As treasurer of the Northeast Acquirers Association, Jacques Breton handles logistics for the regional trade groups events. That includes everything from managing exhibitors to signing off on the luncheon menus.
In the process Bretons is helping his fellow NEAA board members turn the groups winter outing at Mount Snow, Vt., into a tradition in the acquiring business. He and the rest of the board are also working to renew the associations summer outing, which is scheduled next year for Tarrytown, N.Y.
Breton devotes 80% to 90% of his working hours to his job as vice president of ISO sales at My Clear Reports and the rest to the NEAA and his consulting work at MJM Associates Inc. But he recently took time to sit down and talk with ISO&Agent Weekly.
He explained how the NEAA show started and how the acquiring industrys system of four regional associations grew out of his work at General Credit Forms. He also revealed why the NEAA isolates its trade show attendees and vendors in destination resortsfor their own good.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ISO&Agent: How did you get started in the acquiring business?
Breton: I started in the credit card industry back in January 1970, so Ive been around for a of couple days. In the early days of the industry, most of the smaller banks did both issuing and acquiring. I had responsibilities for both. I started off as collection manager, and when the vice president of the department resigned, I took his position. I handled a little bit of card issuing but became more and more involved with merchants.
My real involvement with the acquiring industry occurred right around 1979. At that time I was working for the First National Bank of Portsmouth in Portsmouth, N.H., which is now long gone, but some of the footprint is TD Bank. At that point in time the economy was going into a little bit of a downturn. Clearly, the bank I was working for was a true Yankee conservative bank. They instructed me to go around to every merchant that had BankAmericard card applications and pick them up. They felt they did not want to put the bank in the position of having extended too much credit. So Im 32 years old and Im saying, What am I going to do the rest of life?
I sat down with the chairman of the board and the president of the bank, and I said, What about the merchant side? And they said, We dont care what you do with the merchant side.
Thats where I jumped into the acquiring side. The bank pulled in the horns and went from there. As time went on, the First National Bank of Portsmouth became a very strong bank on the merchant side. I dont know if the bank was aggressive or I was aggressive, but we started attaining multi-location accounts throughout the whole country on a small scale.
ISO&Agent: What else did you accomplish there?
Breton: In the early 80s we were one of the first banks to do two things. One, we were doing electronic draft capture. Two, we were doing whats now known as unbundled pricing with separate transaction fees and statement fees. We had to go to unbundled pricing because otherwise we didnt know how to bill electronic draft capture.
ISO&Agent: How did the NEAA start?
Breton: In 85, several of us got together. There were eight foursomes playing golf. We had lunch and exchanged notes, and we had dinner and exchanged notes. At the end of the day we had bills for these meals, and we couldnt expense it. But if we had a business meeting and brought a whole bunch of people from industry, we could.
So we decided to start an annual gathering that brought middle management, the office managers and the sales people to a meeting place to meet their peers, discuss things, exchange notes, etc. The card association meetings of the time were just for top management.
In 1986, the second meeting had, lo and behold, five banks and 50 to 60 golfers. The first meetings were always in the summer, the first two weeks of June in Portsmouth, N.H. That lasted until around 97 or 98.
Our first outing was at Wentworth By The Sea Country Club in Portsmouth, N.H. It stayed at Wentworth By The Sea from 85 through 97 or 98. Then we moved the summer event to various locations in New England.
Visa and MasterCardback then they were BankAmericard and Master Chargeused to have regional meetings for senior management of the banks or key people of the various credit card departments. Realize that the credit card departments were always intermingled with the installment loan departments back then. A number of us had met each other at these various meetings and decided to have a local gathering of our own. It was a bunch of us sitting around saying we need to get together once in a while, talk about what our problems are, exchange notes and network.
ISO&Agent: Was the NEAA the first trade association in the acquiring business?
Breton: The NEAA is the oldest trade association in our industry. We say we were established in June of 1985, so we were around before the Bankcard Services Association, which became the Electronic Transactions Association. Our goal was to be an education and network forum, and we want to continue with that.
ISO&Agent: Did the other regional shows grow out of the NEAA?
Breton: They did. In 1997-98, I was working for General Credit Forms out of St. Louis, which is owned by the McCormick family. Glen Taylor, the chief operating officer I was reporting to, became aware of what I was doing with the Northeast. He was aware of the number of people I was touching on a regular basis. He felt there was a tremendous tool to cross-sell, cross-market without a private agenda. Here I am advertising and selling the Northeast, and my byline is General Credit Forms. So Im getting some branding out there.
General Credit Forms operated in four regions for salesthe northeast, southeast, midwest and the western states. From there, each one of the other shows grew at a different time. The Southeast grew with John McCormick because he was the salesperson handling the southeast. Jim McCormick came on a couple of years later, and he was handling the midwest. Sherry Friedrichsen, subsequent to that, came on and she was handling the western states. The four of us had the four corners of the country covered.
ISO&Agent: Why have the four regional shows fared so well?
