Jerry D. Craft, who built Wachovia Bankcard Services into one of the most influential and profitable credit card operations, announced Wednesday that he is resigning to head a new business unit at First Data Resources Inc.

Mr. Craft will remain in Atlanta, where Wachovia Corp.'s card operation is based, as president of First Data Card Program Services, effective June 3.

His successor as head of Wachovia Corp.'s consumer credit services division - credit cards, sales finance, and mortgage banking - is W. Doug King.

A Surprise Move

First Data Resources, the Omaha-based bank card processing arm of First Data Corp., said it is putting several existing units under Mr. Craft. They include a telemarketing and collections operation called Qualitec, a customer service center in Tulsa, and "pre-chargeoff collections" activity.

Mr. Craft and other First Data officials said they were not prepared to discuss the underlying strategy in more detail, but Mr. Craft said, "I look forward to the entrepreneurship."

His move caught the credit card industry by surprise and was seen aS a coup for First Data on a par with its appointment earlier this year of Roger Peirce, a former top executive of Visa U.S.A., who was also put in charge of a new, relatively autonomous business unit called Electronic Funds Services.

Both men report to Walter Hoff, the First Data Corp. executive vice president who oversees First Data Resources.

In the Upper Echelon

Mr. Craft, 46, who was with Wachovia for almost 12 years, was regarded as one of the elite bank credit card executives. His emphasis on low-interest-rate cards turned Wachovia into a "price leader" and helped. to catapult what had been a highly conservative consumer lender into the 17th-largest credit card issuer. It had $3.1 billion in receivables at the end of 1993 and more than three million cardholders.

Mr. Craft said at First Data he will able to concentrate on managing programs and serving clients, and will no longer have to be as concerned with compliance and regulatory issues.

"It is a different business, and I will be helping multiple clients, but it is still the same market," Mr. Craft said in an interview.

Thomas F. Chapman, the top financial services executive at Equifax Inc. in Atlanta who worked closely with Mr. Craft at Wachovia, was one of the credit industry leaders who began to learn of Mr. Craft's decision Wednesday. "Jerry brings two things to the table," Mr. Chapman said. "He is a big-picture person, and he knows how to bring the picture to reality."

Variety of Services

Mr. Craft's card program services unit will employ approximately 700 people, mostly in Atlanta, Tulsa, and Charlotte. It will serve "customers who elect to have more of their services provided by FDR, to design more [of the banks'] marketing," Mr. Craft said. "The concept is there to help those banks," he added, "but everything won't be available on day one."

William C. Hungerford, marketing director of Strategic Software Systems Inc. Va., said the market is ripe for such services, which can help banks get more leverage from the customer information already available to them.

At Wachovia headquarters in Winston-Salem, N.C., chief executive officer L.M. Baker Jr. said in a statement that Mr. Craft will be "sorely missed."

'Visionary Leader'

Mr. Baker called his new consumer credit executive, Mr. King, a "visionary leader." A 31-year banking veteran, Mr. King has a retail automation background and moved from South Carolina National Bank in 1992 to head Wachovia's retail banking support services division.

The new support unit chief is Will B. Spence Jr., who has been regional executive for 29 central North Carolina counties since 1992.

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