Visa U.S.A. said its joint merchant processing venture with Total System Services Inc. will be named Vital Processing Services.

The San Francisco-based card association has yet to reveal where the new company will be based, but has indicated it should be operational by the end of the year.

Visa announced the joint venture, which will merge its Merchant Bank Services unit with the "back-end" processing capabilities of Columbus, Ga.- based Total System, on Aug. 16.

Their union is widely seen as a tactical challenge to the pending $6.7 billion merger of First Data Corp. and First Financial Management 3 Corp., which own two of the three largest providers of transaction processing services to retail merchants.

Adding some more muscle to its venture, Visa last week announced a marketing partnership with Golden Retriever Systems Group Inc. of Chandler, Ariz.

Golden Retriever is considered a leading provider of customer merchant reporting services to the bank card industry. The company was founded seven years ago.

"We feel they're a nice complement to what we have today," said Stevan Berardo, vice president and general manager of Merchant Bank Services.

Mr. Berardo cited Golden Retriever's automated reporting and risk management systems as key components in the deal. He said they would give merchant banks quicker access to customized information on their retailing customers' point of sale activity.

"They provide a unique service, in that merchants who want information can enter a request and get it faxed to them electronically in a matter of minutes," Mr. Berardo said.

In February, Visa's merchant unit entered into a marketing alliance to promote electronic payment systems in supermarkets. The partnership includes Southern Datacomm Inc., Midsouth Data Systems Inc., and Fairway Marketing Group.

Merchant Bank Services is a member-owned, nonprofit company that Visa formed in 1992 to distribute its merchant services and help banks keep those accounts from escaping to companies like First Financial's Nabanco subsidiary. The Visa unit processed more than $1.6 billion in authorizations last year for U.S. member banks.

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