Beverly B. Wells, who took the helm of Wachovia Corp.'s credit card business two years ago, has a well-rounded banking background and a penchant for organizing. But she is a techie at heart.
She came into the job without prior credit card experience, and she had to follow in the footsteps of Jerry D. Craft. He had put the historically wholesale-oriented, risk-averse Wachovia on the card map, virtually doubling receivables, to $4.1 billion, from 1992 to 1994.
A transplant from the bank's corporate treasury services division in Winston-Salem, N.C., Ms. Wells had much to learn and live up to when she moved to Atlanta to become president of Bank Card Services.
She has taken her place among the pacesetters.
"The requirements of the business today are much more complex and extensive than they were" when Mr. Craft was in command, said the 46-year- old executive.
Mr. Craft left Wachovia in May 1994 to join First Data Corp. and later became a consultant. He was renowned for a low-rate strategy that brought Wachovia widespread attention and ample profits - but at a time when massive mail solicitations still drew healthy response rates. Today, such undifferentiated mountains of paper are more likely to pile up in consumers' wastebaskets.
"Jerry had three things going for him - a small portfolio, a low operating cost base, and proven underwriting skills," which allowed him to cut rates and remain profitable, said Ms. Wells.
To maintain Wachovia's trademark operating advantages when delinquencies are rising and credit standards tightening, she embarked in 1994 on "a broad technology assessment across the company."
While learning the card business, Ms. Wells enhanced back-office automation and hired a crack management team to lead the card issuer through some of the toughest years in the business.
During the past 18 months, Ms. Wells has adopted neural network technology to fight fraud and replaced both the payment processing and collections systems. She further automated the credit approval process, switching to a system that "goes beyond scorecards."
She doubled the systems development staff and has turned to data base marketing to pinpoint highly creditworthy candidates.
While Mr. Craft's leadership has been widely praised, one observer, who asked to remain anonymous, said Ms. Wells was forced to clean up a portfolio that had grown too fast and to mend a back-office that was "not exactly a Swiss watch."
Ms. Wells arrived at Wachovia in 1976 as a systems operator. The Mount Airy, N.C., native soon advanced to manager of systems development for student financial services and manager of the institutional operations center.
By 1987, she was senior vice president of the corporate product management group and in 1993 became manager of the treasury services group.
"She had a variety of experiences that made her a strong candidate for" the credit card job, said John McLean, senior vice president and division executive for the company's consumer credit and insurance division.
Ms. Wells reports to Mr. McLean, who replaced W. Doug King when he retired in June.
Michael Auriemma, president of Auriemma Consulting Group, Westbury, N.Y., said Ms. Wells has "done a lot to diversify the portfolio and keep the momentum going that started under" Mr. Craft.
"No single concept will be enough to succeed in this market," said Ms. Wells.
She has introduced new products "from no-fee to high-fee," most notably the "Prime for Life" card in February 1995. It has an $88 annual fee but an interest rate that never goes higher than the prime rate.
Ms. Wells also drew on her cash management expertise to start a corporate card program, headed by Alan Welch.
Though without a coup just yet, Wachovia has entered the cobranding fray, making what was termed "a competitive bid" on the Delta SkyMiles program nabbed by American Express. Ms. Wells said she may be able to announce some victories in the next few months.
Ms. Wells has steadily added accounts and receivables, with a strong bottom-line impact. The results may not be as spectacular as those of her predecessor at an earlier stage in the growth cycle, but Wachovia, now ranking 20th in card outstandings, has kept chargeoffs and delinquencies below average.
Credit card income grew 9% in the first half of 1996, to $5.5 million, while loans grew to $4.8 billion from $4.2 billion. The company has nearly two million active accounts.
The chargeoff rate of 3.02% as of May was well below the 5.78% average for 20 issuers Wachovia considers its peer group. Past-due loans were 2.02% at the same period, compared to the peer average of 3.99%.
To add power to Wachovia's punch, Ms. Wells has expanded her marketing staff fourfold and hired Charles Hegarty, a First USA affinity marketing veteran, to head the department.
Ms. Wells, a mother of two, is one of a handful of female executives heading bank card companies. Cynthia Graham, president of Barnett Bank Card Services, Jacksonville, Fla., called her colleague "a very talented executive." Her relative inexperience meant Ms. Wells brought "a fresh perspective to the card industry," Ms. Graham said.
Ms. Wells' affinity for technology made Wachovia a natural candidate to issue Visa Cash, the newfangled stored-value card launched in Atlanta during the Summer Olympics. A final evaluation of the project is yet to come, but Ms. Wells said Wachovia and bank partners First Union Corp. and NationsBank Corp. would gain knowledge and experience, in any event.
"My guess is, acceptance will be a huge hurdle because of the new terminals required to support" the cards with embedded computer chips. She said a 1997 New York pilot - with Visa, MasterCard, Citicorp, and Chase Manhattan Corp. participating - could be a "more interesting" test.
Wachovia prides itself on customer satisfaction and value-driven programs. Consumer advocates view it as a company "that takes the cardholder into account," said Ruth Susswein, executive director of Bankcard Holders of America, McLean, Va. "That's not the norm for the majority of card issuers." She called Ms. Wells "sensitive and receptive to consumer needs."
In a J.D. Power & Associates survey, Wachovia came in second of 21 major issuers rated for customer satisfaction, behind the AT&T Universal Card.
Regarding the commitment to customers, Ms. Wells said, "The value we give you is real."
On her job performance, Ms. Wells said she wished she "could have come in with more knowledge of the industry, (but) the feedback I get is pretty positive. My record will prove whether I'm doing the right thing."