Burying the days when independent sales organizations were branded as the seedy dealmakers of the payments business, the Electronic Transactions Association has arguably become the party-thrower of the merchant-acquiring industry.

The 10-year-old trade group, which drew top card association executives and big banks to its annual meeting in Las Vegas last week, has transformed itself, astonishing old-timers in the field.

"It's the ISO show," said Sean Riley, a group manager at Paymentech Inc., the Dallas-based processor. "It's becoming the bank show."

Craig Millington, who was elected ETA president at last week's meeting, recalled the first one, in 1990, when the group was called the Bankcard Services Association.

Organizers put up their own money, and about 30 people showed - Mr. Milligan, now senior vice president of merchant sales and service for Union Planters Bank in Memphis, among them.

He came, he said, even though MasterCard International, for which he worked then, told him not to give the group "any credence."

Apparently, MasterCard has changed its mind. This year's keynote speaker was Ruth Ann Marshall, president of its North American region. And for the first time the planning committee chairman was a Visa U.S.A. executive, senior director Tom Fowler. All four credit card giants - including, in another first, Discover - helped fund the event.

Conference organizers, who had hoped attendance would top 1,000 wound up drawing 1,600 - an "outrageous" figure, Mr. Millington said. That's double the attendance in August at the midyear conference in Baltimore.

In additional testament to the new stature of the ETA, Ms. Marshall, calling the annual conference the "premier event for the acquiring side of the payments business," said 33 MasterCard member banks now belong to the ETA. A few years ago there were just a handful.In her speech Ms. Marshall said she remembered when ISO was a "four-letter word." Now, it is "a respected three-letter acronym," she said, adding that the ETA represents about 70% of the nation's acquiring volume.

Until last fall Ms. Marshall had counted herself among the merchant-acquiring ranks, serving as executive vice president in charge of the MAC automated teller machine network and the Buypass point of sale processor, both units of Memphis-based Concord EFS.

"I'm still one of you, representing your interests with my new employer," she said.

Hypercom Corp. president and chief executive officer George Wallner, regarded by many colleagues as a visionary in electronic transaction technologies, predicted a world ruled by "Web appliances."Indeed, Jonathan Palmer, president and chief executive officer of Vital Processing Services of Tempe, Ariz., a transaction processor, said he believes all card terminals will become Internet appliances within five years.

In the fall Phoenix-based Hypercom began introducing Internet-enabled terminal applications under the umbrella of ePic. Verifone Inc., the Hewlett-Packard Co. subsidiary that competes with Hypercom in terminal manufacturing, has promised to introduce Internet technology this summer.

Hypercom's ePic applications, some of which have yet to go live, enable point of sale functionality directed at consumers and merchants. The terminal delivers advertising and coupons to consumers. For merchants it is being pitched as a substitute for a personal computer; retailers use their card terminals to fill orders placed at their Web stores or to get e-mail. Additionally, ePic terminals store receipts, making it easier for retailers and shoppers alike to track purchases.

"Our industry has one of the first opportunities to install large numbers of these Web appliances," Mr. Wallner said. "The day is not far when after shopping, a consumer comes home and the receipts are there on his PC."

Discover Financial Services, historically the bad guy of the ISO world, smoothed feathers at the Las Vegas meeting by announcing a program in which independent sales agents can finally enable merchants to accept Discover.Previously, ISOs signing up merchants for MasterCard, Visa, and American Express had to refer the merchant directly to Discover, the credit card unit of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter.

"For the first time they have a full deck of cards," said the ETA's Mr. Millington. In the past ISOs were loath to turn their customer leads over because Discover, authorized by some banks to sell MasterCard and Visa, would try to lure merchants away with lower rates, Mr. Millington said.

Paymentech will begin ranking the nearly 200 software and hardware providers, known as value-added resellers (VARs) that the processor works with when linking to in-store systems such as hotel property management programs, PC cash register software, and restaurant ordering systems.The endorsement program is called STAR partners. VARs such as IC Verify, Atomic Software, Aloha Systems, and shopnow .com will be ranked silver, gold, and platinum depending on how much they are integrated with the Paymentech system and the type of customer support they offer. The project will help ISOs, agent banks, and merchant clients determine VAR offerings, Paymentech said.

"There are some that are better than others, and we want our customers to know it," Mr. Riley said.

ETA members also elected James Plappert, a senior vice president at National Processing Co. in Louisville, Ky., as the group's vice president; Mary Gerdts, president and CEO of Post Integrations Inc. of Scottsdale, Ariz., as treasurer; and Mary Dees, a group executive at Paymentech, as secretary.

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