Breton: If you look at any one of the regional shows, it gives a vendor an opportunity, at a low price, to spend two days in the market and see 20 or 30 existing clients and maybe entertain the opportunity to see at least 20 or 30 more potentials.
The Northeast Acquirers offers free registration for the winter show to MLSs, sales offices and small ISOs. The reason is we realize they just dont have deep pockets to be out of the office two or three days and take on the extra expense of traveling and the rooms. Weve cut our price to zero for advance registration. If you register at the door, its a different story.
ISO&Agent: When did the NEAA winter event begin?
Breton: February 97 was the first winter eventin Rutland, Vt., and Killington, Vt. I dont have the number of vendors, but the total headcount was like 60 people.
ISO&Agent: How many attended the winter event these days?
Breton: Right now, we have 80 vendors. That totals a maximum of about 180 vendor people, and then we end up with more than 300 attendees.
We have been very fortunate over the years to have more attendees than vendor people. NEAA does not allow for roaming vendors.
ISO&Agent: These days, the winter meetings in Mount Snow, Vt., which isnt close to a major airport.
Breton: People moan, groan and complain that they cant get there. But once theyre there, they love it. Theyve come to accept it now.
Quite honestly, I firmly believe in that kind of propertytheyre destination resorts. The basic reason is that once you get there, youve got no place to go. So, you have a captive audience for a couple of days.
You network with your own groupwith industry folks. From the vendors, to the sponsors, to the attendees, youve got constant communication. With most of these properties weve gone to, its just us. What happens is, that no matter who youre walking down the hall with, its part of the group.
ISO&Agent: Whats the advantage of holding the winter show in the same place every year?
Breton: Were 13 years at Mount Snow. Weve been there for so many years that the property knows us, we know them, they know our needs and they can cater to this group.
ISO&Agent: Do attendees and vendors like the familiarity?
Breton: One of the craziest things about the Northeast show is our format hasnt changed in years. When you add that its at the same property, thats good and bad. Youre going to see the same walls. Yes, theyve been painted, and the rugs have changed.
But what weve attempted to do is create activities so that the people coming in early have something to do. Sponsors have underwritten snow tubing and slalom ski races. Were looking at the possibility of dog sled rides. Were talking to the mountain and the snowmobile guys weve been using all these years to take people for rides up the mountain with a guide. Weve thought about sleigh rides.
What were trying to do after the meetings is create activities where people network.
ISO&Agent: Has heavy snowfall caused problems at the winter show?
Breton: Three years ago, it started snowing on a Tuesday night and we got up Wednesday morning and there was 15 or 16 inches of snow. There was mass panic. The roads were so bad to the south that people didnt get there until 2 oclock or 3 oclock in the morning. Those who came in Monday wanted to leave Wednesday, but it snowed all day Wednesday. The ones who left Wednesday got stuck at the airport because there were no planes. The ones who left Thursday morning drove down fairly decent roads and made their flights.
Vermont road crews are experts there in clearing the roads. Youve just got to wait it outthats all. If you get there 20 minutes later because of the roads, its not going to make a bit of difference.
ISO&Agent: Have you had any other weather-releated problems at Mount Snow?
In the middle of the lobby of the Grand Summit Hotel at Mt. Snow, theres a large double-faced fireplace. On one particular night, the wind was blowing so badly a backdraft occurred in the fireplace, smoke ended up all over the place and the fire alarms went off at three oclock in the morning.
There were some wild stories about that one, but well leave it the imagination.
ISO&Agent: Do many families attend the winter show to take advantage of the winter sports activities?
Breton: We have some friends and family members who come up for the weekend and some who come up for the week. I think this year well have 75 or 80 the weekend before the show.
ISO&Agent: What about summer shows?
Breton: The Northeast Acquirers started off as a summer show, but we had two years where didnt have a summer show. In 2008, we had the last one, and we didnt pick one up until 2011, when we went to Ellicott City, Md. The next two were in New Jersey, and the 2014 will be in Westchester County, N.Y.
ISO&Agent: Why have two shows a year?
Breton: The winter show attracts attendees from all over the nation, but the summer show is more local. The summer show is smaller, but the crowd is appreciative.
Also, some folks didnt want to travel through the mountains in the winter because they were afraid of the roads. We thought that by having one in the summer we would be able to attract a whole bunch of new people.
ISO&Agent: Who else works on the shows?
Breton: We have a board that consists of seven people. Each one of them has a distinct role. Alan Forgione of Ingenico serves as NEAA president and deals with the speakers; Nancy Austin of Verifone, whos the association vice president, floats between registration, the speakers and whatever. Chris Butts from Chase Paymentech is the emcee during the event. Henry Helgeson and Jim Fink, both of Merchant Warehouse, help out at the registration area or wherever we need them.. Ruth Gorski of Amex does sponsorships and works with me, assisting with vendors.
ISO&Agent: What else can we say about the show?
Breton: Without the vendors and sponsors the show does not exist. The NEAA thanks them all. n
Ed McKinley, editor of ISO&Agent and ISO&Agent Weekly, conducted this interview. An expanded version is scheduled to appear in the January-February print edition of ISO&Agent.