Webster Bank of Waterbury, Conn., which a year ago was expressing high hopes about its credit card business, has beaten a retreat.

The principal subsidiary of $9.8 billion-asset Webster Financial Corp. sold its $31 million Visa portfolio to First USA Bank in April. Only seven months earlier, Webster hired card industry veteran Ronald T. Urquhart to breathe life into the business.

Mr. Urquhart had previously presided over the rapid card-portfolio growth and international expansion of People's Bank of Bridgeport, Conn. During Mr. Urquhart's 12-year tenure, People's rose into the credit card industry's Top 25.

In a January 1998 interview, Mr. Urquhart said, "I'd be thrilled if I made a People's out of Webster."

This week, Webster spokesman Michael Bazinet said: "In today's market, portfolios are in the multibillion-dollar range. Our business was simply too small to compete effectively."

Webster exhibited credit card aspirations before employing Mr. Urquhart. It had hired Card Issuer Program Management Corp.-which is the consulting firm of Jerry D. Craft, a former Wachovia Corp. and First Data Corp. executive-to manage its business. The Atlanta-based firm, now called InfiStar Corp. worked with Webster for nearly 18 months, until shortly after Mr. Urquhart was recruited.

Mr. Urquhart, 54, joined Webster after accepting an early retirement package from People's, where he most recently ran the bank's office in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Urquhart has been focusing on consumer product responsibilities including the agent bank relationship with First USA, a Banc One Corp. subsidiary, and a Visa check card program, but he plans to leave the bank shortly.

"Ron's role was to advise us on the best course of action regarding credit cards," Mr. Bazinet said.

As in many other agent bank relationships, Webster's logo remains on the credit cards, and the bank is sharing fee income with First USA.

Webster is concentrating on the debit card business, which grew 43% in the 12 months through June. It has issued 160,000 Visa check cards, representing half of the customer base.

In June, Webster began a promotion of Mobil Oil Corp.'s automatic payment system Speedpass. Customers who signed up for a Visa check card and checking account also received a key fob, which they simply wave in front of an antenna on the gas pump to effect a preauthorized debit from the account.

Mobil, which is seeking out other financial institutions for joint promotions, introduced Speedpass in 1996 and has enrolled more than 1.4 million users. The payments can be made at 3,500 locations.

More recently, Webster began a sweepstakes to encourage debit card usage. With each transaction a cardholder is entered in a contest to win a new Volkswagen Beetle.

These programs and others under development are designed to generate new accounts and additional volume, Mr. Bazinet said.

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