The Connoquenessing Country Club doesn't accept cash. Thanks to First Western Bank in New Castle, Pa., it does accept its own Visa card.

The country club in the lush hills of western Pennsylvania was the first organization to become part of First Western's affinity card program in 1988. Members can put greens fees, dinners, and other amenities on a credit card that features the name of the country club along with a picture of a golf ball on a tee.

The $1.4 billion-asset First Western approached Connoquenessing with the affinity concept as way to offset the fees that the bank charged to card-accepting merchants.

"It seemed like a logical idea," said Cynthia A. Kalman, vice president of credit card services at First Western. "The club didn't accept cash. They were accepting `foreign' cards and we thought that by offering them their own Visa card, we could eliminate the interchange."

When Ms. Kalman started managing First Western's card business in 1986, the bank offered a credit card as part of its consumer direct lending business. At the time, First Western had 4,000 accounts and $2 million in receivables.

Today, the bank has 60,000 cards with $31 million in outstandings and over $100 million in committed credit lines.

From that first country club product, the bank has expanded its affinity card program to include some 36 organizations, most of which are nearby colleges and universities. According to Ms. Kalman, affinity programs comprise over 80% of the bank's credit card portfolio.

First Western's strategy is to target relatively small schools, institutions with mailing lists of 10,000 to 20,000 individuals. The bank finds the demographics attractive.

In a recent solicitation of the staff, faculty, and students at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa., First Western issued cards to 87% of those who applied for credit.

"The bulk of our success has been with the smaller schools," Ms. Kalman said. "The larger credit card issuers tend to overlook them because the schools' lists aren't that extensive."

First Western doesn't let its community-oriented profile stop it from competing against some major-league credit card players. This summer, the bank signed up the 27,000-member Train Collectors Association for an affinity card contract. It beat out giant MBNA Corp., which practically invented affinity card marketing.

To keep competitive with the major issuers, First Western recently dropped the annual fee for all its affinity customers.

"When you deal with a larger bank, you're one of thousands of programs," Ms. Kalman said. "Our strategy is to do a limited number of programs each year and have a personal, hands-on relationship with the affinity-card client."

As part of the relationship, First Western absorbs the costs associated with launching a new program. The bank's staff will custom-design a card, create brochures, and organize direct mail campaigns.

"We spend time with our clients finding out what it is they want to convey in the brochures and how they want their card to look," said Ms. Kalman. "There is no expense on their end and they can give us as much feedback as they want."

Geneva College, for example, got into its affinity card program as a means to generate income for a faculty development fund. The interest earned is used to bring in speakers, sponsor faculty workshops, and fund special campus seminars.

William Paterson College, another First Western customer, uses its card earnings for a scholarship fund. Le Moyne College uses its fees to support the alumni association.

"We found that alumni, parents and others liked the fact that the money was earmarked for something very specific. They know exactly what the card is being used for," said Charles O'Data, vice president for development at Geneva College.

For its Visa card design, Geneva College opted for a yellow-hued drawing of the school's main tower. Mailings were sent to all members of the campus community including faculty, staff, and alumni.

Students are also welcome to apply, as long as a parent co-signs. Mr. O'Data said a student's typical, initial credit limit is $500. Because Geneva has many students whose families are in Taiwan, he co- signed their credit applications.

The Geneva College community likes the service so much that last quarter they used their Visa cards 11,214 times, with each transaction generating 15 cents for the school.

Mr. O'Data said the college also collects $5 per year per cardmember.

To sign up new customers, First Western works closely with the campus community, sending bank representatives to alumni parties, career days, and football games.

At a recent homecoming game, for example, First Western representatives set up a tailgate information center to distribute literature about the credit card. During breaks in the on-field action, they'd throw mini-foot-balls with the First Western logo into the stands.

"We try to be as imaginative as possible when working with our schools," she said. "We also try to be sensitive to the fact that the development office is soliciting donations from same customer base we're trying to sign up. If the school doesn't want us to put together a telemarketing campaign for the cards, we look to alternative ways to reach the audience."

The First Western strategy is underscored by the fact that the bank representative who sells the account is the person who services it. Service involves more than mailing out a statement and answering queries the phone. Each month, the First Western account executive hand-delivers a check to Mr. O'Data.

"We'll have coffee when he brings by the check," the college official said. "We talk about the account and review the numbers. We have a delightful relationship with the bank."

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