BankBoston Corp. has de-cided-at least for now-to remain in the credit card business.
Not for the first time, the Boston bank is bucking trends that have sent many mid-tier card issuers out of the business because they could not compete with larger-scale operations.
If BankBoston is to make it, it probably would be in great debt to Partners First, a management company it helped establish early this year in Baltimore.
BankBoston owns about 20% of Partners First, a joint venture with Bank of Montreal's Harris Bankcorp subsidiary in Chicago and First Annapolis Consulting of Linthicum, Md.
Partners First is essentially a new twist on outsourcing.
In April, BankBoston folded its $1.2 billion national credit card business into the venture, but it decided to retain $400 million of receivables in accounts in its four-state "core" region.
It was the second time BankBoston "exited" from credit cards. In 1990 it sold its $625 million portfolio to Chase Manhattan Bank; five years later it decided to try to jump back in.
James M. Cosman, executive director of consumer lending at BankBoston, has been responsible for the card business since April when Jeff Slawsky, the former head of credit cards, moved over to Partners First.
Mr. Cosman joined BankBoston in 1996 when it bought local rival BayBanks Inc., where he was responsible for consumer credit.
BankBoston's decision to keep its local card customers and let others take on more distant accounts is typical of another trend among superregional companies. First Union Corp., for example, has pulled in its horns, selling "noncore" card accounts to Providian Financial Corp.
"We felt the national card business wasn't aligned with our regional bank," Mr. Cosman said. "The cards are offered to our regional customers, because we want to provide one-stop shopping. We don't intend to grow this card business."
BankBoston sees an advantage in Partners First that many regional banks may lack.
"We leverage Partners First by buying services through them" at favorable rates, such as the processing services of First Data Corp., Mr. Cosman said.
The volume discounts can be significant, allowing a smaller issuer to cut processing costs by 20%, said Jerry Craft, president of InfiStar Corp. an Atlanta-based consulting firm.
Banks below the top tier-which now consists of several major bank holding companies led by Citicorp, and a few independent monoline specialists led by MBNA Corp.-also find it increasingly difficult to maintain the necessary management depth and technological skills.
That forces "a bank with our size portfolio to utilize business partners," Mr. Cosman said.
To expand its management base, Partners First wants to work with other regional and superregional banks that want to keep their hands in the card industry.
Mr. Craft, who is also in the business of helping banks manage their card businesses, estimates that about 15% of issuers are turning to outside companies for the kind of marketing and technological support Partners First is providing for BankBoston.
"It takes more than just (customer) relationships and a brand to succeed today," Mr. Craft said.
Mr. Cosman said Partners First advises BankBoston on risk management issues, and First Data Resources handles the collections, credit scoring, and other back-office functions.
In one recent product innovation, BankBoston in July launched a student banking and identification card for Northeastern University.
It is called the BankBoston Husky Card, named after the university mascot. Unlike other student cards proliferating on college campuses, it is not a smart card with a computer chip and stored-value payment function.
Branded with MasterCard, the BankBoston offering functions as a debit and automated teller machine card and controls access to residence halls, gyms, and other facilities.