With credit cards emerging as a popular financing tool for small businesses, Banc One Corp. and First USA Inc. have introduced a platinum Visa card targeting their small-business customers.

The banking giants, which merged this year, launched the Bank One Platinum Visa in early December. The card, which is still being tested, is meant to help the banking company compete against nonbanks for small- business customers.

In a nationwide direct mail and telemarketing campaign, the Bank One Platinum Visa is being touted as a no-fee alternative to the American Express Corporate Platinum card and General Electric's Corporate Plus card.

"We will test any product that we think has potential," said George A. McCane, a spokesman for Wilmington, Del.-based First USA. "If we like the way it performs, we will roll it out on a broader scope."

Several large corporations, like American Express Co. and General Electric Co., offer platinum business cards, as does MBNA Corp., a credit card bank.

In Banc One's promotion, new customers could get credit lines of up to $35,000 and six-month, introductory interest rates of 5.9%. The card's rate rises to 14.99% after six months.

Banc One, Columbus, Ohio, acquired First USA for $7.9 billion in June. The combined company now ranks as the nation's third-largest credit card issuer.

For the moment, Foster City, Calif.-based Visa is leaving the marketing and promotion of the new card to Banc One and First USA. But Visa spokeswoman Susan Forman said Visa would like to take on a more active role if the product succeeds.

"We are evaluating the opportunity to see if this is something we want to roll out across the association," Ms. Forman said.

Small-business owners are using credit cards more than ever to finance expansion. A study released in September by Arthur Andersen Enterprise Group and National Small Business United said 34% of small-business owners finance a significant number of purchases with credit cards.

That's an increase from 17% in 1993, the survey said.

Meanwhile, the study found, small-business owners are relying less on traditional bank loans than they did four years earlier. Researchers contacted 953 small and midsize companies and found that 37.8% of business owners depend on commercial bank loans for survival, down from nearly 50% in 1993.

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