on changing banking and finance, not necessarily serving traditional banks.

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The company also provides merchant services, helping physical businesses build their presence online, and offers in-store payment solutions.

Ultimately, ACI is helping to digitize merchants, providing them with the opportunity to harness omnichannel strategies. From in-store payments to online payments, businesses rely on ACI’s software solutions, and with features like integrated machine learning-based fraud protection, they can operate with confidence.

ACI runs under a software as a service (SaaS) business model, which means most of its revenue is recurring (subscription-based). The majority of its services are delivered in the cloud, making them truly mobile, which is essential when facilitating global transactions.

As recently as the first-quarter 2021 earnings release, ACI flagged its search for potential acquisitions in an attempt to further supplement its current product offerings and also expand them. Acquisitions aren’t new for this company. In 2019, it purchased Speedpay from Western Union, which it has integrated into its existing billing platform. It also added Walletron in the same year, allowing for integrations with Apple Wallet and Google Pay, to give consumers more mobile payment options. 

The rule of 40

Despite growing revenues, earnings per share (EPS) have been stagnant for the last few years. However, analysts expect full-year 2021 growth of 85% driven by the company’s projected ”rule of 40” milestone. ACI has chosen to measure its performance by this metric, as it is widely recognized by investors in the SaaS space.

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A company passes the rule of 40 test when its revenue growth rate and profit margin add up to 40% or more. It can be achieved in different ways: A revenue growth of 20% and a 20% earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) margin is the benchmark; but 40% revenue growth and a 0% EBITDA margin would also qualify. 

SaaS companies that maintain the rule of 40 typically attract higher earnings multiples in the market, indicating that investors favor them over their peers, which are growing the key metrics at a slower rate.




Q1 2021

2021 Full-Year Estimate

2022 Full-Year Estimate

Revenue (millions)






Earnings Per Share







For the full-year 2020, ACI achieved a net adjusted EBITDA margin of 37% and revenue growth of 2.8%, so it was mere basis points away from achieving the rule of 40 milestone. It has projected it will reach it for the full year 2021; however, Q1 was a little sluggish, attributable to persistent COVID-related headwinds. It delivered an EBITDA margin of just 23%, and a revenue contraction of 2%. However, it’s still early in the year, and ACI has guided for revenue to grow (sequentially) in Q2.

Growth this year could be driven by the merchants segment. Although it’s the smallest for the company, with businesses reopening after COVID lockdowns, there is an opportunity for ACI to capture new customers. As it’s really profitable (almost as profitable as the banking segment), it could also be a big contributor to blended EBITDA margins. 

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A modest valuation

Financial services companies are typically given smaller valuations compared to companies in other sectors, like technology. With a $4.6 billion market cap, ACI Worldwide trades at just 3.5 times trailing 12-month revenue. But given its digital and technological focus, there is an opportunity for the company to prove itself to growth investors, and potentially attract a higher valuation by generating stronger operating performance.. 

By comparison, payments giant PayPal Holdings trades at 14.3 times trailing 12-month revenue, although it is growing much more quickly. PayPal does operate an entirely different business model, but it has similar goals, which involve facilitating instant transacting worldwide.

The rule of 40 could be the key to unlocking consistent earnings growth in the coming years as analysts are predicting. Revenue growth has been the main hurdle for ACI, and it will need to innovate to generate better results, whether organically or by acquisition. At Thursday’s close, the stock was trading at pennies higher than where it opened the year, but that could change with improved results in the coming quarters.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis — even one of our own — helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.

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