The American Bankers Association put more merchant-processing topics into its bank card conference program this year, but not soon enough to stem the growth of a more specialized trade group.

For two days before the ABA meeting's opening last Sunday at the Long Beach Convention Center, the merchant-acquiring specialists convened at a nearby hotel.

What started six years ago as a small interest group for agents known as ISOs-independent sales organizations, which were then fighting for legitimacy and respect alongside major banks and processing companies-was gaining more of the trappings of a full-fledged association.

Six months ago it adopted a new name, Electronic Transactions Association, in place of Bank Services Association.

Last weekend it attracted 450 people and 30 exhibiting companies. Many also attended the ABA event, which is four to five times bigger because of its inclusion of card-issuing and other, broader topics. But the ETA just as surely has ABA supporters MasterCard and Visa, Hypercom and Verifone, Global Payment Systems and Vital Processing Services paying it heed.

ETA leaders from companies like Nova Information Systems and PMT Services, now sharing profitably in the transaction industry boom, say they have reached critical mass and will stop holding a fall meeting in the shadow of the ABA. They will be on their own March 12-15 in New Orleans.

"This is the acquiring show of the industry," said ETA president Chuck Burtzloff, president of Cardservice International, Agoura Hills, Calif.

"This is much better for us than the ABA," said Peter L. Snell, president of Maverick International Processing Services, a Tucson, Ariz., start-up marketing to banks that fall "below the radar of the big alliances" in merchant processing.

ETA members say ABA programs have tilted too far in card-issuing directions, creating an opening for the Kansas City, Mo.-based alternative. Mr. Burtzloff said despite reported growth in ABA bank card conferences, the number of attending bankers has fallen.

"We've been saying all along there is a need for understanding and information about the acquiring business," Mr. Burtzloff said.

As it happened, Cardservice International made a big splash at the main event. Half-owned by transaction processing giant First Data Corp., Cardservice joined First Data and Total System Services Inc. at the "gold level" of ABA conference sponsorship.

And the ABA program had more merchant-acquiring content than in many a year, largely organized by conference co-chairman William J. Westervelt Jr. of First Annapolis Consulting, who also spoke before the ETA.

Top executives in transaction acquiring-Roger Peirce of First Data, Pamela Patsley of First USA Paymentech, David K. Hunt of Global, and Fred Gumbel of Vital-addressed a seminar series called "Changing the Game." Sharif Bayyari, president of BankAmerica Corp.'s BA Merchant Services, was in the conference-opening panel discussion.

One of Mr. Peirce's comments was echoed by others: "This is a great business." Great enough for a trade group of its own.

"I am truly humbled by what has taken place," PMT Services CEO Richardson Roberts told the ETA meeting. "We have changed the face of this industry."

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