It would be easy to regard Hypercom Inc. as the Avis, MasterCard, or Buffalo Bills of the transaction terminal market - a perennial success but for the fact that when the final numbers were in, someone else was always on top.

For Hypercom, Verifone Inc. is Hertz, Visa, or the Dallas Cowboys, its No. 1 perch looking hardly more endangered than it did a decade ago when Verifone virtually owned a business it was credited with inventing.

But there is no sense of resignation at Hypercom's headquarters on the outskirts of Phoenix.

Sales are growing at a healthy clip and president Albert Irato says Hypercom is continually making chinks in Verifone's armor.

"We are shipping 30% to 35% of new devices in the U.S. market," he said in a recent interview. "That tells me we have to be taking share away from Verifone."

So it would appear in a market that grew by 20% last year, according to the Faulkner & Gray newsletter POS News. It said Verifone's worldwide terminal deliveries jumped by 13%, to 697,000.

Yet despite an estimated 36% increase in its own total shipments last year, Hypercom finished about half a million behind Verifone, trailing in 1994 market share by 17% to 59%.

It sounds a lot like many of the recent Super Bowl mismatches, but Mr. Irato suggests that these companies are really in a marathon, and they have other pursuers. Canada's International Verifact and NBS, the U.S. credit card supplier DataCard Corp., and some European and Asian vendors seem intent on staying in the point of sale equipment game.

Alas, this industry is its own story, in the midst of a dynamic evolution that sets it apart from a Super Bowl confrontation, a rent-a-car oligopoly, and even the bank credit card rivalry that has helped build demand for its hardware.

The U.S. market is exploding beyond its initial card-acceptance base, thanks to usage of credit cards in new places like supermarkets and health care, the maturation of debit cards, and new applications like electronic benefits transfer. And growth is even faster in international markets, including both advanced and emerging economies that are only beginning to modernize their payment systems.

If any accomplishment is to be proclaimed so early in this race, it may be that Hypercom has gained entry into a top tier that has only one other member, the formidable Verifone of Redwood City, Calif. Barring mergers or unforeseen cataclysms, it will take years of scratching and clawing for another supplier to make similar market-share headway.

Highly methodical scratching and clawing have been Hypercom's way.

Whereas Verifone has a high-tech California heritage, its proximity to San Francisco-based Visa key to its role in deploying the first generation of card authorization terminals, Hypercom has European and Australian roots personified in its founder, George Wallner.

Born in Hungary and educated there in electrical and communications engineering, Mr. Wallner settled in Australia in 1973 and worked for several years on large telephone systems and data collection networks. He founded Hypercom in Sydney in 1978, and one of its first efforts was to produce what is now becoming increasingly familiar in home banking circles as a smart telephone.

The smart phone was at least 15 years ahead of its time, but that experience could make Hypercom a "fast follower" into the advanced telephone market as it develops, Mr. Irato said.

Hypercom then set out to apply its networking expertise to delivering credit card authorizations to merchant terminals at high speed. The company made its initial technical advances in the relative isolation of Australia.

When Mr. Wallner made Phoenix corporate headquarters in 1987, it called attention to the world-class payment system that Australia's banks had built, and Hypercom's supporting role. John Marshall, who came to Phoenix in that first wave, was instrumental in spreading the word. Hypercom's vice president of sales and marketing, he previously had the same title at Eftel, the Australian bank transaction network.

Mr. Irato joined in 1992 as president and chief executive reporting to Mr. Wallner, who as chairman still oversees international activities - including manufacturing facilities in Sydney - and serves as chief technology strategist.

Mr. Irato, 56, a pioneer in the development of U.S. credit card authorization systems, said he was perfectly secure and happy as a senior vice president at American Express Travel Related Services Co., responsible for its vast merchant and automated teller machine networks.

But Mr. Wallner came calling with "an opportunity that only a fast- growing entrepreneurial company could offer," Mr. Irato said. "It was a chance to participate in the building of a company and to work with people like George and (his brother, senior vice president) Paul Wallner, who are brilliant minds."

George Wallner's brilliance and vision have been rewarded by a nearly twentyfold increase in annual revenues, from $12 million in 1987. But in other ways he does not fit the stereotype of the hard-charging, sometimes hard-to-control entrepreneur.

He seems especially fond of the word "brutal." In recent conversations, Mr. Wallner described his company at one point as "brutally focused," at another, "myopic and brutal."

