After its coup in landing Citigroup, MasterCard International Inc. could begin to look like a very different organization.
Citigroup's decision to cast its credit card lot with MasterCard came amid rumors-which some sources close to MasterCard deny-that a major streamlining of staff and programs is in the offing, including a retooling of the international office and board structures.
If true, the gesture would be in keeping with Citigroup's stated desires that association overhead be kept to a minimum. Even if not, the longtime No. 2 association would look leaner and meaner and closer in market share to its California-based archrival.
Some industry watchers say that with Citigroup behind it, MasterCard is sure to close the two-to-one margin by which it trails Visa in U.S. credit and debit market share.
On the other hand, Citi's intention to downplay the MasterCard logo in favor of its own could render the card brand increasingly inconsequential-a point on which Visa refused bend by allowing its logo to move to the backs of cards.
Ronald N. Zebeck, president and chief executive officer of Metris Cos. and a member of MasterCard's global and U.S. boards, said Visa treats its brand as being "more important than its members," which is "a fundamental flaw and mistake."
He said Citi's presence "will lower all of our costs over time," and the increased volume on MasterCard's network will improve the overall system.
Mr. Zebeck said not all MasterCard banks will want to remove the logo, which he views as a sign of MasterCard's superior flexibility.
"MasterCard's future hinges on its ability to be flexible," said Donald R. Simanoff, president of Banco Popular's U.S. operations.
One industry observer, who asked not to be identified, said the nonbank cards-American Express and Discover-had the most to gain from the "brand diffusion" that could occur as MasterCard issuers minimize the association's mark.
But this source said MasterCard is taking a purposeful and calculated risk. "When you're No. 2, you'll do anything. Given the consolidation in the industry, MasterCard's desire is to have the bigger players on the board."
A former senior credit card executive said MasterCard has "always been the most convenient place to go when you want to do something different," as was the case in the early 1990s when it opened the floodgates to cobranding with the AT&T Universal Card and others.
Citigroup's return to the MasterCard board after about two decades in the Visa camp would put three of the card industry's top four around the same table: Citi, MBNA Corp., and Chase Manhattan Corp.
Bank One Corp. and its First USA unit are aligned with Visa.