Mondex Canada has found someone uniquely qualified to be its first president.

Her previous job was also as the first president of a national payment association.

Joanne A.M. De Laurentiis, whose Mondex appointment takes effect Jan. 5, heads Interac Association and its software-owning affiliate, Acxsys Corp. Interac administers one of the most successful electronic banking networks in the world, with 1997 debit card transactions alone expected to exceed one billion.

With 18,000 automated teller machines, 313,000 point of sale terminals, and 12 million active cardholders, Interac and its depository-institution members have accomplished a feat that has eluded the U.S. banking industry: They have stemmed the growth of checks.

Surveys show debit has become the most preferred consumer payment vehicle other than cash, and now Ms. De Laurentiis, 48, will be trying to displace cash with smart cards.

She said she intends to follow "the model we have at Interac-a nimble organization able to react quickly.

"That experience certainly didn't hurt" as preparation for the presidency of Mondex Canada, she said in an interview last week after her appointment was announced.

She enters the smart card venture at a much earlier stage of development than that of Interac when she joined three and a half years ago.

"I am excited to be part of the electronic cash piece of the payment system and anxious to get deep into this," Ms. De Laurentiis said. "Canada seems to be in the lead, at least in North America, and we expect to build on the momentum. The technology has potential beyond just electronic cash."

After serving as vice president of the Canadian Bankers Association from 1985 to 1994, Ms. De Laurentiis came into Interac when the network was 10 years old and covered all of Canada except the Atlantic Provinces.

The close-knit nature of the Canadian financial community-only five commercial banks are truly national and they have a tradition of cooperating in areas relating to payment efficiency-enabled Interac to be managed during its early years under a committee structure. But the business grew and became more complex and eventually required a central executive.

Mondex USA, by contrast, had a president in Janet Crane since its official launch just over a year ago. In naming a chief executive, Mondex Canada moved a little slower than Mondex USA but much faster than Interac-a sign of the importance and the high stakes attached by Canadian bankers.

Georges Brotman, president of TTI Transaction Technology International, an Ontario-based payment systems consultant, said the appointment reflects the banks' resolve to begin a "national rollout," and they turned to a proven leader.

"Her experience will facilitate the Mondex rollout," which Mr. Brotman said can realistically be expected in 1999 though the banks' schedule is more aggressive.

It may be no coincidence that the Mondex USA and Mondex Canada chiefs are women. Few women are at the top rungs of MasterCard, Visa, and other established payment associations. The emerging businesses promise to widen the opportunities for advancement.

At Interac, Ms. De Laurentiis oversees a staff of 21 who serve 48 member companies. Including the individual members of two associations in the group-Credit Union Central and the Caisses Desjardins of Quebec-Interac supports about 4,000 participating entities.

Mondex Canada was born in 1995 when Royal Bank and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, the two largest in the country, purchased franchise rights from National Westminster Bank of London, which created the technology. Today, with Mondex International 51% owned by MasterCard International, Mondex Canada has essentially the same ownership as Acxsys Corp., meaning it has broad support in the financial institution community.

That backing and the nearly year-old, 10,000-card test of Mondex in Guelph, Ontario, should help give Ms. De Laurentiis a running start. Her U.S. counterpart, Ms. Crane, has a strong group of owners including Chase Manhattan Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. and a larger pilot under way in New York City, but nothing yet close to industry unanimity.

With selection of a Toronto office location one of her first priorities, Ms. De Laurentiis said staffing "will start slow."

"I'd like to keep it as virtual a company as possible," she said.

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