Nowhere is the disparity between Wells Fargo & Co. and Norwest Corp. more apparent than in the field of subprime consumer finance.

Norwest Financial, with more than $9 billion of assets and a hundred years of history, is one of the largest bank-owned finance units, rivaled only by NationsCredit, a NationsBank Corp. subsidiary. Bank and nonbank competitors alike point to the Norwest unit as a marvel of successful cross-selling.

Though Wells Fargo has substantial consumer business, it does not have any subprime operations.

The company did have plans to start a specialty finance division, a former manager said. "We recruited several fairly senior people from Household, Avco, and other finance companies" in 1996, he said. But the project was voted down by Wells' board, which opposed the planned unit's "storefront" philosophy that involved building new branches, he said.

Analysts are hard-pressed to recall a time when Wells chairman Paul Hazen has addressed the high-profit but risky business of lending to consumers who do not fall into the prime category.

Mr. Hazen, "by virtue of not saying anything, has made his views clear" on the topic, one analyst quipped.

But Wells has been "very big" in prime consumer finance operations, a spokeswoman said. It is one of the top 10 originators of prime home equity loans and does a sizable amount of prime auto leasing through dealers.

"We were starting to move in that direction," the spokeswoman added, referring to Norwest Financial's subprime focus.

Oddly, some big names in subprime consumer finance have Wells Fargo in their background. William Aldinger, now chief executive of Household International Inc., one of the largest nonbank finance companies, was formerly head of consumer operations at Wells. Jay Meyerson, former head of KeyCorp Finance, was also a Wells executive.

Business strategy at Norwest Financial will continue virtually unchanged after the merger, said a Norwest spokesman. The unit pulled in $269 million of net earnings in 1996, almost 20% of the parent company's earnings for the year.

The lack of similarities between the two merging entities could just be a sign that obvious bank partners have already paired up, said Stephan Biggar, an analyst at S&P Equity, New York. "In the past, when you've had banks merge, they would have quite a lot in common," he said, but banking is "reaching a stage where the more in-common banks have already merged."

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