EFT Group Inc., the region's largest automatic teller machine network, has appointed David A. O'Connor chief executive officer and president.

O'Connor, who recently resigned as senior vice president of Virginia National Bank in Norfolk, is generally regarded as the father of electronic funds transfer in regional banking.

His appointment as chief executive officer of EFT Group is seen as a major step in the organization's plans to broaden its scope in the development of electronic funds transfer and could be the forerunner to a merger of rival ATM networks in the region.

EFT Group, headquartered in Bethesda, is a consortium of 89 financial institutions organized to share electronic banking services through automated teller machines located in the District, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Delaware.

It is the largest of four competing ATM networks in the region, both in number and in assets, which exceed $29 billion.

At least four of the ATM networks, including EFT Group, are operational to some extent, with customers of member institutions being able to use ATMs interchangeably in local jurisdictions.

Emphasis until now has been placed on the number and convenience of remote terminals for banking services. In the year or so that regional ATM networks have proliferated, efforts to bring them together into a single system have been unsuccessful.

Although a few merchants have agreed to permit installation of ATMs in their stores, retailers generally have been cool to the idea of dealing with separate groups of financial institutions. Retailers have made it clear to the networks that they prefer being linked to a universal payments system that would be accessible to all retail and banking customers.

O'Connor has advocated that concept for some time and his appointment by EFT Group apparently is an endorsement of his position.

"EFT Group has agreed with what I have been saying all along," O'Connor remarked during an interview. "It is really sending a signal to everyone that this group of banks is focusing in the same direction and the idea is to expand to a broader concept."

"It's time we look at all the players on a partnership basis," he continued. "You can't look at this thing piecemeal. If there is a fundamental shift in the medium of exchange, there has to be a universal system."

O'Connor said he plans to meet soon with other ATM groups and merchants for the purpose of exploring the idea of forming a universal system in which all financial institutions and retailers could share.

O'Connor observed that some banks "mistakenly believe that, somehow, by belonging to an ATM network they will be more competitive."

But competition is determined, he added, "by the way banks market their products and how they position themselves in the market."

O'Connor, a native Washingtonian, has been with Virginia National for 15 years. He was president of Cash Flow and the Mid-Atlantic Exchange, both Virginia National subsidiaries.

Although frequently described as an ATM network, Cash Flow essentially is a regional system that was established to provide research and development of new products and services for participating banks.

The Mid-Atlantic Exchange operates as a utility or switch that routes commands between bank computers and remote banking terminals.