CITICORP MAY HAVE seemed a clumsy giant in the shadow of General Motors Corp.'s MasterCard launching in 1992.

But in 1993, Citicorp claimed its place in the cobranding sun, bringing Ford Motor Co.'s Visa card to market in record time with a pricing and benefit package designed to make GM squirm.

And back came some of the old Citicorp swagger.

"Do I have to get up there and say I have more cards than GM?" asked James L. Bailey, who oversees what is by far the biggest of all bank card operations. "We will eventually."

After all the sniping about Citicorp's eroding profit margins and high chargeoff rates, Mr. Bailey pointed out that Citicorp never relinquished its industry leadership. Card outstandings at midyear stood at $36 billion, double the bank card balances of its closest rival, Dean Witter, Discover and Co.

"There has been a lot of juggling of the top 10 in the last five years," Mr. Bailey said. "The satisfying thing is, we've maintained our No. 1 position since 1984.

"This is a business we're going to hang onto," he added. "We're not going to just sit by and watch all of these people take our franchise from us."

Currently executive vice, president of North American consumer banking, Mr. Bailey earned his stripes when Citicorp was not No. 1, and even subject to some humiliation.

Mr. Bailey, 48, recalls the time in the mid-1970s when he called on merchant after merchant, trying to convince them to accept Master Charge cards.

"I remember going to Federated Department Stores in 1975," Mr. Bailey said in a recent interview. "We got all the management in the room, and they said, |We'll never take it.' They just didn't believe in it. They had private-label cards. Macy's was the same way."

Since then, the retailing industry has turned around. Credit cards went through a revolution that Mr. Bailey helped foment and emerged from the record-high interest rates of 1980-81 to become banking's most profitable product line.

"Jim knows the business from the ground up," said Charles T. Russell, chief executive officer of Visa International. "He's granted credit, run collections, talked to merchants. . . . I don't think there's anybody more knowledgeable than Jim Bailey."

He has been with Citicorp since 1972, after stints at Bell Laboratories and Booz, Allen & Hamilton. In 1978, he became director of credit management in the bank card division. Six years later, he took over the retail bank's lower Manhattan region, then returned to the bank card division in 1985 as general manager and later division executive and group executive.

Since January, he has been executive vice president, overseeing Citicorp's multistate branch networks and insurance and investment activities, as well as credit cards.

Competitive by nature, Mr. Bailey finds being No. 1 a mixed blessing.

"It's good to look back across 20 years and say we've created something here that nobody else has been able to do," he said. "We created a success, from losing money in the 1980s to becoming one of the clear franchises.

"The daunting thing is, everybody and their neighbor is trying to knock you off."

Citicorp's card program "is probably the most important single operating division in terms of their overall profitability," said analyst Ronald I. Mandle of Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

Mr. Mandle attributed Citicorp's rise to its mass issue of standard Visa cards since the 1970s, joined later by the American Airlines card, which taps the ever-growing and lucrative affinity market.

The Ford card came out last February, five months after Household International Inc.'s credit card bank began issuing on behalf of General Motors.

Some analysts saw the move as a defensive response to GM. Unlike the latter's product, in which Household Bank takes a back seat to the auto maker, Citicorp's Citibank and Ford project an image of marketing equals. Both corporate names are prominent on the card.

Both the Ford and GM cards give 5% rebates on purchases, which customers can apply toward a new car or truck. The Citibank-Ford interest rate is one point below GM's 16.4%.

Bruce Brittain, president of the Atlanta research firm Brittain & Associates Inc., said the Citibank-Ford card is moving fast, attracting consumers looking for added value.

Citibank offers a $50 bonus to the rebate account when customers sign up for the Ford card. The card charges a $20 annual fee.

While the GM card can be used in places that give double rebates, Citibank-Ford's card cannot. GM has added a gold version at a 13.4% rate. So far, Citi has not responded in kind.

Citibank's chief selling point is that cardholders can earn up to $3,500 toward purchase of a Ford vehicle within five years. as opposed to seven with GM.

"Certainly, [Citibank-Ford has] had growth rates near what other entrants had, but the others started at zero," Mr. Brittain said.

"With the kind of market share [Citicorp has], it's very tough to grow in any stellar way. The game is really how to retain market share and not have double-digit losses."

Mr. Bailey said Citicorp expects to continue to excel by offering a wide array of cards, each aimed at a consumer group. A secured card, which requires a certificate of deposit as collateral, has been introduced, mainly for people with no credit history. Chief among them are immigrants, said Mr. Bailey, citing a market that bankers long neglected.

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