The First Data-First Financial merger agreement may have shaken the payment systems landscape, but it was all in a day's work for John C. Elliott.

Or maybe 14 years' work, to be more precise. But in the normal course of events, just the same.

Mr. Elliott spent much of his career building transaction processing businesses, often by piling one acquisition on top of another to create the critical economies of scale. The $6.7 billion deal announced Tuesday was in many ways the ultimate realization and culmination of his vision.

Mr. Elliott, with the title of strategic adviser, has been a key management team member at First Data Corp. since March when it acquired his former company, Card Establishment Services Inc. of Melville, N.Y.

With that $500 million-plus acquisition, First Data overnight became the No. 3 processor of credit card transactions for merchants. Already No. 1 in credit card account processing for banks, First Data set its competitive sights on the No. 1 merchant processor, First Financial's Nabanco subsidiary.

Now they all want to become one, and Mr. Elliott, who said he has spent the last several months examining "what will be necessary to keep us and our financial institution customers competitive into the next decade," expects to have a hand in the integration work that lies ahead.

"I did five acquisitions at CES, and I can tell you that synergies are a straightforward process," Mr. Elliott said Tuesday in a telephone interview.

Echoing statements in earlier media interviews by First Data chairman Ric Duques and First Financial chairman Patrick Thomas, Mr. Elliott said many of the benefits will result from the companies' sheer heft: They can negotiate for better deals from vendors, combine and consolidate equipment and telecommunications facilities, and comply once instead of twice with the rules handed down by the likes of MasterCard, Visa, American Express, and Discover.

Personnel reductions are "much further down the list," he said. With the rapid expansion of electronic transactions and card acceptance by new types of merchants, he pointed out, Card Establishment Services had more employees at the end of its acquisition string than before it.

Mr. Elliott acknowledged that some market observers will be taken aback by the size and scale of the First Data-First Financial combination. "We have to have meaningful scale if the 700 financial institutions we serve are going to be competitive," Mr. Elliott said.

Despite the rising scale ante, "our announcement is of equal impact," he said, to several others recently in the news, including initiatives and alliances in the realm of electronic commerce launched by AT&T, IBM, MasterCard, MCI, Microsoft, Verifone, and Visa.

"When you think about what has to happen for consumers to have the electronic capability to access their funds and their wealth anytime and anywhere, you begin to realize that the generation of retail terminals we put out in 1984-85 has to be upgraded or replaced, and back-office operations have to be changed."

After observing the payment systems while at Automatic Data Processing Inc., MasterCard International, and in his more recent assignments, Mr. Elliott is convinced that the field is too wide open to warrant preemptive antitrust actions.

"This merger won't change the competitive landscape as much as some may think," he said. "We get competition all the time from companies like Fifth Third Bank, National City Corp., First USA, and First Bank System, and they are not going away. The Nilson Report lists 80 merchant acquirers, and there are 120 independent service organizations.

"Banks that want to get into this business have lots of choices, and the merchants have lots of choices."

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