CHICAGO — Uncertainty plagues the acquiring business. Recently introduced disruptions include merchants' new freedom to quote interchange fees to consumers, and one company's claim to banish interchange entirely.

But that instability couldn't shake the confidence of Midwest Acquirers Association lifetime achievement award winners that convened a panel here last week at the association's 10th Annual Conference.

"The best days are ahead of us," Mike Ponder, president and CEO of Des Plains, Ill.-based Integrity Payment Systems LLC and 2007 lifetime achievement award winner, told attendees.

His comments came during a gathering that attracted more than 650 members of the acquiring business, up from last year's record of about 500, according to Donna Ayers, outgoing association president and president of Louisville, Ky.-based Wimsett & Co. About 300 registered as attendees rather than as exhibitors. This year's 106 exhibitors also broke the record, Ayers said.

The show's growth combined with the panelists' optimism creates a strong impression of opportunity in acquiring.

Entering the industry today makes sense because credit cards now serve as a type of currency, Ponder said. Poor customer service from ISOs is leaving merchants susceptible to switching transaction processors and the residual stream remains an excellent way to amass wealth, he added.

And change always brings opportunity, said Kim Fitzsimmons, CEO of Memphis-based Cynergy Data and 2008 lifetime achievement winner.

Still, uncertainty has its drawbacks, according to Bob Carr, chairman and CEO of Heartland Payment Systems Inc. and 2003 lifetime achievement award winner.

Carr responded to a question on the economy from Mark Dunn, owner of Field Guide Enterprises LLC and the association's treasurer.

"It seems like the economy is limping along," Carr said. Same-store sales are "jumping around" without consistent trends, and high unemployment may explain the increase in business formations Heartland is seeing, he said.

Uncertainty also surrounds a recent settlement in which MasterCard, Visa and several large banks agreed to pay more than $6 billion to roughly 7 million merchants that claimed they were harmed by interchange fees they consider high.

The settlement included other provisions, one of which repeals the card brands' "no surcharge rule" that prohibited merchants from adding the cost of interchange fees to consumers' bills.

Some in the acquiring industry have speculated that adding a line for an interchange surcharge to customers' restaurant checks or to register receipts could prompt consumers to shop elsewhere, discourage card use or even encourage a government-imposed cap on credit card interchange.

However, the panel did not foresee problems with the settlement.

Merchants probably will continue to keep interchange out of the public eye, suggested Linda Perry, a consultant and former head of acquirer and processor relations for Visa. Perry is also the 2010 lifetime achievement award winner.

"I don't see any change," agreed Dan Neistadt, president and CEO of Ohio-based Electronic Merchant Systems and 2011 lifetime achievement award recipient.

If retailers try to make the public aware of interchange costs, then "merchants can find out what it's like to be a bankcard salesman," Ponder told the crowd in a reference to trying to convey the intricacies of interchange.

New players also are bringing uncertainty to the acquiring business, and the panel commented repeatedly on Square Inc., purveyor of card readers for mobile devices.

"Square is a competitor," Carr admitted. "We all have something to learn from (Square founder) Jack Dorsey about (quickly) boarding merchants."

Although many observers warn that new players could make ISOs irrelevant, Neistadt maintained that ISOs will remain important by specializing in transactions and cementing relationships with merchants.

Groupon, for example, has decided to provide merchant services but eventually will rely on ISOs to perform that function, he predicted.

Meanwhile, a recent announcement from LevelUp that it will not charge interchange fees caught the attention of many attendees.

"It's payments as a loss leader," Dunn observed.

But the panel did not take LevelUp's claim as a threat. "They're just charging more for the loyalty component," Carr said of its approach.

Additional change is coming to the industry as consumers continue their involvement with social media, noted Donna Embry, senior vice president of strategic development for Louisville, Ky.-based Payment Alliance International, incoming association president, and 2009 lifetime achievement award winner.

"Facebook and social media have given power back to the consumer," she told the crowd.

Younger entrepreneurs often fail to see the complexities of payments.

"This next group of inventors doesn't think of payments as we do," said Perry, who has been working as a consultant in California's Silicon Valley. "To those companies it's more about the data, not the payment."

Eventually, the incoming generation will catch on, she predicts.

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