Groupe Bull, a French computer company that is trying to shake off prolonged financial problems, is making a bigger commitment to smart cards.

One of the big three France-based manufacturers of the advanced cards, Bull announced last week a consolidation of its far-flung chip card and related operations into a unit called CP8 Transac.

Among the four companies coming under the unified structure is Micro Card Technologies Inc. of Vienna, Va., the longest-established chip card maker in the United States.

Micro Card will gradually convert to the CP8 Transac identity while the U.S. unit's management, led by president Arnaud d'Avezac, will remain in place, said marketing vice president Gerald Hubbard.

"The personnel changes are occurring at the CP8 (corporate) level," Mr. Hubbard said. "Geraldine Capdebosq, who had been heading three of the divisions, is president of the new organization."

Ms. Capdebosq and other officials of the French parent, in Washington last week to announce the changes at the Cardtech/Securtech conference, are anticipating an explosion in smart card activity around the world.

The jockeying for position has already been evident in North America, where Bull claims its share of the high-end microprocessor card market far exceeds its worldwide share of 60%. Micro Card supplies smart cards for Citibank's screen-phone banking system, the U.S. Department of Agriculture peanut marketing program, stored value payment systems at several military installations, and electronic benefit transfer systems in Ohio and Wyoming.

Meanwhile, Schlumberger Smart Cards and Systems recently acquired Malco Plastics of Owings Mills, Md., the largest U.S. payment card producer, and Danyl Corp. of Moorestown, N.J., a maker of automated vending equipment and a key player in several chip card tests.

Gemplus Group, the other big French chip card producer and the largest when both microprocessor and simpler memory-only cards are considered, has gotten off to a fast start since opening in Gaithersburg, Md., in 1992.

Bull's CP8 Transac sees a role for chip cards in assuring security of transactions over public networks. Gerard Compain, vice president of strategy and marketing, said Bull is months away from delivering an affordable smart-card-reading device that can be attached to personal computers to facilitate on-line commerce.

"Before cyberspace can become an electronic marketplace, businesses and customers need to know that electronic commerce transactions are tamper- proof and private," said Thierry Breton, senior vice president in charge of Bull's emerging-technologies division, which includes CP8 Transac. "This new organizational structure gives us the strategic positioning and technological resources to respond to these needs on a global scale."

Besides Micro Card, CP8 Transac comprises Bull CP8, the chip card entity and holder of many of the industry's key patents; Bull PCC, an automated teller machine manufacturer; and Bull Telesincro, a provider of electronic funds transfer systems. They have 26 offices worldwide and combined 1994 revenues were up 10%, to $130 million.

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