Having declared war on the bank credit card industry, senior American Express Co. executives are beginning to live far less serene lives than those depicted in the company's advertising.

At the beach recently in Naples, Fla., for a team-building exercise, Robert V. Sicina, president of the company's Latin American and Caribbean division, organized ocean raft races against "Visa."

Three employees of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel posed as Visa employees. Their inflatable raft carried Visa's blue, white, and gold colors to motivate the Amex contestants.

The American Express teams won. But in the real card world, the company has been steadily losing market share to Visa and, to a lesser degree, MasterCard. The travel and entertainment giant is desperate to stem that tide.

Mr. Sicina said he came up with the contest idea after a speech by American Express chairman Harvey Golub in Toronto two months ago to 300 of the company's most senior executives. Mr. Golub called for a cultural change that included regarding MasterCard and Visa as "the enemy."

Mr. Sicina took the message to heart, and quite literally. "I think of myself as a general leading the 3,300 people in my division," he said.

Mr. Sicina, 52, who had worked 20 years at Citibank before joining American Express in 1992, said he no longer carries MasterCard or Visa cards and refuses to do business with merchants that don't accept American Express.

"If you worked for Coke, there is no way you would ever have a Pepsi product in your refrigerator," said Mr. Sicina. "We have to think about Visa and MasterCard in the same way."

But it will take far more than one executive's behavior change to achieve the desired results.

American Express' share of worldwide card spending was 18.4% in 1995, compared to Visa's 47.4% and MasterCard's 26.6%, according to The Nilson Report, an Oxnard, Calif.-based card industry newsletter.

American Express has issued 6% of the cards in force worldwide, compared to Visa's 53% and MasterCard's 32%.

"It's impossible for American Express to gain share," said Nilson Report president David Robertson. "They can't beat 20,000 banks. Case closed." (Mr. Robertson was referring to the global memberships of MasterCard and Visa.)

Mr. Golub, addressing a group of analysts July 31, acknowledged: "We have not yet increased share, and our best competitors continue to grow at higher rates." He said American Express needs to maintain a "maniacal focus" on growth.

The New York-based company was emboldened this year by a legal triumph in Europe. The European Commission said it would not allow Visa's European Union organization to import a rule from the United States that prohibits member banks from issuing American Express cards.

That decision will allow American Express to pursue its strategy of entering partnership agreements with banks. The company said it hopes in this way to boost its card base and thereby entice more merchants - known in Amex parlance as service establishments - to accept its brand.

American Express has bank partnerships in eight countries but not in the United States, where the Visa rule remains in force.

Latin America is the next battleground chosen by American Express has for protecting its ability to work with banks.

Mr. Sicina said within seven years he wants the Latin America-Caribbean region to account for 40% of American Express' international net income. The current contribution, he said, is "not meaningful."

The 40% goal seems especially ambitious in light of the recent goal stated by Mr. Sicina's boss - Thomas O. Ryder, American Express Travel Related Services Co.'s international president - that international net income should account for 50% of the corporation's total within seven years.

Both frank and bold in his manner, Mr. Sicina has moved rapidly up the senior ranks of American Express. He joined in 1992 as chief financial officer of American Express Bank Ltd. and has held his current post since April. He succeeded Michael Fernandez, 57, who retired in December after running the region for six years.

"We have been losing market share for the last five years in Latin America," said Mr. Sicina. "I not only want to reverse that. I want to basically triple the level of business we are currently doing."

Speaking of the merchant-acceptance side of the business, he said, "We are becoming increasingly irrelevant." When a purchase is paid for with plastic in Latin America, the probability is only 10% that an American Express card will be used.

The company issues cards in Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina. In Venezuela, it has what it calls a franchise card with Banco Consolidado, and in Brazil, it recently signed Banco de Credito Nacional to what it calls a network card.

In a franchise deal the card looks and works like a standard American Express card. Mr. Sicina said he wants to use this formula in markets where the company lacks a presence.

In a network arrangement the bank partner determines the card's features and appearance.

Under either arrangement, a bank issues, underwrites, and distributes American Express cards, and it owns the customer relationship. American Express collects royalty fees.

Mr. Sicina has been lobbying his regions' top bankers to present his business case and try to win their support against Visa.

The bank card association has said its regional board plans to vote in October on whether to adopt the co-marketing restrictions that were disallowed in Europe.

Mr. Sicina has met with some of Visa's 17 Latin American directors and vows to see them all before October. He said his biggest fear is that Visa will delay the vote, just to keep the issue hanging.

The chief executive of Visa's Latin American region, James F. Partridge, was noncommittal when asked about that possibility. "It depends on a lot of things," he said, "on how we jointly view the matter," referring to Visa and its board.

Even the bankers who have said they oppose the rule, Mr. Sicina said, are unwilling to sign contracts with American Express until the matter has been voted on. One such banker is Lazaro de Mello Brandao, chairman and president of Bradesco, the second-largest bank in Brazil. (Another Bradesco executive is a Visa board member.)

The Brazilian banker agreed to talk to others in the region on American Express' behalf and gave Mr. Sicina permission to publicize his opinion - which Mr. Sicina did at a press conference in Brazil two weeks ago.

But as Mr. Sicina pointed out, "we don't have anything in writing, just statements."

"Some banks are afraid of the operational pressure that Visa is going to apply on them to not issue American Express cards, but there is not an ounce of support" for the co-marketing rule, said Mr. Sicina.

"If he's right, then I guess the board will reject a rule," said Mr. Partridge. "Stay tuned."

American Express is exploring its legal options should Visa adopt the rule for Latin America. But in the region there is no single regulatory body like the European Commission, so American Express would have to fight country by country.

Meanwhile, American Express will have to be satisfied with smaller victories. Last week, Banco Real, a Brazilian institution represented on Visa's regional board, agreed to sell American Express cards to its customers.

In this case, American Express will issue and underwrite the cards. The bank will get a portion of the annual and merchant fees - the first time American Express has shared such income.

"I believe Visa is fighting us so hard in the region because they are scared stiff of what we are going to do when we start partnering with the banking industry," Mr. Sicina said.

Nevertheless, Visa has the upper hand. Even if there is no vote in October, just the possibility of such a rule prevents American Express from forging the partnerships with banks it wants.

Acknowledging the daunting task before him, but relishing the battle, Mr. Sicina said, "We are going to eat their lunch."

If Mr. Sicina is right, "then I guess (Visa's) board will reject a rule. Stay tuned."

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