Visa said its Interlink network showed significant growth in 1994.

The good news came after Wells Fargo Bank's surprise defection to an Interlink competitor, MasterCard International's Maestro.

Visa's enhanced automated teller machine card program enjoyed an 89% increase in merchant locations, bringing the total to 52,000 that accept the debit brand.

During the past three years, Interlink has expanded operational merchant locations from the five western states where the network was originated 10 years ago to nearly all 50 states, said Janet Pruitt, senior vice president at Visa.

Special market-area launchings in several states this year, which included advertising and customer communications, helped widen program awareness among consumers, she said. Visa plans to launch the program in Minnesota in March, with five to 10 more target-market promotions due this year.

At the end of 1994, Interlink had 172,000 terminals deployed in stores, compared with 103,000 at the end of 1993.

Membership in Interlink increased by more than 300 financial institutions in 1994, bringing the total to 842 bank members, a 65% increase from 1993. But this year, as San Francisco-based Wells Fargo switched allegiance to the Maestro brand, three million cardholders, or 10% of the 30 million reported in 1994, were drained from Interlink.

Even with the loss of Wells, Interlink anticipates 50 million live cards by yearend.

Transaction volume rose 16%, to 163 million, while sales volume grew to $4.1 billion, from $3.7 billion in 1993. Interlink cards are used nearly 500,000 times per day, up almost 100,000 transactions compared with 1993.

Although MasterCard will not release yearend results for Maestro until March, Art Kranzley, senior vice president and general manager, debit products, U.S. region, said 1994 was a "blockbuster" year.

The total of Maestro cards grew 128%, to 150 million worldwide, he said, with 36% growth in the United States. Maestro issuing members in the United States totaled 804 at the end of 1994.

Acceptance and transaction volume for the 2 1/2-year-old program have grown as well. "Maestro and Interlink are at parity in the U.S. market, in our opinion," said Mr. Kranzley. "Once merchants implement on-line debit card acceptance, they will accept both brands."

But Visa's Ms. Pruitt said, "On any measure, comparing Maestro and Interlink in the U.S., Interlink is much stronger than Maestro." She noted that 70 of the top 100 bank holding companies issue Visa debit products.

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