CHICAGO -- If you work in the electronic banking industry and read our mall religiously, Joseph E. Wallace is a name you probably recognize.

The reason: Mr. Wallace, by his own reckoning, has sent thousands of letters and personal bulletins over the last decade to bankers and automated teller machine network directors, imploring them to support a national electronic funds transfer system that operates under a single logo.

The letters, which typically carry headlines like, "More Network Tomfoolery," or "System Branding of Debit Cards a Wacky Idea," have made. Mr. Wallace a gadfly of sorts in the electronic banking industry.

The Man Behind the Name

Yet, incredibly, few of the recipients of Mr. Wallace's bulletins know anything about the man behind the name.

That doesn't stop them from guessing, though.

"I heard that he's an eccentric millionaire," said one network director who asked not to be named.

"Didn't he used to work for Visa?" asked another.

"I'm not really sure what he does," admitted a New York-based banking executive who has been a recipient of Mr. Wallace's missives.

The scoop: Mr. Wallace, self-proclaimed promoter of sanity in electronic banking, said he is a 1955 graduate of Loyola University in Chicago and spends most of his time as an independent investment banker working on mergers and acquisitions in Europe.

Electronic Banking a Passion

He has done graduate work at Northwestern University and is the founding partner of two Chicago-based companies: Wallace & Associates and International Traveler's Check Corp.

But his passion is electronic banking, which is why most of his spare time is spent penning the quirky letters that call for the end of regional branding of ATM and debit cards.

"I like to study financial mechanisms, is what this all amounts to," said Mr. Wallace when asked for the source of his interest in electronic banking. "I'm a rational person, and since the whole development of electronic banking branding has proven irrational, I feel compelled to at least have my say."

Mr. Wallace's objections to the way the electronic banking industry is organized are fairly straightforward.

The |Nonbrand' Solution

He believes that the existence of a wide variety of ATM and debit card brands is confusing to the consumer and hinders bank's ability to control the direction of the electronic banking industry.

What he proposes is the adoption of a single logo -- what he calls a "nonbrand" -- that will have two benefits.

First, the consumer need only locate this one brand name to determine whether the debit card will be accepted by the teller machine or point of sale terminal.

Second, and more importantly, the adoption of a universal nonbrand would enable banks to better promote the name and services of their individual institutions, Mr. Wallace maintains.

"Banks are gradually subordinating their own brand names to those of the networks to which they belong," said Mr. Wallace. "It happened in credit cards, and now it's happening in the debit arena."

Revolutionary Idea

To be sure, Mr. Wallace is advocating no less than revolution in the electronic banking industry. Under Mr. Wallace's system, regional networks, such as MAC, NYCE, and Honor would continue to handle the processing and switching of electronic transactions.

However, with the regional branding gone, financial institutions would be free to send their transactions through whatever company best serves them -- not just the one that happens to be dominant in their region.

The most frequent target of Mr. Wallace's overtures these days are members of the NYCE and Yankee24 networks, which signed a letter of intent last month to merge, creating a mega-network in the Northeast.

The two networks have indicated that they are likely to establish a new brand name when their merger is finalized, and Mr. Wallace is hopeful that the board members will consider adopting the universal non-brand, System B, which he has trademarked.

Big Banks |Taking Hold'

Since NYCE members include some of the nation's most influential banks -- Chase Manhattan Bank Corp., Chemical Banking Corp., and others -- Mr. Wallace believes the Northeast would be a great place for the System B name to establish a beachhead.

Nyce board members did not return calls seeking their opinion on Mr. Wallace's proposals.

"There is definitely a move towards the larger banks taking hold of the system, and that's encouraging if they can realize that they have the power to promote their individual franchises," said Mr. Wallace.

"Whether they'll all get together to do something effectively, I don't know, but I'm hoping that they will grasp the idea that by cooperating they can really achieve something.

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