YOU'D THINK Jerry D. Craft might be embarrassed. His credit card division at Wachovia Corp. accounted for 88% of the North Carolina company's net chargeoffs last quarter.

But Mr. Craft shrugs off the losses -- $12.3 million worth -- and smiles at the bank's reputation for extreme conservatism.

That's because his unit churned out 15% of Wachovia's $149 million of noninterest income in the first quarter. Moreover, cards represented Wachovia's only significant loan growth in the quarter. The company's total card outstandings soared 33% in 1992, to $2.2 billion.

Challenging the Image

"If Wachovia was as conservative as it's often portrayed, we wouldn't be doing this business the way we're doing it today," the card executive said.

Much of Mr. Craft's success these days revolves around the Prime Plus card, which Wachovia introduced two years ago. It has attracted over one million customers, generated $1.5 billion in loans, and fetches an annual fee from each cardholder of $39. And it's been heralded by several consumer publications as one of the best buys in the card industry.

"Jerry designed and sold it," said John G. Medlin Jr., Wachovia's chairman and chief executive. "Some of us were a little skeptical that it was a good idea," Mr. Medlin said. "But he convinced us -- and has proven it."

Mr. Craft began planning the variable-rate card, with debt pegged at 2.9% above prime, in 1990. The prime rate was 10% at the time -- and most other cards were charging 20% on their revolving debt.

Heads turned throughout the industry when those rates were announced, said Donald Auriemma, a card consultant based in Garden City, N.Y.

"In retrospect, it showed pretty clear thinking on Wachovia's part. They were just a little bit ahead of their time."

At age 45, Mr. Craft is a veteran of the national card scene.

He began as a MasterCharge trainee in 1969 at First National Bank of North Carolina, moved on to card posts at NCNB Corp. and First National Bank of Maryland, and landed in 1982 as the head of cards at First Atlanta Corp.

Through an aggressive nationwide campaign of direct marketing, he more than tripled First Atlanta's outstandings by 1986.

That same year, the bank was bought by Wachovia, which installed Mr. Craft as its top card man.

While other First Atlanta executives drifted away, the South Carolina native stayed and prospered. He now reports to L.M. "Bud" Baker Jr., president and chief operating officer.

Mr. Craft would not comment on rumors that he was courted to head AT&T Universal Card Services Corp. earlier this year, but says he is loyal to Wachovia Bank Card Services.

"Its strengths in terms of stability, funding, and capital make it an awfully good place to run a credit card program from," Mr. Craft said.

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