While many bankers lament the need to join more than one automated teller machine network, Gary Jewell sees virtue in it.
Carrollton Bank of Baltimore, where Mr. Jewell heads electronic banking, went to the extreme of enrolling in 22 networks. They include regional titans like MAC and NYCE and niche operations like the Armed Forces Financial Network.
The goal is not to crowd his bank's 102 ATMs with logos signifying cardholder convenience. Mr. Jewell wants to be a one-stop service provider for retailers who want to accept any and all types of debit cards at their points of sale.
The principal subsidiary of Carrollton Bancorp has done the kind of legwork that larger retailers typically go to great expense to complete as they arrange for banks to sponsor them in distant payment networks.
Carrollton, which has $300 million of assets, is one of a new breed of community bank specializing in the ATM and point of sale business and offering prices and service levels that are attracting large merchants.
"I say, 'Here, Mr. Merchant, I have all these networks-you only have to deal with me,'" said Mr. Jewell, 52, a senior vice president.
Because dealing with one bank brings down the cost per transaction, "it's a no-brainer for the pricing."
In Mr. Jewell's office, a thick binder lists the 26,000 merchants that have signed on to Carrollton's network buffet. The signings of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Stores, and Rite-Aid Corp. were veritable coups.
In May, Carrollton reported 10 million transactions, not including Rite- Aid. Mr. Jewell said he recently signed another high-profile retailer, which he declined to name until the ink is dry. "I can't wait for them to come on-line," he said.
Carrollton's growing transaction volumes and fee income have gone right to the bottom line. Noninterest income jumped 46% in 1997, to $5.6 million. Income from POS services, ATMs, and processing services for merchants was $1.6 million.
Network overhead was not a problem. Mr. Jewell said he was able to join all 22 networks for less than $10,000. Half of that was one organization's one-time charge. Some regionals waived their modest entry fees because of his bank's small size.
"A lot of banks will sponsor merchants into networks, but there are only a half dozen that will join any network" as Carrollton has done to cultivate merchant business, said Michael A. Strada, president of Electronic Commerce Strategies, Atlanta. "That's the niche these small banks fill."
Others in that category include Colonial Bank of Montgomery, Ala., and Dauphin Deposit Bank and Trust Co. of Harrisburg, Pa., now part of First Maryland Bancorp, Mr. Strada said.
The tactic would not appeal to the largest banking companies, Mr. Jewell said. Multiple network memberships would be a paperwork burden, and for a big bank, the payoff would be "chump change."
"With their overhead, they've got to have the big bang," Mr. Jewell said. "At my overhead, this is the big bang."
The regional networks, beset by competitive challenges from MasterCard and Visa, offer retailers lower prices than those national associations and are eager to serve merchant needs as debit cards proliferate.
Each month, the regional networks are adding scores of merchants through sponsor banks like Carrollton. The networks are reporting record volumes at the point of sale, where on-line terminals at mid-1997 totaled 1.3 million nationwide, up 49% from 1996, according to Debit Card News.
Though Mr. Jewell would not reveal what Carrollton charges merchants for each on-line debit transaction-he calls them "clicks"-he said banks that charge 1.5 cents to 1.75 cents are guilty of gouging.
His business may be booming, but Mr. Jewell conceded that storm clouds lie ahead. The national sponsorship of retailers may not survive the introduction of a new Visa check card in October. The transactions can be off- or on-line but will be handled exclusively on Visa's network.
Mr. Jewell is among the chorus objecting to Visa's stipulation that banks be barred from putting regional-network logos on the check cards.
"I don't want the networks to go away because they provide me with other services," such as debit card processing and banking by personal computer, Mr. Jewell said. "As a community bank, I need that."
Mr. Jewell has other fee-generating products in his department, which has grown from two to 15 employees since he joined the bank in 1996.
His first task at Carrollton was to get debit cards "out on the street," he said, so that the bank could start reaping interchange fees. It issued more than 3,000 Visa check cards in two months, which more typically would take six months. The current total of off-line Visa debit cards is 11,400.
Carrollton started imposing ATM surcharges in July 1996 and since then has expanded its ATM base by beating out big banks for regional contracts with Target and Wal-Mart.
Mr. Jewell has also built up a "direct merchant business," giving 522 local retailers end-to-end services ranging from terminal placement to processing to statement printing.
As the stores' gateway to the payment networks, Mr. Jewell said, the bank catches flak if things go awry. Carrollton is responsible for making sure merchants comply with network rules, such as posting signs warning customers about surcharges.
"One of my responsibilities as a merchant sponsor is to ride herd on these guys," Mr. Jewell said.
He started his career in 1971 at the now-defunct Equitable Bank of Baltimore, in its credit card collections department. By the late 1970s, he and his branch banking colleagues had learned the ATM ropes by stocking the machines on Friday nights with envelopes containing $20 and $5 bills.
Mr. Jewell took a new post in 1983 with Equitable's nascent electronic banking unit, and he later spent six years at Farmers & Mechanics National Bank of Frederick, Md., where he learned more about debit and credit cards.
He left Farmers in 1995 to take a job at the Most network in Reston, Va., which later merged with Florida-based Honor Technologies Inc. He developed processing services for MasterCard's MasterMoney and for the Visa check card.
While at Most, he saw the potential of a streamlined on-line POS operation for retailers and for the independent sales organizations that typically act as payment processing agents on behalf of stores.
"I heard complaints from my people about how many pieces of paper came rolling into that area registering ISOs and merchants," Mr. Jewell said. "I said, 'God, what a business this would be.'"