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David Nelms is going on an African safari this winter. An adventurer who enjoys power boating, scuba diving and piloting planes, Nelms should find that trip a lot more predictable than running a consumer credit and payment company. The chairman and CEO of Discover Financial Services has faced many challenges since the financial crisis shook his industry.

With a market capitalization of $13 billion, Discover is the sixth-largest U.S. credit card issuer; one in four U.S. households uses its plastic. It’s also the No. 2 U.S. card company with its own network, after American Express Co. But Riverwoods, Illinois–based Discover almost didn’t make it after spinning out from Morgan Stanley in the third quarter of 2007, just ahead of the Bear Stearns Cos. collapse.

More recently, the 11,000-employee firm has contended with increased regulation thanks to the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act of 2009, which aims to protect consumers from predatory lending practices.

But Nelms, who was named CEO in 2004 and chairman in 2009, has much to celebrate. The Discover card is turning 25 with the highest sales and lowest delinquency rates since its 1986 launch by Dean Witter Financial Services Group, then a division of Sears, Roebuck and Co. In the third quarter of 2011, card sales volume reached a record $26.3 billion, up 9 percent from the same period in 2010. Meanwhile, credit card loans more than 30 days past due hit an all-time low of 2.43 percent.

Nelms, 50, joined what is now Discover as president and COO in 1998, the year after Dean Witter, Discover & Co. merged with Morgan Stanley Group. The St. Petersburg, Florida, native, who has an MBA from Harvard Business School, had previously been vice chairman of credit card company MBNA America Bank.

Nelms helped to diversify Discover’s business by expanding into other banking areas, such as personal and student loans, prepaid cards and deposit products. He also acquired the Pulse debit and ATM network in 2005 and the Diners Club International credit card network when Citigroup spun it off in 2008. Diners Club gave Discover cardholders entrée to millions of merchants in 185 countries and territories.

Discover has a distinctly different business model from MasterCard and Visa, both of which process payments made by consumers using bank-issued cards that run on the banks’ networks. Both a network and a direct bank, Discover issues its own cards. Like American Express, the other major vertically integrated card company, it holds all customer debt itself. If that debt offers greater earning potential, it also makes Discover more sensitive to economic shocks.