ATLANTA - In a major expansion of its consumer loan portfolio, NationsBank Corp. says it hopes to triple its credit card outstandings to $12 billion over the next three years.

The growth, which would be achieved largely through acquisitions, is part of the company's strategy to increase it percentage of consumer loans to 50% of its portfolio, up from 39%, according to Kenneth D. Lewis, who heads up NationsBank's retail operations.

Higher Yields

"We think there are more growth opportunities [in consumer banking] than any other single segment," Mr. Lewis said in an interview Monday. He added that consumer credit quality is "more predictable and the yields are better."

NationsBank, based in Charlotte, N.C., also is looking to buy the portfolios of consumer finance companies. Unfortunately, Mr. Lewis said, "those are rare a commodities in that there are a lot around, but not many are for sale."

To help meet its 50% target, NationsBank plans to devote "virtually all" of its advertising budget to promote consumer lending. It also plans to strengthen incentive programs for consumer lenders.

NationsBank's credit card operations last year were ranked seventh in the country, with $4.2 billion in outstandings.

Achieving $12 billion in outstanding last year would have made it the second largest issuer, according to the Nilson report; Citicorp ranked first with $34.2 billion in outstandings and Chase Manhattan Corp. ranked second, with $10.3 billion in outstandings.

Higher Premiums Expected

Although the once red-hot marked for credit card portfolios cooled off in the first quarter, most experts except it to heat up again soon.

But the purchase premiums also are expected to rise: Buyers in the first quarter paid an average premium of 11% for card portfolios in the first quarter, down from 14% in the first three months of 1991, according to Robert K. Hammer, an investment banker in Newbury Park, Calif.

Mr. Lewis said he would consider premiums in the range of 14% to 16% as "reasonable."

In a wide ranging interview, Mr. Lewis said last year's merger between Charlotte-based NCNB Corp. and C&S/Sovran Corp., Atlanta, was going well.

Two major hurdles remaining are operational consolidations scheduled for South Carolina on June 19 and Florida on Oct. 8. Those are the only two states where NCNB and C&S/Sovran had overlapping branch networks and computer systems that need to be merged.

A Potential Heir Apparent

Mr. Lewis, 45, had been running NCNB's General Bank in Charlotte before he was transferred on Jan. 15 to Atlanta, where NationsBank has headquartered its retail operations. The move was somewhat of a homecoming for him because he grew up in nearby Columbus, Ga., and earned his bachelor's degree in business at Atlanta-based Georgia State University.

Known for his aggressive workaholic style, Mr. Lewis had long been on the fast track at NCNB, serving in succession as president of the company's Florida and Texas banks before tapped to head of all retail operations in 1990. He is often mentioned as a potential heir apparent to NationsBank chief executive Hugh L. McColl Jr., who is 56.

Mr. Lewis' prominence within the organization is reinforced by the fact that NationsBank has clearly designated consumer lending as its engine of growth during the 1990s NCNB, by contrast, had been better known as a corporate bank.

NationsBank's $68.3 billion loan portfolio is currently composed of commercial loan, 46%; consumer, 39%; and commercial real estate, 15%.

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