MBNA Corp. and First USA Inc., continuing to set the pace in credit card industry growth, each added well over $5 billion of receivables during 1994.

The two credit card specialists, which rank among the industry's top 10 issuers, reported the growth figures along with another stellar set of earnings statistics.

MBNA's receivables increased $6.4 billion, or 51.7%, last year, bringing the total of managed loans to $18.7 billion.

MBNA, which markets mostly to and through affinity groups, said it received 646 organizational endorsements last year plus a record 5.6 million new cardholders, up from 4.5 million in 1993.

First USA more than doubled its loans, adding $5.6 billion for a total of $11 billion. The company, known for promoting attractive interest rates, opened 875,000 accounts in the December quarter alone, double what it did in the period a year earlier.

Thomas Facciola, equity analyst at Salomon Brothers in New York, said he was not surprised at the continued growth.

"There are two strategies that work - brand name and service, or price and service," he said. "That's exactly what those two do."

He said that together, MBNA and First USA - both owners of card-issuing banks in Delaware - accounted for almost one-third of the industry's outstandings growth in 1994. The 10 biggest issuers accounted for 82% of the total, gaining market share from smaller institutions.

MBNA's net income for the fourth quarter rose by 30% to $82.3 million, or 55 cents a share. For the full year, net income was up 28%, to $266.6 million.

The quarterly net of First USA, which has a sizable merchant services business in addition to card-issuing, jumped 78% to $41.9 million, or 66 cents a share.

The Dallas-based corporation's fiscal year begins July 1. For the first six months, net income rose 159.5%, to $78.4 million, or $1.23 a share. The 1993 net, $30.2 million, came after a $10.6 million extraordinary charge.

Moshe A. Orenbuch, senior research analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., attributed MBNA's growth to its recently accelerated direct marketing approach - starting affinity groups without partners.

For example, MBNA created "a series of last-name cards for common Anglo- Saxon surnames and a series of cards for people who love antique cars," said Mr. Orenbuch. "They spent a lot of money on this in 1993 and 1994 and it's paying off big-time."

While traditional affinity partnerships still make up a "big chunk" of the MBNA portfolio, the new specialty cards represent 45% of account growth, Mr. Orenbuch said.

MBNA spokesman Todd Veale confirmed the numbers and said, "We think our strategy of marketing to people with common interests is extremely effective."

MBNA emphasizes service and quality, charging high to average interest rates. Its margins are wider than those of a cost-cutter like First USA - the latest quarter's net interest margins were 7.55% for MBNA and 5.16% for First USA - but its account-acquisition expenses are greater.

Adding dozens of small affinity groups, a card offering tailored to each, is less cost-effective than mass marketing, Mr. Orenbuch pointed out. Even so, Mr. Facciola said MBNA saves money by using an event marketing approach - sending representatives to ball games and boat shows, setting up booths and reeling in applicants.

"It's hard for people to appreciate MBNA's strategy - they can't believe there are people who don't care about getting the lowest rate," Mr. Orenbuch said. "MBNA is living proof that it works."

Mr. Facciola chalks First USA's growth up to experience, state-of-the- art technology, and marketing campaigns that produce high response rates.

While many players are in the low-rate game, the analyst said, First USA has been there longer and made it a specialty. He added that First USA attracts lucrative credit-revolvers by offering higher credit limits to the "right people."

Balance transfers coming into First USA average $2,400, which is higher than the industry average per account. "They're essentially taking from two issuers at once," said Mr. Facciola.

In comparing the strategies of MBNA and First USA, he said it was like a brand name and a discounter: "Coca Cola versus RC."

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