First Data Corp., which is already the largest processor of general-purpose bank card accounts, is aiming for the top spot in private-label accounts too, according to executives there.
They say they believe they can take the title away from their chief competitor, Total System Services Inc., in two to four years.
First Data says that it processes more than 68 million retail accounts - and has 40 million to 60 million "in the pipeline" and under contract to convert to its platform through a relationship with GE Card Services. (The General Electric Co. unit owns and manages private-label receivables as an agent bank for other companies.)
Total System, which has claimed bragging rights in the private-label arena for several years, says that 87 million of its 186 million accounts are private label. Over the past three years it has captured some large and highly coveted portfolios, including that of Sears, Roebuck and Co., which runs by far the country's largest private-label program, with 63 million accounts.
Total System, a subsidiary of Synovus Financial Corp. of Columbus, Ga., also won business from Nordstrom Inc., which has five million private-label accounts, and Canadian Tire, which has six million.
Atlanta-based First Data says its latest coup was the conversion of J.C. Penney Co.'s private-label portfolio. All 44 million accounts were moved from the retailer's processing platform to First Data's in one weekend.
First Data, which also processes private-label cards for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., says the J.C. Penney conversion is perhaps the largest ever done so fast.
When J.C. Penney, of Plano, Tex., decided to divest its wholly owned and managed card business, it sold the receivables to GE Card Services, which awarded First Data the processing contract. The accounts were converted simultaneously to GE Card Services and First Data, and J.C. Penney used the conversion period to relaunch its card with a new design.
Private-label portfolios are notorious for high percentages of dormant accounts. Only 14 million of the J.C. Penney accounts are active, but that did not necessarily make the conversion job easier.
"Some accounts may be inactive, but they still have historical data," said Rich Eyberg, vice president of client services for First Data. "Private-label retailers get finicky about protecting the asset, even though it may be inactive." Usually, the retailers are hoping they can get the customer to reactivate the account, he said.
Mr. Eyberg said that no conversion of this size can go off flawlessly, but 400 First Data employees have accomplished J.C. Penney's main objective: finishing the conversion before the start of the holiday shopping season.
First Data is working on converting other GE accounts that are now managed in-house, Mr. Eyberg said. "We continue to benefit from GE's success."
Despite First Data's gains in private label, Total is still talking up its expertise.
"We had added functionality that is required by the retail world," said Peter Friedman, director of product marketing. "The retailers with whom we deal have requirements with instant credit, installment billing for large purchases, and special pricing for a specific transaction."