SAN FRANCISCO - Wells Fargo & Co. has started what is believed to be the first nationwide push by a bank to sell small-business loans by direct mail.

With the program, Wells Fargo, based here, is using data base analysis, credit scoring, and targeted marketing techniques to identify the most attractive prospects for small-business loans.

The program is run by Terri Dial, an executive vice president in Wells' business banking group.

Wells uses direct mailings to offer prequalified loans to prospects. This means the targets can receive loans for a preset amount if they complete and return forms that are sent to them. The approach is similar to the way in which credit cards are marketed.

Kim Kellogg, a Wells Fargo spokeswoman, said the company started using the technique three years ago to sell small-business loans in California. Wells began using it to sell small-business loans throughout the country earlier this year, she added.

Consultants and analysts said they know of no other bank that is using this approach to sell small-business loans nationwide, although some banks are using a similar approach within their franchises.

But analysts said they expect the national marketing initiative eventually to be emulated by other banks. They also expect Wells to profit from early adoption of the technique.

"I think it's a great opportunity for Wells," said Thomas K. Brown, a bank stock analyst with Donaldson, Lufkin, & Jenrette, in New York.

"I'm really shocked that no one else in the industry has taken a look at it and tried to emulate it, although I think they will," he added.

Mr. Brown said he was not able to make a detailed projection of how the small-business marketing effort will affect Wells' earnings this year. But he figures that small-business banking contributed about 10% of Wells' earnings last year. Wells had $841 million in 1994 net income.

He added that small-business banking "has the potential" to grow to more than 20% of Wells' earnings within the next few years. This makes it the brightest prospect for earnings growth at the company, he said.

Raphael Soifer, a bank stock analyst with Brown Brothers Harriman & Co., in New York, agreed that Wells appears to be ahead of other banks in its small-business lending efforts. He also said the program ranks as one of a handful of initiatives that Wells' management is counting on for revenue growth.

Ms. Kellogg declined to elaborate on how the marketing program is operated. But she did say that the company is on track to meet its announced goal of making $2 billion of small-business loans this year.

Peter Freire, a managing director and small-business lending expert with the Advisory Board Co., a Washington-based researcher, said that bankers have been working for years to develop credit scoring models for small- business loans.

The goal, he said, is to bring the same type of cost-saving automation to small-business lending that has allowed the credit card industry to become so large.

Wells has been at the forefront of these efforts, Mr. Freire added. Stock analysts and other observers said that Wells appears to have come up with a credit scoring model that it has more confidence in than other banks have in their models.

Jerry Bowman, executive vice president of Bank of America's business banking division in Pasadena, Calif., agreed that national marketing of small-business loans presents opportunities for big banks.

Big banks, he explained, can pick up market share by providing small- business loans in areas where local banks aren't offering competitive rates or service.

Bank of America, he added, believes it can gain more at the present time by focusing on small -business lending within its operating territory. But the company has the capability to launch a national marketing effort, and probably will do so at some point.

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