Robert B. McKinley has been walking a tightrope for the past 10 years.
In 1986 when he founded RAM Research Group, few people could have anticipated his success as an entrepreneur offering services to bankers and simultaneously advising consumers on the best credit card deals.
"It's been a love-hate relationship trying to do both ends of the business. It's tough because it's so political," said Mr. McKinley.
Now the 43-year-old Maryland native's challenge is to perform his high-wire act on the Internet. His success will depend, as it has in the past, on his painstaking efforts to preserve his credibility.
In September, RAM - a research company with 20 employees that offers several publications for consumers and card executives - began offering a variety of on-line services; for instance, establishing sites on the World Wide Web for banks to promote their credit cards.
RAM has been working with First USA Corp., Wachovia Corp., and AFBA Industrial Bank, which are hoping to garner new card customers by setting up Web sites within RAM Research's site. These were RAM's test banks.
Recently, at least five banks, including Great Western Financial Corp. of Chatsworth, Calif., have agreed to be featured in the RAM Web site. Most likely, RAM will not take on more than 12 banks, Mr. McKinley said.
"We want to generate as much traffic for them as possible," said Mr. McKinley. "Also, if 50 banks were on the site it would overwhelm the consumer with too many choices."
Two of Mr. McKinley's sons are vital to the operation of the Web site. Devik, 21, is the cyber marketing manager, and Erian, 17, who graduated from high school this week, is the Webmaster. Erian is a "technical genius" said his father, who designed RAM's Web site. Devik manages all the documents on the Web site.
The RAM Web site's name comes up first on most search engines when the word "credit" is requested.
Some of the new products RAM offers on its Web site are aimed at consumers. For example, CardLearn answers consumers' questions about credit cards and informs them of new products.
CardGame is a contest for both card executives and consumers that quizzes both groups on their knowledge of credit cards. The grand prize for executives is a trip for two to London and consumers can win money to pay off their credit card debts. CardGame gives people a reason to return to the Web site, helping to keep the traffic flowing.
"McKinley is such a focal point in the industry. People refer to him all the time," said Jeff Sandefur, vice president of marketing for Armed Forces Benefit Service Inc., which owns AFBA Industrial Bank in Colorado Springs.
Mr. Sandefur said he believes Mr. McKinley's high profile will draw people to AFBA's Web site. The two executives have known each other since 1990, when AFBA Industrial Bank was opened. Mr. McKinley is consulted as a sort of sounding board when the bank launches new products.
"We always ask his opinion," said Mr. Sandefur.
Similarly, Beverly B. Wells, president of Wachovia Bank Card Services, Atlanta, said she meets with Mr. McKinley every six months to discuss industry issues.
Reporters also rely on Mr. McKinley. He is regularly quoted on credit card issues in major publications, including The Wall Street Journal and Money magazine. When the General Motors MasterCard was introduced 1992, Mr. McKinley pulled an all-nighter, fielding more than 100 calls from journalists.
These days, however, reporters are lucky if they get Mr. McKinley on the phone.
In addition to the Web site, RAM has launched about 12 new products and services in the past eight months aimed at consumers and bankers, including a new daily bulletin, CardFlash, which is delivered to some 2,000 subscribers by fax.
Mr. McKinley, who writes the bulletin each day at 5 a.m., called it the most successful thing he's ever done.
CardFlash allows RAM to expand its coverage of the business to include anything related to the card industry. It is distinctly different from RAM's other publications CardTrak, Bankcard Barometer, and Bankcard Update, which compare banks' card pricing and quarterly reports.
Moreover, CardFlash is subsidizing other projects. "We wouldn't be where we are without it," said Mr. McKinley.
Part of Mr. McKinley's effort to maintain his credibility involves aligning himself with banks that are consumer-friendly.
"He walks the line very effectively," observed Ms. Wells.
In past issues of CardTrak, and in interviews with reporters, Mr. McKinley has praised Wachovia for offering consumers straightforward, low- rate products. And Wachovia, as well as AFBA, is regularly listed on CardTrak's low-rate survey of card issuers.
"If you are one of the banks that offers a value-added product, then you like him," said Ms. Wells of Mr. McKinley.
Mr. McKinley has been outspoken in his criticism of issuers that introduce products that are bad for consumers.
For example, Mr. McKinley says he was the first person in 1990 to call attention to a practice known as two-cycle billing, a way to compute credit card interest that lets the issuer make more money on people who don't pay their balances in full each month.
Perhaps the greatest gesture he has made in preserving his credibility was his testimony in a 1992 lawsuit filed by Dean Witter, Discover & Co. against Visa, which was settled in Visa's favor last year.
Mr. McKinley was an unpaid witness for Visa, which was fighting to keep Dean Witter from becoming a member of Visa. Dean Witter wanted to issue what it argued was a very competitive Visa card called Prime Option.
Dean Witter maintained that shutting it out of Visa would deny consumers access to its low-rate product. Mr. McKinley testified that Prime Option's pricing was, in fact, average for the market.
Mr. McKinley acknowledged that not being paid for his testimony is "part of being in the middle."
Nevertheless it is a position Mr. McKinley has no plans to change."We need both parts," he said.
Mr. McKinley's business savvy has its roots in his youth. At age 15, Mr. McKinley, held an after-school job as the engineer and broadcaster at a radio station. He passed a test without formal training to get an engineering license that normally requires two years of school.
In that job, he interviewed people for stories and was responsible for the technical end of the broadcast as well.
"I learned how the media work, what their needs are," he said.
Later, Mr. McKinley held various positions in television and radio. He was a TV engineer working night shifts in Washington, D.C., when he started RAM in his basement.
Originally, he planned to start a newsletter about mutual funds, but a credit card solicitation caught his eye. What struck him about the offer was the fact that it was from an out-of-state bank. "Most consumers didn't understand that they could get a card from across the country, and that it would be good in their local area," he said.
His vision of the company includes establishing satellite offices on the West Coast and in London. He sees the expansion as a security issue, pointing to the fact that his server in Maryland crashed during ice storms this winter.
But, he also sees such offices as an opportunity to increase RAM's presence, particularly abroad, where already some 200 people are subscribing to CardFlash.
"These are just concepts now," he said. But that's what he said a decade ago about RAM.