A year ago, Jerry D. Craft promised that his start-up credit card consulting firm would maintain a low profile, letting its clients garner attention if they chose.

The former Wachovia Corp. executive has kept his word.

Without fanfare, the consulting and portfolio management firm, Card Issuer Corp., has helped two banks enter the credit card race, renegotiated a contract to have more freedom in seeking new clients, and hired a well- known card executive.

In July 1995, it signed up First American Corp. of Nashville, which had sold its $150 million card portfolio in 1990 to MBNA Corp. Since joining Card Issuer, the bank has opened 40,000 accounts.

More recently, Card Issuer began working with $4 billion Webster Bank of Waterbury, Conn., which previously did not have a card business.

And in March, Card Issuer bolstered its top management by hiring Keith Floen as a managing director. Mr. Floen had been senior vice president of the Credit Union National Association's Card Services Group until January, when he resigned amid mounting financial woes at the unit.

In the past year, Card Issuer renegotiated its contract with First Data Corp., Hackensack, N.J. An exclusive arrangement between the two companies had restricted Card Issuer from working with non-First Data clients. Any company that worked with Card Issuer also had to use First Data's Tulsa, Okla., unit for pre-chargeoff collections, customer service, application processing, and telemarketing services. However, First Data was allowed to work with other consulting companies.

"We have the ability to do consulting now without the backend relationship or requirement with First Data," said Mr. Craft, who is Card Issuer's president and chief executive.

Before he founded Card Issuer, Mr. Craft worked briefly for First Data in 1994, as president of Program Management Services in Atlanta. Earlier, he had spent nearly 12 years at Wachovia Corp., where he introduced low- interest-rate pricing and became one of the recognized leaders in the bank card industry.

So far, Card Issuer's clients appear to be emulating the low-pricing strategy that Mr. Craft first devised at Wachovia.

"In a start-up mode it made sense to work with First Data in an exclusive arrangement," said Mr. Floen, but "ultimately we work for our customers."

Meanwhile, Card Issuer's first and largest client, PNC Bank Corp., in January beat out 25 other card issuers to snag the coveted endorsement of the American Automobile Association to market financial services to its millions of U.S. motor club members.

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