At BankAmerica Corp., as at many of its big card- issuing peers, merchant processing was once a backwater. But the San Francisco-based banking company never let its merchant functions drift completely away. It kept enough business to rank among the leaders on the acquiring side of the credit card business, which allowed it to become an even bigger market force when the time seemed right.

It proved its mettle last year by partially spinning off BA Merchant Services, raising more than $200 million in an initial public offering.

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