Hypercom is basically in two businesses. Point of transaction equipment and related service and support get most of the attention.

The lower-profile strength is in telecommunications networking. Hypercom's Integrated Enterprise Network forms a crucial operational backbone for Wells Fargo Bank's branch system, the 1,500-store network of Home Depot, and other customers.

In making distinctions with Verifone, Mr. Wallner and Mr. Irato harp on the "brutality" with which they stick to the knitting, and the fact that Hypercom's business includes telecommunications as well as hardware.

Some of their examples: Verifone is marketing a smart telephone, Hypercom will not do it before its time. Verifone has delivered systems to more than 80 countries, Hypercom has reached only about 30. Verifone employs around 2,000 people and boasts of a global infrastructure; Hypercom has 220 employees, relies heavily on distributors, and is moving gingerly toward a third-quarter opening of its third final-assembly plant, in Brazil.

Another contrast is that Verifone has gone public, accepting disclosure responsibilities and accountabilities that privately held Hypercom prefers to avoid.

Verifone netted $27.7 million last year on revenues of $309.1 million. Its executives, who have entrepreneurial instincts of their own, admit to chafing at some of the restrictions of being publicly held, but they view it as a price worth paying and a manageable situation.

Hypercom officials, saying only that they expect to do better than $200 million in sales this fiscal year, give the impression that they are willing to make sacrifices and important investments that public ownership might not permit.

"We can move quickly and make significant investments in our future without worrying all the time about what the shareholders would say," Mr. Irato said. "We are investing, and will continue to invest, significant amounts of capital in the business."

They keep the organization flat at the top. Mr. Marshall is the only one in sales with an office at the Phoenix headquarters facility, and he spends much of his time traveling. Likewise, Jairo Gonzalez, playing an increasingly prominent role as president of rapidly growing Hypercom Latino America, is rarely at his home base in Miami.

Mr. Irato, though he does travel widely, stays close, both literally and figuratively, to the engineering, manufacturing, and service functions performed within earshot of his office. Mr. Irato has managed the facility's growth - a 30,000 square-foot expansion may be in the offing this year - and seems capable of sitting down at any assembly station and performing the assigned task.

With more than two decades of payment systems experience, Mr. Irato has strong opinions on the technology developments that spark lively debates around his industry.

In keeping with prevailing Hypercom attitudes, he resists hype like that which surrounds smart cards. Hypercom did recently release the S7SC device for reading the chips in smart cards, and it says a major domestic order is near, but this more reflects Hypercom's ability to respond to an emerging market than a conviction that it is taking off.

Verifone, which is selling a similar piece of equipment, has circulated a white paper, "The Coming Age of Smart Cards," which quotes some optimistic growth projections and says "the time to position oneself is now."

Based on his experiences at both American Express and Hypercom, Mr. Irato has concluded that smart card promoters have failed to factor in the needs of the retailers who are end-users of their payment services.

"I haven't heard a compelling business case that takes into consideration what the merchant wants to do," he said. "People seem to underestimate the impact merchants can have on the process, and until they are more involved, the impact of smart cards will be limited.

"We do see the smart card coexisting with the magnetic stripe card, and we'll configure our systems as required."

Hypercom has been involved in a smart card program with United Overseas Bank in Singapore, using the chips on cards to keep track of frequent- shopper points for a group of retailers. Mr. Irato makes the point that this system, rather than being imposed on retailers, but built around their needs.

Ironically, Verifone's white paper cites a smart card frequent-shopper program operated by the Takashimaya department store in Singapore and the DBS Bank.

Mr. Irato said he has begun suggesting that if the objective is to make card systems more secure using chips, it may be more economical initially to build intelligence into point of sale terminals rather than into the billions of plastic cards in circulation worldwide.

Looking further into the microcomputerized future, Mr. Irato sees voice identification as the ultimate method of verifying a cardholder's identification. "It is the most practical of the biometrics to implement," he said, adding that signature verification poses the problem of having to register "original" signatures for every single account.

Whichever turns technology makes, transactions will have to be authorized and processed in ever-growing numbers, and Mr. Irato said Hypercom will do whatever it takes to improve those processes and services.

"We have gotten to where we are by steadfastly sticking by our mission and staying focused," he said. "No one understands telecommunications and networking like Hypercom, or more about merchant processing or merchant requirements than Hypercom.

"Some may do as much, but they don't know as much."

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