American Express Co. is out to enhance its relationship with corporate clients through a new joint venture with a company that specializes in employee incentives.

Maritz Performance Improvement Co. and American Express will offer gift checks and prepaid cards that reward employees for achieving goals in sales, performance, and other areas. The partnership is scheduled to start in early 1998.

The employee incentive business is booming, the companies said. American Express sees the venture as an opportunity to play a bigger role in an estimated $24 billion industry, one in which the card issuer has been dabbling for about 10 years.

"The joint venture becomes the No. 1 player in incentive-based solutions," said Bill Meade, senior vice president of American Express' emerging business group. Maritz is the largest company in its field.

Employee incentive programs have become an increasingly popular way to inspire workers and reward high performers. Among industries using them heavily are car manufacturers, which might offer dealerships prepaid cards for meeting sales goals.

Though the market is large, most companies do not use a vendor to handle employee rewards and bonuses. According to Mr. Meade, incentive companies handle about $2 billion of business. American Express and Maritz jointly hope to attract more mid-sized companies that historically have given cash bonuses on their own.

The American Express deal ends a three-year relationship Maritz had with MasterCard International and Boatmen's Bancshares of St. Louis, which was bought by NationsBank in 1996.

Until now, Maritz's prepaid cards have carried the MasterCard logo, and Boatmen's served as the merchant processor.

Maritz, also based in St. Louis, said some corporate customers like to customize their incentive offerings by limiting the number of merchants authorized to accept the cards and checks. Other customers prefer to include merchants that compete with one another. These and other issues apparently broke up the relationship with MasterCard.

"MasterCard was not as flexible as Amex on merchant acceptance issues," said a spokesman for Maritz.

MasterCard declined to comment on its relationship with Maritz, but a spokeswoman said the association's members have offered incentive programs without Maritz and will continue to do so.

Last year, for example, MasterCard launched programs with Firstar Bank USA, KeyBank, and First Chicago NBD without Maritz, she said.

The Maritz gift checks and prepaid cards now are only accepted at some 700 participating merchants, typically high-end retailers and travel- related companies.

The idea is to give the employees something they normally would not buy for themselves.

American Express has been offering such cards through its corporate services division, which includes small-business services, as well as purchasing and corporate cards.

The cards look like American Express' flagship green card and can be used anywhere Amex is accepted.

The joint venture will offer the products American Express has been selling as well as those of Maritz.

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