In past years a highlight of Faulkner & Gray's credit card forum has been a prize drawing for a luxury car.

This year they gave away some golf clubs.

The contrast was among many reminders of how dramatically the card business has shrunk through consolidation.

Speaker after speaker at the meeting last week noted that major banks that have left the business recently - including Mellon Bank Corp. and PNC Bank Corp. - concentrating loans among just a handful of issuers.

Harvey Golub, chairman and chief executive officer of American Express Co., said the top 10 card companies have 70% of receivables, up from 55% three years ago, when he last addressed the conference. Ten years ago, he said, the figure was 40%.

The conference moderator, Alex W. Hart, said a company he headed, Advanta Corp., was the eighth-largest card issuer before selling its consumer portfolio to Fleet Financial Group in 1997.

Mr. Hart was chief executive officer of Advanta after leaving MasterCard International, where he had been president and CEO. He recalled seeing his first MasterCard transactions processed 30 years ago, when he was a banker in Columbus, Ohio.

"The card is still about the same size," he said. "It looks the same, maybe dressed up with a hologram or magnetic stripe."

Even in the early days, "we were fighting over interchange," Mr. Hart said, referring to the interbank fees that set the prices merchants must pay to accept credit cards. "Sound familiar? I think we'll be fighting over interchange for a long time to come."

The conference returned Mr. Hart to the industry spotlight. After lying low since his resignation from Advanta in October 1997, he is back on the road as a consultant to start-up technology firms.

"It's time for him to raise his profile again," said Michael Auriemma, president of Auriemma Consulting Group, Westbury, N.Y. "Chairing a conference is good publicity."

One of Mr. Hart's clients pushes a card with a fingerprint reader that could be marketed to frequent fliers buying airline tickets. Another company, Qpass, offers an Internet payment service that lets people buy, for example, one day of The Wall Street Journal on-line.

Mr. Hart, who is based in Radnor, Pa., said he relishes his independence. "I was tired of working for others," he said.

At the 1998 Credit Card Forum in New Orleans, Faulkner & Gray, a publishing company affiliated with the same parent as American Banker, put paid attendance at "more than 600." This year it was "more than 400." The exhibit hall was noticeably more thinly populated.

Yet the event has turned by default into the top credit card conference of the year. The American Bankers Association, which used to set the standard with an annual bank card conference in September, recently announced a change in its subject matter to electronic commerce.

In keeping with the smaller turnout and other forces narrowing the industry, Faulkner & Gray's vendor hoopla was at a minimum. There were no extravagant parties at local hot spots.

Aside from Visa U.S.A.'s sponsorship of the conference tote bags, none of the meals, coffee breaks, or other social interludes were claimed by a company. Faulkner & Gray held a cocktail party the first night of the conference, but there were no scheduled events the second night.

Perhaps the wholesome location - Disney World - acted as a damper. Gone were last year's speaker jokes about Bourbon Street hangovers; instead, there was a photo session with Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

The exhibitor list was a bit offbeat. Usual suspects like Equifax Inc., Experian Inc., and Axciom Inc. were there, but others - including MasterCard, Total System Services Inc., First Data Corp., and Hypercom Corp. - did not have booths. In their stead were the likes of General Vitamin Corp. (which offers statement stuffers for its vitamin products) and a marketing company that sells Rubbermaid and Corning products (in this case, as giveaways for people who open credit card accounts).

Rick Rennhack, national sales manager for Rennhack Marketing Services in Grapevine, Tex., said the kitchenware brands he was selling would "complement" those of any card issuer.

"If I was Amex, I'd want to be in the same corner as Corning and Rubbermaid," he said.

Today, the Visa and MasterCard systems cannot handle charges above $99,999.99, but the limit may rise as a result of the U.S. government's SmartPay commercial card program, said Stanley W. Anderson, president of Anderson & Associates.

Mr. Anderson, who presented results from a study he conducted of the General Services Administration's procurement program, said the government's desire to charge large-ticket items is prompting the associations to reevaluate.

Each purchasing card transaction saves the government $53 over a paper- based transaction, Mr. Anderson said. He estimated that $871 million was saved this way in 1998, and that $1.17 billion will be saved in 1999.

The SmartPay program went live Nov. 30, when five banks issued two million new cards to federal workers.

Gary Callen, vice president of government card services at Citicorp, said his 40-person team within Citigroup won task orders from 150 of 180 federal agencies and issued 580,000 cards that day.

Activating the cards was nightmare No. 1: The "877" telephone prefix cardholders had to call for activation is blocked in most federal office buildings, he said.

"It was a mistake for the government to do it all on the same day," Mr. Callen said. "Conversion should have been phased, they should have had pilots, the problem resolution phase should have been longer, and the government should have been more involved."

Nevertheless, he characterized SmartPay as a success that will resonate in the public and private sectors. Lessons have already been learned.

For example, Citicorp is planning a chip card program for the Navy, which is taking things more slowly. "They're starting with 50 cards, and have been working on it for nine months," he said.

At some conferences, behind-the-scenes glitches remain behind the scenes. But several reached the stage at Credit Card Forum XI.

That few speakers could maneuver their slide presentations was a minor technical point compared with the obvious difficulty the conference organizers had in finding speakers to fill the agenda.

One of two speakers on "Card Pricing: The Trend Toward Fixed Rates" confessed that he and his colleague had been recruited the week before - after Faulkner & Gray "couldn't get anyone to talk about this."

They were allotted half an hour but ran out of gas after 20 minutes. Mr. Hart, the moderator, came to their rescue, saying pricing was "a very tough subject for anyone to talk about."

The last day of the conference got started half an hour late when a session on the federal antitrust case against the bank card associations was canceled.

At the last minute the Department of Justice "elected not to provide us with a speaker," Mr. Hart said.

Instead, the morning began with a presentation by William P. Binzel, vice president of government relations at MasterCard International, who used the opportunity to make an argumentative point.

"Add up the number of DOJ spokespeople who were here this morning, and that's exactly how much merit their action has," Mr. Binzel said.

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