The neighborhood man who helped invent the credit card learned about creative financing early on. One day, when George Zarafonetis was a senior at Woodrow Wilson High School, his mother told him that he was going to “go to college,” and not just any college.
“You’re going to SMU,” she said.
“But how could my family afford SMU?” he remembers thinking.
Then his mother handed him an envelope filled with money, all the money he had earned during his paper-throwing years, from the age of 13 through high school…enough money to pay his tuition at Southern Methodist University for the first year.
At the end of that year, the money was gone.
“My father, in his usual immigrant way, requested a meeting with the dean of the college. At that time, FDR had a financial assistance, work program available to students, and the dean put me to work through that (program). I earned my tuition for the next three years.”
It had been nearly 60 years since he bought his class ring, but Zarafonetis still proudly wears it.
“I paid $33 for it. You couldn’t replace it these days,” he says.
As a 1941 graduate, Zarafonetis was one of the last recipients of a Bachelor of Science in Commerce degree from SMU. After that year, it became the Bachelor in Business Administration.”
Upon his return from World War II, Zarafonetis continued to pursue a career in customer credit lending, obtaining his early work experience with Sears Roebuck and the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.
“When I was in school, there was no such thing as consumer credit. Consumer finance was a brand new field back in the ’30s and ’40s,” says the first-generation Greek-American. Zarafonetis grew up in a close family, but he speaks with similar affection for the man who, in 1954, gave him his big break in banking.
“I was president of the Consumer Manager’s Association when I first met Weldon Howell,” Zarafonetis says. Howell was president of the privately held Highland Park State Bank, and when Zarafonetis joined the bank, he says it was the beginning of a long and successful partnership between the two men.
Zarafonetis was put in charge of an innovative consumer finance program known as the Highland Park State Bank Charge Card. The emerging world of “cash and carry” was in its infancy, but Howell and Zarafonetis, with all their banking clout, moved things along a little faster.
The need for more space prompted the Highland Park State Bank to move from Mockingbird Lane and Preston Road (Ralph Lauren’s store today) to Preston Center in 1958. As the Preston State Bank, it offered the Presto Charge. Zarafonetis, as vice president of consumer lending, was now in the catbird seat of an entirely new financial world.
Local merchants valued the idea of “no-risk business.” They got their money up front, in full, and loyal area retail customers liked the idea of the bank’s “open loan policy.”
So well executed was Preston State Bank’s customer finance program, it was heralded as “one of the best in the country,” Zarafonetis says.
Prior to Mercantile State Bank’s (Mbank) acquisition, and after it went public, a group of industry experts appeared on the bank’s doorstep. Their purpose for being there…to study and recreate the Presto Charge, but not just for Texans, for the country, maybe even the world.
MasterCard was born. The rest is history.
And Dr. George Zarafonetis can claim some of the credit.