Independent sales organizations showed off their growing respectability this month as they pulled off yet another successful meeting of their five-year-old trade association.

The Electronic Transactions Association attracted 700 people to Hawaii, topping the previous record of 650 at a meeting last year in San Francisco.

The independent sales organizations, or ISOs, were once the outcasts of merchant credit card processing.

They formed the nucleus of the ETA, and the trade group's conventions have become an important destination for sellers of equipment and services and for senior executives of bank card associations eager to get their messages across to the increasingly influential ISOs.

"We have emerged as a trade association far beyond the expectations of the founders," said Nicholas Ferrante, who had just ended a one-year term as ETA president. "This industry is setting new standards all the time."

When the group was established, founder Charles Burtzloff lamented the low opinion that banks and processors held of the ISOs that channeled smaller merchants' processing business to them.

The Kansas City, Mo.-based association held its early meetings in the shadows of the American Bankers Association's annual bank card conferences, which were clearly the bigger show. The ABA no longer holds these conferences.

Mr. Burtzloff smiled at the thought that he and his once-scorned comrades should become a focal point for the merchant-acquiring industry.

"This is the show of the future," said Mr. Burtzloff, president and chief executive officer of Cardservice International of Agoura Hills, Calif. "Our goal five years ago was to turn this into the acquiring show."

Nonbank acquirers say they are finally getting credit for their role in expanding card acceptance into realms such as supermarkets, drug stores, doctors' offices, and other locations where cash and checks had been king.

The ISOs say they are using the same gumption to tackle the latest emerging markets-mobile merchants and Internet retailers.

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One sign of growing appreciation for ISOs seemed to be the quality of the companies that came to hawk their wares.

The lineup of exhibitors included Vital Processing Services, Global Payment Systems, National City Corp.'s National Processing Co., Bank One Corp.'s Paymentech, and Buypass.

The first four are fully or partly controlled in the banking industry, and the last was until Concord EFS Inc. of Memphis recently bought it.

"The strength of this conference and the diversity of the attendees speaks to the credibility of the ISO," said Mary Dees, group executive for third-party processing at Dallas-based Paymentech.

Out in force were wireless credit card terminal vendors selling to taxicabs, mall kiosks, and pushcarts.

Paymentech announced a wireless service for ISO clients.

Using AT&T Wireless Data to provide cellular digital packet data transmissions, Paymentech said it is now poised to offer CDPD point of sale terminals to customers nationwide.

Hypercom Corp. of Phoenix showed off its T7P wireless terminals, and NBS Technologies Inc. of Lachine, Quebec, introduced NBS Freedom, a hand-held wireless terminal about the size of a walkie-talkie.

American Multipass Systems Inc. of Phoenix touted a product called Universal Box, which lets companies add wireless terminals to their point of sale systems without having to adjust host systems' hardware or software.

American Multipass said it has agreed with Tosco Corp. of Phoenix, a gasoline convenience store owner, to install 600 units. It also will soon install units on refreshment carts at another Phoenix company, American Golf Corp.

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Conference speakers emphasized survival tactics for a payments landscape that is being altered by debit cards, smart cards, and Internet commerce.

The futurist Watts Wacker, chairman of FirstMatter of Westport, Conn., told his audience to "know who you are and know where you want to go."

That, in part, entails knowing when to work alone and when to form alliances, said David Hunt, president and chief executive officer of Global Payment Systems, Atlanta.

"To try to fast-forward is very hard to do," Mr. Hunt said. "Just don't fall in love with what you've got.

"We are the solutions provider," he said, but "that doesn't mean we need to manufacture all the parts of the solution."

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In elections for the ETA's 1999-2000 term, Charles M. Creamer, senior vice president of the Michigan Retailers Association in Lansing, succeeded Mr. Ferrante as president.

Mr. Ferrante is chief executive officer of Nova Corp.'s American Heritage Bankcard in Chatsworth, Calif.

Craig Millington, senior vice president of Bridgeview Bank and Trust of Woodridge, Ill., was elected vice president. James L. Plappert, senior vice president of indirect sales for National Processing Co., became treasurer.

Mary Gerdts, president and chief executive officer of Post Integrations Inc., was elected secretary.

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