At Retail Delivery '99 last week in Miami Beach, one could walk the show floor without any inkling that it was once all about ATMs.

In 1978, when the Bank Administration Institute was organizing its first Automated Teller Machine Conference, Diebold Inc. took the risk of sponsoring the meeting's main party. In exchange, the Canton, Ohio, ATM supplier got a central position on the exhibit floor and rights to sponsor more major bashes as the conference established itself over the following decade.

An event that revolved around ATMs, seemingly so cutting-edge those two decades ago, has since evolved into something much bigger.

"You can go to two or three [parties] every night now," said Robert P. Barone, a retired Diebold president who attended ATM/1 and has not missed one since. "It's not just Diebold's deal anymore."

Packed this year with 425 sellers of software, computers and computing services, smart cards, and biometric technology, the event is the biggest in the banking trade, having dislodged the American Bankers Association's now-defunct operations and automation conference. ATM/10 in 1987 was the first to get the "Retail Delivery Systems" subtitle. By 1991 the ATM reference was dropped. Since 1995 it has been just "Retail Delivery" followed by the year.

Though ATMs are making contemporary headlines as some government bodies seek to ban cardholder surcharges, that issue was hardly mentioned in Miami Beach.

Chase Manhattan Corp. president and chief executive officer William B. Harrison Jr. - the latest in a line of high-profile keynoters that has included business strategist Tom Peters and chairmen Bill Gates of Microsoft Corp. and Hugh McColl of Bank of America Corp. - veered briefly from what was largely a "dot-com" speech to defend banks' right to charge for convenience.

"ATMs are almost not even thought of as technology anymore," said John B. Benton, CEO of Benton International, a Torrance, Calif., consulting firm owned by Perot Systems Corp. "ATMs are to technology what branches were to delivery 30 years ago."

Diebold and NCR Corp. of Dayton, Ohio, still stake out large exhibit spaces, but they are viewed as more "on the fringes," said Nik Banerjee, who as a Bank Administration Institute executive in the early 1990s helped initiate the Retail Delivery thrust. Now senior vice president and director of marketing for Union Bank of California in San Francisco, he noted that even NCR's focus in Miami was more on customer relationship management and data mining technologies than on ATMs.

Alfred S. Dominick Jr., an early innovator with ATMs at the former Shawmut Bank of Boston and now CEO of the Reston, Va.-based home banking software vendor Intelidata, said the conference has "always been a champion of new delivery technology." It once helped convince skeptical bankers that ATMs were the future, and "history is repeating itself with Internet banking," he said.

Mr. Dominick, a former conference chairman, said, "Vendors have done a much better job of creating an educational environment rather than a sideshow environment." The event has become "critical" to executives seeking to formulate or validate their strategic directions.

Mr. Barone recalls the conference of the mid-80s as "inbred" and "sleepy." William M. Randle, executive vice president of Huntington Bancshares in Columbus, Ohio, and a former conference chairman, said the event drew an embarrassingly low attendance - less than 1,000 - in 1990 in Los Angeles.

In 1992, the Bank Administration Institute signaled the broader mandate by inviting Mr. Peters, author of the business strategy bible "In Search of Excellence," and "since then it has been on a spectacular roll," Mr. Randle said.

Thomas P. Johnson, president and CEO of the Chicago-based Bank Administration Institute, said the conference can be expected to diverge even more from its roots and deal with strategic and practical impacts of financial industry convergence. "Employees are in some cases traumatized by the pace of change," he said.

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