American Express Co. vice chairman Kenneth I. Chenault is on a diplomatic mission.

He is out to convince bankers that American Express has a lot to offer as a marketing partner, and that it suffers unfairly from a reputation as a banking industry antagonist.

Though friendly and genial in his salesmanship, Mr. Chenault does not shy away from confronting those he sees as his villains and obstacles - the bank card associations.

They are "bureaucracies" run by a "tyranny of a few big banks," he railed in an interview last week, when he was asked about the MasterCard and Visa rules that prevent member banks from working with American Express.

"We say to the bank, 'You own the customer.' We are not forcing banks to make an either/or choice" in developing alliances or co-ventures to go after untapped marketing opportunities.

"The logic is inevitable - I hope it happens tomorrow - that banks will work with American Express."

It is a message that American Express officials have been taking to bankers for half a year. But Mr. Chenault will break new ground Wednesday morning when he speaks to the American Bankers Association's annual bank card conference in Orlando - an event historically dominated by MasterCard and Visa.

Those organizations were said to be none too pleased by Mr. Chenault's prominent place on the program. Neither organization's chief executive officers was on the ABA program, something that had not happened in many years.

"Times change," Mr. Chenault said, with a grin of satisfaction.

He expressed confidence that more alliances are in the offing, on the order of the small-business lending program announced last week with Banc One Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. He wishes for more of the card agreements that the company has been able to consummate internationally, where "we haven't had to deal with the chilling bylaws and restrictions" in place in the United States.

He said he will tell the ABA delegates that they are missing out on a lot if they allow the MasterCard and Visa policies to persist.

He conceded that American Express went through "some painful times," remaining over-dependent on the standard charge card at a time of explosive innovation in revolving credit.

"We allowed narrow thinking to obscure the opportunities we had in the marketplace," he said. And the company faces the task of having to repair its enemy image in the banking community.

"We need to get the logic across more," he said. Working with American Express represents a "substantial incremental opportunity for banks."

He said the benefits could range from sharing customer data bases to "brand leverage" for banks that may not have a strong identity in their own right, particularly smaller and midsize institutions.

Mr. Chenault said he has little hope that the biggest card-issuing banks - the ones he believes dominate MasterCard and Visa governance - will work with his company.

But those below the top tier, with smaller-scale operations that may be more vulnerable to the uptick in bankruptcies and delinquencies, may find an American Express helpful in contending with nationally marketed products.

American Express could offer operational and credit management support, which Mr. Chenault said bigger institutions should also be open to.

He said he was heartened by the announcement last week of Barnett Banks Inc.'s decision to "partner" with Household Credit Services Inc. Household will acquire $780 million in "noncore accounts," while the companies will jointly manage a $1 billion portfolio serving Barnett's most desirable customers.

"It demonstrates an innovative approach, a cooperative relationship" that American Express would not have minded being a part of, Mr. Chenault said.

He added that the Banc One-Wells announcement "shows that banks are finding ways to work with us within the confines of the (bank card associations') bylaws."

Mr. Chenault said banks have expressed interest in working with American Express, but some were scared of being expelled from Visa and MasterCard.

He predicted several tie-ins with banks will emerge over the next several months. Banks have expressed interest in corporate and small-business cards and lines of credit as well as Amex's traditional card products.

"I'd like to see pure network deals," he said, referring to American Express cards that banks issue. In a network arrangement, the bank controls the features of the card, which is accepted on the American Express merchant network, and the banks assume the credit risk. "More likely, we will see some very important alliance deals."

He emphasized American Express' willingness to customize those relationships and be flexible to a bank's needs: "We are not a bureaucratic association offering one set of rules covering every single deal."

American Express chairman Harvey Golub, in his first pitch to bankers at a conference earlier this year, suggested MasterCard might be more open than Visa to cooperative dealings. But Mr. Chenault indicated that is no longer the case.

The associations "seem to operate as one," he said. "We were shocked that MasterCard would put in a policy" similar to Visa's, just as American Express seemed to be generating bank interest - and was winning a legal battle on that issue against Visa in the European Union.

"Who, at the end of the day, are MasterCard and Visa serving?" he asked. "Who are their customers? ... Visa's objective is card volume. They don't care who they get it from."

Mr. Chenault suggested American Express may be far less a threat to banks than some of the nontraditional marketing organizations MasterCard and Visa have recently admitted to their club. "One has to ask," he said, "Who has taken more profits from whom?"

Mr. Chenault will break new ground speaking to the ABA's bank card conference.

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