Extending its marketing partnership with Northwest Airlines, First Bank System Inc. has introduced a business credit card tied to Northwest Airlines' frequent flier program.
The Minneapolis-based bank and Northwest have been working together since January, when the airline ended its relationship with Banc One Corp. and chose First Bank to issue WorldPerks as a cobranded consumer credit card.
First Bank tested the WorldPerks business card in April and officially announced it last week.
The corporate card market is dominated by American Express, which offers card programs to both small and large companies and has issued about six million such cards. First Bank is the biggest bank issuer of such cards, with approximately 700,000 Visa corporate, business, and purchasing cards in circulation. First Bank is also known for its innovative approach to this market. The WorldPerks business card is the only bank-issued card of its kind that earns mileage credit on an airline.
It is aimed at small to medium-size companies with fewer than 1,500 employees and sales under $25 million. About eight million companies fit that profile.
Kathryn V. Marinello, president of First Bank System Card Services Inc., said the cards are being marketed three ways; as a purchasing card that allows employees to buy office supplies; as a business card, primarily for travel expenditures; and as a line of credit for a company's corporate customers or vendors.
But the "benefits of the card go to the employee," who is rewarded with frequent-flier miles for using the card, she said.
The first such card was launched in 1990 by Seafirst Bank of Seattle, which offered a corporate MasterCard product with Alaska Airlines. That program. however, no longer exists.
American Express offers its corporate cardholders miles through the Membership Miles program, but companies pay an extra fee, because it is not a standard feature of the corporate card.
Diners Club, a Citicorp subsidiary, also offers frequent-flier credits to business cardholders. Corporate America, however, is not exactly united on whether these programs are positive enhancements.
"Some companies feel that the miles belong to them and not the employee, since they were earned with company funds," pointed out an American Express spokeswoman.
Ms. Marinello said the issue of giving employees miles was not a point of contention during First Bank's early discussions with potential users but, she noted, "We can't stop a company from demanding that the miles be used for company trips."
The First Bank card, which has a $75 annual fee and an interest rate of prime plus 9.75%, is designed to encourage employees to use business cards so their employers can track expenses more efficiently.
Cardholders earn one mile of travel on Northwest for every dollar they spend with the card, earning a ticket after accumulating 20,000 points.
Cardholders also accrue extra miles for every dollar they spend at partners like hotel chains and car rental companies participating in the WorldPerks program.
Other benefits that are not part of the consumer WorldPerks card include free car-rental insurance and $250,000 in travel accident insurance.
Some observers point out that a product that offers rewards for spending could backfire by tempting employees to spend more than they normally would in order to get the frequent flier miles.
Stanley W. Anderson, chief executive of ProCard Inc., a Denver Co. firm that specializes in procurement programs, said that adding frequent-flier miles is "part of the evolutionary development of commercial cards."
"I think that it is disappointing that [First Bank] does not have a relationship with the airline that would give companies a discount for flying their employees on Northwest," Mr. Anderson added.
Northwest negotiates fare discounts with large companies that provide the airline with a steady volume of travelers, but Ms. Marinello suggested that smaller companies would not qualify for discounted tickets because they don't generate as much business for the airline. As a result, the bank has no plans to launch a corporate WorldPerks card.