Bells Ringing for AT&T's Credit Report Crusader

Kevin Keleghan's phone is ringing off the hook these days. Since taking on the Big Three credit bureaus, the AT&T senior vice president has been besieged by inquiries from the press and consumers.

The 35-year-old, who is responsible for setting credit policy for the AT&T Universal card, began a crusade this summer to make credit reporting agencies treat American Telephone and Telegraph Co. customers better.

Customers Complained

He began negotiating with the trio - TRW Inc., Equifax Inc., and Marmon Holdings' Trans Union Credit Information Co., Chicago - when AT&T credit card applicants said they were having trouble obtaining copies of their credit reports.

The credit card industry "has known for years that there have been problems at the credit bureaus," Mr. Keleghan said. "But here at AT&T there is so much more focus on serving the customer, we have to do more than what everyone else does."

He hopes to persuade the bureaus, which have been criticized for being unresponsive to consumers, to set up tollfree numbers for questions and to act more quickly when errors are discovered.

Mr. Keleghan's timing seems excellent. Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission said that it received more consumer complaints about credit bureaus than any other industry. Several states then turned up the heat by filing suits against Cleveland-based TRW, accusing it of unfair practices. The credit bureau says the suits are without merit.

Some industry changes are in the offing. Congress is reviewing several bills designed to regulate the credit reporting agencies more closely. And Atlanta-based Equifax has recently announced plans to operate a toll-free telephone line around the clock to answer consumer inquiries about the credit bureau industry.

So far, AT&T is the only big credit grantor to put pressure on the reporting industry. AT&T's campaign "certainly is unusual," said Elgie Holstein, president of the Bankcard Holders of America in Washington.

Fun in the Sun

Mr. Keleghan has been fielding press inquiries with increasing regularity. "It's alot of fun, but it's very time-consuming," he said. "One of these days I want to get back to doing my job."

A native New Yorker, Mr. Keleghan joined AT&T's card operation in Jacksonville, Fla., last year. He still considers the warm Florida sun a novelty. On weekends, he tools around the state's many family-oriented attractions with his wife and two young children.

"I still like to play the tourist quite a bit," he said. "We're very happy down here."

He was working in the risk management department at the bank-card unit of Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. when he heard that AT&T was about to launch its own card.

"I was waiting for a phone call from them," he said. "I was more than excited to take that plunge."

One thing that attracted him to AT&T, he said, was its approach to serving the customer. While other companies try to "do the right thing," he said, AT&T makes its primary objective "delighting" its customers.

In fact, he said, that is why he gravitated toward the card business in the firstplace.

In 1980, he completed an MBA at Hofstra University and went to work fo Merrill Lynch's market research department. About a year and a half later, he moved to American Express Co., where he did credit analysis for the charge card unit.

He found the work "very satisfying," he said. "You're really helping customers meet their day-to-day needs."

|Everyone Will Benefit'

It was this penchant for customer service that led AT&T to take a stand against the credit bureaus.

When rejecting applicants for its Universal card, AT&T ran the risk of offending and alienating people who had a relationship with the company's phone operation.

"We're making a little extra effort, and the credit bureaus have been willing to work with us," Mr. Keleghan said. "In the long run, everyone will benefit."

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