A sign of the times at the Faulkner & Gray Credit Card Conference last week: headhunters in the exhibit area.

Several recruiting firms had set up shop among the vendor booths.

Smith Hanley Associates Inc. of Chicago was handing out lists of job openings in the credit card industry. A duo from the San Francisco firm Allard Associates was roaming and recruiting.

Just before the conference began, organizers had tacked an extra seminar on to the end of the program, "Preparing now for your next career in credit cards."

Given the recent bank merger announcements, most involving major credit card issuers, job changes were a hot topic of conversation, and networking took on a new urgency.

"With all this megamerger mania, all of us have to be very nice to one another because we may end up working together some day," said William Keenan, president of Convergence Group, a consulting firm in Greenville, Del. Mr. Keenan is an alumnus of Natwest Bank, US West, Mellon Bank Corp., and First Omni Bank.

On the opening day, conference chairman Joel Friedman, managing partner in Andersen Consulting's San Francisco office, drew laughter by asking the audience of more than 600, "Were any of you acquired this morning? Can we have a show of hands?"

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Cobranding got kicked about by various speakers. Ronald Zebeck, president and chief executive officer of Metris Cos., said it is "still a great way to increase profitability." Kathleen M. McShane, president of Kendrew Group of New Canaan, Conn., said there were "real successes" in cobranding, though they "may not have hit the headlines."

Bret W. Levy, vice president and treasurer of Gottschalks Inc., a West Coast department store chain, threw cold water on the concept. After announcing that he was delivering a speech about cobranding from a retailer's perspective, his first words were: "Forget about it. It's a loser. Don't do it."

Mr. Levy said private-label store cards make more sense than those with MasterCard or Visa logos because they let retailers give incentives to customers they know and want to keep loyal. "A customer isn't going to use a Gottschalks Visa in a restaurant, but is going to use my card when in my store."

With 37 stores, Gottschalks is the 16th-largest U.S. department store chain. "Why would a bank want to partner with me?" Mr. Levy asked. "I would be foolhardy to think that a Gottschalks Visa would be something special to a customer."

Showing a slide of an elderly Gottschalks customer, he said: "This woman would not pay a late fee. If I tried to charge her a usage fee or even a nickel, she'd beat me with her cane."

Following Mr. Levy, Ms. McShane said there are more than 14,000 cobranded card programs worldwide. She cited a Visa U.S.A. study saying cobranded cards represent 22% of bank cards and 40% of bank card spending.

Cobranded-card customers "are less likely to carry a balance, though they do use the card more often and rack up more transactions," she said.

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Marc Edmondson, senior vice president of First Consumers National Bank of Beaverton, Ore., spoke of a "tribranded" card, with links to a charity.

First Consumers, best known for its secured card and private-label programs, is part of Spiegel Inc. Its ties to the Chicago-based catalogue marketer led it to create a Spiegel MasterCard that carries benefits for the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations. The Spiegel, MasterCard, and NABCO logos all appear on the cards.

Customer response to the nine-month-old program has been "above industry norms," Mr. Edmondson said. Spiegel's largely female clientele "really feel that Spiegel as a company is behind the fight against breast cancer."

Spiegel donates $1 per account to NABCO each year, and customers have the option of donating their rebate checks. First Consumers tracks contributions and sends statements to customers showing how much they have given.

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Michael J. Auriemma, president and chief executive officer of Auriemma Consulting Group, Westbury, N.Y., used an unusual visual aid to illustrate his remarks: his daughter Julia.

Slides of Julia, not quite 2 years old, punctuated Mr. Auriemma's presentation on conflicts between American Express Co. and the bank card associations. When he discussed Visa's and MasterCard's reactions to Amex's marketing pitches to banks, Julia was shown eating a lemon. When Mr. Auriemma described banks' fears about Amex stealing their customers, Julia was wearing an outlaw's bandanna and wielding a toy gun.

Mr. Auriemma noted that copies of his presentation were not included in the conference notebook, but were "available in 5x7 or wallet-size formats."

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Giveaways ranged from chocolate credit cards courtesy of Experian Inc. to Hewlett-Packard Co.'s raffling a sleek black BMW convertible that glistened enticingly in the exhibit hall as attendees scrambled to collect the stickers needed to enter the contest.

Tension mounted as the drawing drew near on Thursday. Paul Martaus, a credit card consultant who has tried to win the big prize for four years, felt certain he would lose again since he had just purchased a BMW motorcycle. Other winners had to content themselves with the likes of a shoe-shine buffer from Experian or a set of Tony Bennett recordings won by Mr. Keenan.

The sports car went to Colleen Jones, director of recovery and administration services at First North American National Bank of Richmond, Va. She gladly donned a Hewlett-Packard T-shirt, cap, and pin, and sat in the driver's seat as purple balloons fell from the ceiling.

Lisa Fickenscher contributed to this article.

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