First Data shares stumbled in their debut on the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday.

The Omaha-born employer of about 5,000 in the area came out of the gate with shares closing down about 1.6 percent on the day, falling to $15.75 each.

Market watchers said the company’s still-massive debt could end up being a heavy weight around its neck. That might be the reason for investors’ tepid response.

While technically a disappointment — First Data earlier this month estimated shares would trade between $18 and $20 — the company’s stock still had the third-highest trading volume on the NYSE on Thursday, with about 65 million shares changing hands. Only General Electric and Bank of America had higher volumes.

That could be reflective of the company’s high-profile, long-awaited spinoff from the private equity ownership of New York’s Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, which took First Data off the public market in a 2007 leveraged buyout deal.

“They’re a linchpin to the functioning of the entire payments ecosystem,” said Gil Luria, an analyst with Wedbush Securities. “They can compete, but it will be hard for them to grow like their competitors,” the likes of which include Vantiv, a payments processor that reported year-over-year revenue growth of 29 percent in the most recent quarter.

First Data Chairman and Chief Executive Frank Bisignano, who took the helm in April 2013, likely knows that startup-like growth is out of reach; the company suffered through nearly eight years of quarterly losses before it posted a quarterly profit to round out 2014.

Bisignano says the payments processing and technology titan, which now is based in Atlanta, enjoys scale and distribution that make it a far more attractive partner for emerging companies and technologies. First Data had revenues of about $11.2 billion last year and processed 74 billion transactions globally.

Vantiv, which went public in 2012, had revenue of about $2.6 billion in 2014 and processed 16.3 billion transactions.

“I look at the past two quarters and see 6 percent constant-currency revenue growth,” Bisignano told The World-Herald in an interview from the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday. Such a measure of growth strips out the impact of foreign currency fluctuations.

Of such growth, Bisignano said, “This company never saw anything like that, and we’ve only just begun.”

This week’s initial public offering is a kind of fresh start for the 44-year-old company.

Debt from the 2007 private equity buyout, sky-high interest rates attached to bonds and other debt instruments have consistently eaten up a lion’s share of First Data’s cash flow.

Proceeds from the IPO’s $2.56 billion cash infusion will be applied to debt carrying interest rates between 11.25 percent and more than 12.6 percent that was originally due to be paid in 2021. The company also will continue to take advantage of recent low interest rates to refinance existing debt.

Combined with a separate, $3.5 billion placement of capital announced in June 2014, the company will have paid off more than $6 billion worth of high-interest debt in the last 15 months.

Wedbush’s Luria said that post-IPO, First Data will still face headwinds from its remaining indebtedness. After all, it still will be staring down a debt load of about $18 billion.

“(Competitors) can invest in their own companies and make acquisitions because they don’t have the huge debt load. That gives them an advantage over First Data, and that’s why they’re growing faster,” Luria said.

First Data has made its own acquisitions in recent years, but it’s at a comparative disadvantage, Luria said, “since they need every penny they have to pay down debt.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1534, cole.epley@owh.com

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