After a year on the election trail, Robert Hammer is back in the credit card business.

The 44-year-old consultant took a year's hiatus from R.K. Hammer Investment Bankers, Newbury Park, Calif., to bid for the seat in Congress from California's 24th District.

Mr. Hammer, a Republican, came in second in the June primary election.

'I Was Simply Outspent'

"The fact that I came in second in a five-man race has not caused me to lose faith in the system," Mr. Hammer said a month later. "I was simply outspent."

With the sound bites, endless fund-raising, and 16-hour days now behind him, Mr. Hammer has returned to the relative quiet of the business world to resume his role as chairman and chief executive at his five-year-old consulting business.

In turn, he has shifted his focus from crime and safety, jobs and the economy, to credit card portfolio acquisition and credit card profitability.

Instead of campaign stops, he travels across the country giving issuers seminars on how to keep card programs profitable as part of MasterCard International's "university" for members.

In recent years, Mr. Hammer has expanded his vision overseas -- to China, Korea, India, Singapore, and Australia. "I see a huge opportunity for issuers, as the market saturates here, to develop the international marketplace," said Mr. Hammer, who has visited 40 countries and five continents.

A Vietnam veteran, Mr. Hammer has a master's degree in organizational psychology and a bachelor of science degree in business and economics.

Before becoming a consultant, Mr. Hammer was senior vice president, portfolio acquisition, at First Interstate Bank. In 1989, he helped it buy $200 million in credit card receivables and sell $400 million.

A market ripe for that kind of activity and First Interstate management's backing combined to allow the multimillion-dollar deals, he noted. After the flurry of activity, "it became clear they wouldn't be acquiring for the foreseeable future," and Mr. Hammer moved out on his own.

In the industry since then, Mr. Hammer noted, fewer acquisitions come with a premium price.

Conversion Strategy

His message to card issuers seeking to increase profitability is to transform private-label into cobranded programs. "There's no reason for the retailer or bank to earn 1% when we could get 3% or 4%."

Upon his return, Mr. Hammer has contacted the 1,200 or so credit card executives he kept in touch with before his run for Congress. "I'm very happy to be back out of exile," he said.

But he carries some of his political experience with him. Mr. Hammer still speaks at a clip worthy of a candidate, and he sports a polished look -- pin-striped suit, red handkerchief, and tasseled loafers -- that is prime for the camera.

"I regret I'm not able to serve the people," he said, adding with a smile, "we'll serve the family."

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