Banc One Corp.'s credit card software venture has received a shot in the arm from one of banks' most feared competitors.

Banc One announced it has licensed the system, called Triumph, to American Express Co., which intends to incorporate it in a major overhaul of worldwide card operations.

American Express said it expects to begin using the system by next year in the processing of new products in the Optima revolving credit program.

The announcement is likely to quiet skepticism about Triumph, which endured repeated delays since Banc One and its partner, Andersen Consulting, began developing it in 1988.

Even after the system went live in 1993 within Banc One, and after it was subsequently licensed to Barclays Bank and two other international companies, Triumph was criticized as inferior to other software and outsourcing alternatives.

"The fact that the premier card company in the world purchased Triumph validates our efforts," said John A. Russell, spokesman for Banc One in Columbus, Ohio. "American Express searched the world to get a new engine for their card products and they chose Triumph."

Mr. Russell pointed out that developing such large-scale software typically "takes twice as long and costs twice as much as projected."

American Express' decision follows previously announced corporate restructuring and reengineering efforts, including reductions of more than 6,000 employees, the closing or downsizing of several operating sites, and the dismantling of a public affairs office.

Using Triumph, American Express Travel Related Services Co. will consolidate the systems that support its card activities, contributing to $1.3 billion of planned cost savings.

Allan Loren, executive vice president and chief information officer, said American Express has a record number of new products in the works, straining the existing system. The new system, he said, will accelerate the product introduction cycle, shortening what takes months or years to days or weeks.

Mr. Loren said American Express did extensive comparison shopping and closely examined existing Triumph operations, including Banc One's own, before deciding to take the license. The companies did not disclose the terms of the contract.

"We didn't ignore the skeptics," said Mr. Loren. "In the end, we concluded that Triumph enabled us to expand our product line, particularly the revolving credit products, and met our needs more than any other program."

The New York-based charge card company was impressed with the fact that Banc One ran eight million accounts on the software through the peak Christmas season, Mr. Loren said.

Other Triumph licensees include Barclays Bank of London, one of the world's largest credit card issuers; Gesellschaft fur Zahlungssysteme, or GZS, a card processing company owned by German financial institutions; and Banamex, one of the biggest Mexican banks.

CSG Card Services, the Credit Union National Association's credit card group, uses the Triumph system in place at Banc One, but has said it plans to take it in-house.

"We're pretty high on Triumph," said Keith Floen, senior vice president of CSG Card Services.

More than 30 million accounts, not including American Express, are committed to run on Triumph, said Mark Young, vice president of business development at Banc One Financial Card Services.

Donald L. McWhorter, president of Banc One Corp., said other major card processors "are expressing an interest" in Triumph.

James Beams, a technology analyst with the Tower Group in Wellesley, Mass., said Triumph gains "a lot of credibility" because "American Express carries a certain cachet."

He pointed out that Triumph is the only card processing system in its high-volume class available for purchase. The key software of other large processors, including Electronic Data Systems, Total System Services, and First Data Corp., isn't for sale.

Banc One has had trouble finding buyers among its target market of the 30 U.S. companies with more than 2 million card accounts. A long courtship with First Chicago Corp. failed to bear fruit, and BankAmerica Corp., another top 10 issuer up for grabs, went with Total System.

The software will be modified slightly to work with some of American Express' more advanced systems, such as micro-marketing and risk management, Mr. Loren said.

American Express views the software as a "utility," creating a companywide processing standard. Eventually, all of American Express' 35 million accounts and all new accounts are to run on the Triumph program.

The card software contract was not the only one in recent days involving Banc One and American Express. The Ohio-based banking company also decided to begin selling American Express Travelers Cheques.

Mr. Russell at Banc One said there was no connection between the decisions. American Express submitted the best travelers check bid and will replace the Visa brand at Banc One offices.

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