When David K. Hunt left Signet Banking Corp. to take charge of AT&T Corp.'s heralded credit card program in May 1993, he couldn't have entered an environment more different from what he had known during a 24-year career in banking.

For beginners, there was the campus lifestyle at AT&T Universal Card Services' headquarters, which occupies four buildings in a Jacksonville, Fla., corporate park. Employees or associates, as they are called can be seen taking breaks beside the nearby lake, feeding swans and ducks, or strolling across the ample grounds.

Paths between the buildings pass near the water. One building houses customer service associates; the second, quality service associates; the third, Mr. Hunt's office, human resources, finance, and public relations; and the fourth, information technology services.

A company health club is free to associates and their spouses, and the campus includes a laundry and a post office. A visitor entering the customer service area is greeted by the hum of constant chatter, in a setting reminiscent of AT&T's historical link to the public hundreds of telephone operators wearing headsets. In this modern setting, they focus on computer screens to solve problems.

Mr. Hunt, 49, a card industry pioneer in his early days at Signet Bank, said he finds the AT&T Universal atmosphere substantially different from banking.

One difference is, this business was built to quality specs, he said, invoking a word that has been the company mantra since before, during, and after its receipt of the 1992 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

Quality is really not a program, Mr. Hunt said. It's in the fabric of the organization, so quality is not something you do it's part of everything you do.

For a year after it got the Baldrige award, AT&T was obliged to allow tours to showcase its people, technology, and facilities. The credit card leader fulfilled that requirement and then some. The requests still come: By midyear 1995, AT&T Universal had booked 1,000 visitors for the entire year.

Among the interesting things visitors see is an electronic message board in the company cafeteria that keeps a running tally of credit card receivables. In the late afternoon of July 31, for example, the board showed $12.4 billion, good enough for sixth place in the industry.

Since 1991, the AT&T unit has gained 2.63 percentage points of market share, Salomon Brothers has reported, second only to First USA's increase of 3.24 points.

The Universal card, introduced in 1990, has been one of the industry's greatest success stories. The card took just 78 days to reach one million accounts a record that stood until Household International's General Motors MasterCard took just a month to reach that milestone two years later.

Anita Boomstein, a lawyer at Hughes, Hubbard & Reed in New York, who consulted on the Universal project, recalled the excitement of the days leading up to the launch.

Everybody was rushing, working 'round the clock to meet a March 26 deadline because an ad was going to run during the Academy Awards, she said. They met the deadline, and AT&T threw a lavish party that night in

New York so that people involved in the project could see the commercial, which ran with the tagline, One world, one card.

Unlike Household International, AT&T has relied mainly on direct mail and telemarketing to reach out for new customers. Today, the company has 16.4 million accounts and 23 million cards issued.

Perhaps its only failing was in not attracting cardholders with sizable balances. Four years into the program, Mr. Hunt made it his first major initiative to build those lucrative credit balances. In May 1994, AT&T unveiled its ambitious rewards program, Something Extra, which gave points for revolving balances.

We are pleased with it, Mr. Hunt said, adding that AT&T is looking at doing a second wave of the concept.

People appreciate the opportunity to be rewarded for the balances they carry, he said. Most reward programs are based on volume, so you have to spend more to get more points. Even if you don't spend more, you get credit for the balances you have, which really separates our program.

Cardholders earn a point for each dollar of their month-end balance. For example, a cardholder who carries a $1,700 balance each month for a year would earn 20,400 points by yearend. The 20,000-point level is enough for five free hours of AT&T long-distance calling or one-half point off the annual percentage rate for a year.

Rewards can be redeemed at 10,000, 20,000, 40,000, 80,000, and 120,000 points. A $5,000 balance each month for two years would qualify for the top level: $1,200 toward the purchase of a new Honda or two free tickets on United Airlines to a domestic destination, three points off the annual percentage rate for a year, or two years of long-distance calls.

In addition, participants can garner 10 bonus points for every dollar of AT&T long-distance calling they charge to the Universal card. Bruce Brittain, president of Brittain & Associates, an Atlanta research firm, found that the average amount Universal cardholders owed jumped to $1,100, from $820 the year before.

It was a nice, healthy increase, Mr. Brittain said. We suspect that the Something Extra program probably contributed to that. In addition, a Brittain survey last spring found an increase in AT&T

Universal's household penetration. The no-annual-fee-for-life benefit was a primary motivator for people to take the card, he said. The fact that the card functions as a calling card in addition to a credit card also gives it a boost.

The net number of households owning the card has begun to flatten dramatically, which was expected, Mr. Brittain said. We still consider them to be one of the more successful launches.

Ms. Boomstein, the lawyer, agreed. AT&T Universal was the first major cobranded credit card, she noted.

To me, it stands for the fact it created a dramatic change in the credit card industry, she said. It was the first to offer a reward tied to the product of the cobrander (telephone discounts). It stands as a model on which everything else is based.

However, some feel the AT&T Universal Card could get lost in the plethora of cobranded card products now on the market.

AT&T has been eclipsed by a number of strong cobranded players, said Corey Stone, a principal at Easton Consultants, Stamford, Conn. I don't think they have a terribly unique proposition any more. Overall, though, we're pretty pleased with what we've got, Mr. Hunt said.

We're trying to coordinate with other parts of AT&T to make offers that are more relevant to consumers, bringing communications and the card aspects together.

We have a calling card feature, and we haven't promoted it extensively, he added. We're doing more on that. In whatever it does, AT&T puts a lot of faith in teamwork.

We try to encourage cross-group efforts so people don't get stuck in functional areas, Mr. Hunt explained. We bring people together to work for a specific purpose and disband when it's over. That's the kind of behavior we want to encourage in the organization.

Each morning, AT&T Universal's chief operating officer, Jerry Hines, holds a quality control meeting to go over statistics and any problems that may have arisen.

Otherwise, if associates have questions or suggestions, they have the freedom to send Mr. Hunt electronic mail or to pick up the telephone and call him.

That's good, he said. Our people are really interested in the business. They had better be: When visitors come through on the Baldrige tours, they are encouraged to stop any associate at any time with a question about the company, its work environment, or any point of curiosity. Answers tend to be infectiously enthusiastic.

It's actually a real fun place to be, Mr. Hunt said, which makes it a lot easier to win in the marketplace.

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