Banc One Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. have agreed to assist American Express Co. in a high-profile campaign to establish itself as "the money source for small business."
The banking companies will underwrite pre-approved, unsecured lines of credit that American Express will offer to U.S. business customers, Amex announced Tuesday.
Buying into American Express' desire for closer cooperation with banks, Banc One and Wells view the travel-and-entertainment company's customers as an attractive lending outlet.
"We know how to underwrite and monitor and control credit, and they know how to market the heck out of a product," said Banc One chief communications officer John Russell.
But the cooperation was restricted to that deal, as American Express announced other corporate credit initiatives on its own. Also on Tuesday, it turned up the legal heat on Visa International, filing legal complaints in several Latin American countries - and a request for an antitrust investigation in Puerto Rico - to forestall adoption of a policy that would prevent banks in that region from working with American Express.
Visa's Latin American board is expected to vote on the proposal next month.
"We want to defeat the bylaw before it is formalized and ensure maximum awareness of this issue," said American Express spokeswoman Elisabeth Coleman.
At a New York news conference on the small-business programs, American Express said it will offer two proprietary cards - a Gold Corporate Optima card and a corporate version of the Delta SkyMiles Optima card - each with credit lines of up to $20,000, at an introductory interest rate of 8.9% for six months.
The New York-based card and travel giant also said it was launching a lease-financing program for the purchase of business equipment.
Even as it works with two prominent superregional banking companies, American Express is becoming more competitive against banks and their card associations - Visa and MasterCard - in the rush to serve business owners and entrepreneurs.
American Express vice chairman George L. Farr told reporters, "We have a natural advantage over banks, who don't have an understanding of the needs of small businesses."
"It used to be that you knew who your enemies are," said Joel Friedman, a managing director with Andersen Consulting and a longtime consultant to Visa International. "Today, the person you partner with is also your competitor, and that's the case between American Express and a number of banks."
For American Express, the latest set of initiatives follows a 10-year effort to serve small businesses mostly through its traditional corporate charge card program and the Optima credit card.
"This is no flash-in-the-pan strategy," Mr. Carr said.
Amex said Banc One and Wells Fargo will underwrite lines of credit from $5,000 to $50,000, which will be available on a pre-approved basis to existing American Express small-business charge card clients.
The credit lines will be priced with competitive interest rates and accessible by check, so they can be used to pay for virtually any type of business expense, Amex said.
Stanley W. Anderson, a corporate-card expert who is president of Denver-based Anderson & Associates, said American Express' small-business initiatives represent a step toward its goal of more alliances with banks - itself a throwback to an earlier era when American Express marketed gold cards on which banks provided the credit lines.
Because Visa and MasterCard have close ties to Banc One and Wells Fargo, those banks' involvement in the American Express strategy should be of concern to the card associations, Mr. Anderson said.
"American Express has picked the plums of each of the card associations," he said.
Lisa Fickenscher contributed to this report.