Brian O'Hare, the head of Norwest Corp.'s credit card operation, has long been regarded by his peers as a leading-edge thinker. His latest crusade making debit cards into a profit center appears alien to the credit card mindset, which may only enhance Mr. O'Hare's reputation. The most exciting thing today is debit, said the president of Norwest Card Services, which is based in Des Moines. I see it as one of the fastest-growing businesses we have. He also sees an impediment to profitability in one of the linchpins of the existing debit card system: regional automated teller machine networks. He is in favor of national utilities. The regionals pay lower interchange rates than Interlink, Visa U.S.A.'s national debit network, Mr. O'Hare complained. Why should it cost me money to use a local network? Mr. O'Hare, a New York native and an engineer by training, worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration until Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind in 1969. He then spent 13 years with Citicorp in its private-label card business. In 1984 he joined Bank of America, where he was charged with revitalizing one of the banking industry's oldest credit card programs. The fact that we turned around the credit card business is the principal reason the bank is surviving today, Mr. O'Hare said of his Bank of America experience. K. Shelley Porges, a San Francisco-based marketing consultant who briefly worked under Mr. O'Hare during his tenure at Bank of America, said she learned a lot from him, especially understanding the financial and operational side of the card business. She said he introduced the Gold MasterCard and the Apollo line of credit for balance transfers long before the balance transfer war erupted. It was a highly successful program, she said. Ms. Porges called Mr. O'Hare a bit of a contrarian who enjoys bucking the trends. He's very passionate about his opinions. Brian speaks his mind, said Peter Dimsey, senior executive vice president at MBNA America Bank and a former president of MasterCard's U.S. region. While Mr. Dimsey was at MasterCard, he said, Mr. O'Hare was a key member of its international operations committee. He had a keen understanding of how the electronic side of the business worked, Mr. Dimsey said, and was skillful at linking the delivery of the system to the business needs of customers. After moving between coasts, the 55-year-old executive was lured to the heartland in 1991 by Minneapolis-based Norwest, which was intent on expanding in credit cards. The project is progressing slowly. The portfolio has $2.1 billion of outstandings and 2.5 million cards not quite enough to make the industry's top 25. Mr. O'Hare said the market is so competitive that the bank has throttled back on direct mail, focusing on its own consumer banking relationships. He said Norwest typically approves nearly 50% of applications from its customer base. We'll go the extra mile to make sure that, if that deal is bookable, we'll book it, he said. The bank has a healthy merchant processing business, with $2.5 billion of sales volume from 35,000 merchants. In March, Norwest signed a letter of intent to enter into a merchant bank alliance with First Data Corp.
Turning his attention to the fast-growing debit opportunity, Mr. O'Hare noted that his bank had received $8 million in interchange income last year on its two million cards both on-line Instant Cash cards and off-line Instant Cash and Check cards, which are Visa products. Mr. O'Hare said he could make even more money if the industry would rid itself of the patchwork of regional networks that have become his pet peeve.