Brian J. O'Hare, the card industry veteran who headed Norwest Corp.'s credit card division for the last six years, said he will retire at yearend.

Mr. O'Hare, 58, said he has no immediate employment plan. Bill Branigan, head of operations at Norwest Card Services, will be interim president of the unit in West Des Moines.

Mr. O'Hare, who worked at BankAmerica Corp. for 13 years before moving to Norwest, gained wide notice for building up the debit card side of the latter's business to 3.2 million cardholders.

"He is tremendously imaginative and creative and has the tenacity of a pit bull," said Joel Friedman, managing partner in the San Francisco office of Andersen Consulting. "That typically makes for good leadership."

Norwest, with $1.2 billion of credit card receivables, does not aspire to be an industry giant, Mr. O'Hare said.

"The card really plays a different role in Norwest's game," he said. "It's one of the bricks in the wall. It's part of what we are trying to build in terms of the overall relationship with the customer."

Mr. O'Hare acknowledged that his line of work had been growing more difficult.

"It's been a tough year in the credit card business," he said. "You still have people dropping massive quantities of mail, and our experience indicates that can be a pretty treacherous business.

"We're not really in the thick of the fray with the guys who are dropping the 2.4 billion pieces of mail," he said. "Our focus is in our branches."

The parent company in Minneapolis has beaten a slight retreat in credit cards. In late 1995 it sold $1 billion of receivables.

But when Norwest recruited Mr. O'Hare, it had hopes of expanding its credit card business. It did grow in merchant processing, now serving 41,000 retailers, up from 35,000 in 1995.

"We're very happy to serve the mom-and-pop stores in our communities," Mr. O'Hare said. "They don't carry as much volume, but the margins are better. We don't focus on trying to get Wal-Mart and the big national merchants-which is an intensely price-competitive business."

Mr. O'Hare expanded the bank's automated teller machine network, Instant Cash, which owns 1,264 machines. It also services more than 1,000 machines for other participating banks.

Mr. O'Hare said Norwest is able to deliver correspondent banks "not just a network solution" but also "marketing programs" and "a way to run a debit card program based on our experience."

A big advocate of off-line debit programs with their lucrative interchange revenues, Mr. O'Hare also presided over the rapid expansion of a Visa check card program. As of last June, Norwest had issued more than 1.1 million debit cards.

The credit card banker worked early in his career for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He joined Citicorp's private-label card business in 1969 and 15 years later moved to BankAmerica.

Peter T. Dunn, managing director at the San Francisco-based consulting firm Edgar, Dunn & Co., called Mr. O'Hare a man of "high intellect" whose "toughness has been needed during the past 15 years of ups and downs."

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