Citibank is on the prowl for e-business in Latin America. With the goal of capturing a large chunk of the region's growing business-to-business (B-to- B) e- commerce market, the New York-based financial giant has launched a series of products aimed at Latin American businesses and begun offering functions from idea swapping to new services, such as online bill paying.

The driver of Citibank's initiative is evident when one considers estimates by International Data Corp., a Framingham, MA-based research firm, that Latin America's B-to-B market will soar to $8.3 billion in 2003, up from $437 million in 1999. Aware of those numbers, the U.S. giant is working in the 24 Latin American countries where it has operations to achieve its global plan of having e-business account for 15% of operations by year's end.

Building the B-to-B presence

The demand by customers for Citibank to ratchet up its Latin American B-to-B offerings came naturally, says Driss Temsamani, vice president of e- business strategic planning for Citibank Latin America. Citibank's presence in the region dates back some 80 years, so there were few worries about building an operation from scratch or having difficulty capturing market share in the region.

Instead, the bank, which already counts 6,000 corporate customers in Latin American, had only to migrate customers from their electronic channels to the Internet.

"In the past we had to give corporates private, customized software residing in their computers," says Temsamani. "So we just had to give them a URL, as they were getting the same interface." The argument on behalf of B-to-B is that it leads to greater efficiency and cost reductions.

"In the purchasing process we can say that what's taking you 10 to 20 steps we can reduce to five steps, which will lower your unit costs, and should drive profitability for you," he explains.

Building on its deep customer base, Citibank Latin America's primary tactic in expanding B-to-B is linking its core banking abilities to companies that have already shown success in delivering the necessary technology.

"Alliances in a sense bring together two points of excellence - two companies that have gotten to the top of their business - and together they build a value proposition and, at the end of the day who wins is the customer," says Temsamani.

Latin America has been a fertile source of deals for Citibank.

In recent months the company has joined with Marrakech, a provider of network e-commerce, to create e-procurement solutions in Mexico and signed an asset management agreement with Alterbrain, a Web consulting and development firm.

Brazil, Latin America's biggest market, has also been fertile ground for Citibank's services.

Aventis CropScience, part of the French-German pharmaceutical group Aventis, was one of the first companies in Latin America to use Citibank's CitiCommerce, a regional initiative allowing large sellers to automate their sales transactions and enabling buyers to create purchase orders, consult information about invoices, check delivery status, and make payments. Last year the two companies launched ECO Aventis, which aims toward the on-line integration of Aventis' 500 current distributors by year's end.

In March, Citibank forged another B-to-B deal with SAP Brazil, the Brazilian arm of a German-based developer and supplier of integrated business application software. That alliance aims to improve the buying and selling process between companies using the Internet with a key element being the combining of SAP's purchasing product, Enterprise Buyer Professional, with Citibank's e-market service, Citibank Procurement Connection. The integration of products allows companies to link office supply and production material purchases directly with vendors over the Web.

Chilean network

At the same time it is mounting its Brazilian initiatives, Citibank Latin American has opened to it Chilean corporate clients a broad array of new business prospects.

In December, Citibank signed an agreement for its Chilean customers to access the horizontal financial marketplace through Santiago-based Senegocia.com. In return, Senegocia.com's customers gained access to Citibank's financial services, such as online payments and transaction settlement.

One of the benefits of the agreement for Senegocia.com is its network of suppliers no longer waits up to six months before receiving payment for goods and services sold. "This will be very good news for suppliers in a country where there is a lack of liquidity," says Felipe Cubillos, co-founder and managing director of Senegocia.com. "So they will be able to finance their operation on the same day they are selling their goods."

For Senegocia.com, he says, the Citibank partnership brought an essential element.

"With the alliance with Citibank what we are able to do is to focus on what we really know how to do: We are able to create a marketplace," Cubillos says. "And Citibank will be able to offer what they know: Banking."

For its part, Citibank will cash in on the vast web of companies Senegocia.com has created in Chile since its launch in April 2000. Since then, the company, which is overseeing daily trades of some $10 million a month, has acquired more than 8,000 clients and expanded into Argentina, Peru and Brazil. While Senegocia.com' and Citibank's relationship only covers Chile, Senegocia.com continues to look farther afield. In April the company allied with Mercado Electronico, with 19,000 clients the largest B-to-B market in Brazil. That alliance, Cubillos says, makes his company part of the largest marketplace in Latin America with 35,000 clients.

The hot apps

While Citibank is advancing its real-time payment and settlement product into Chile, the hot application in Colombia has been bill payment. There, Citibank says it has created the first Web page dedicated exclusively to bill payments.

Mispagosaldia.com, launched in October, allows Colombians to perform any payment transaction for public and private utility services at no cost and with no time or schedule limitations. The site, which also offers B-to-B applications, uses 128-bit encryption and allows user access to their previous year's payment history. Also available are notices of pending payments, notification of upcoming deadlines, and confirmation of completed transactions. The site had reached a base of 10,000 users by March.

In Mexico bill payment is also one of Citibank's most popular e- business applications but, according to Marcelo Scaglia, e-business head of Citibank Mexico, it trails e-procurement solutions, a hotly competitive application in the banking world.

Citibank Procurement is a B-to-B solution allowing clients the ability to automate the MRO (Maintenance, Repair and Operations) purchase, payment and consolidation processes with the aim of boosting speed and efficiency.

Citibank Mexico launched its e-business products at a January event where 400 customers were shown CitiCommerce, Citibank Procurement, EBPP and Citibank on-line Web, all of which allow corporate clients to conduct transactions and access account information in three languages and all 21 Latin American countries.

The drive for B-to-B e-commerce is a principal part of Citibank Mexico's online ambitions. Meanwhile, the bank also concentrates on moving its current financial services to the Internet and generating new financial services using Internet technology. It is a complex scenario but after B-to-B launches by Citibank in Brazil and Argentina, which came six to eight months before the Mexico launch, Scaglia says many problems have been avoided by Citibank Mexico.

"The sales process for this is so completely different from selling financial services," says Scaglia. "The buyer is different, you have to involved the CEO of the company... We are still fine-tuning what is the best sales process in terms of the people and processes."

The process of getting buyers and sellers to transact online has hardly been a breeze. While EDI generally connects major companies, the Internet links firms of all shapes and sizes, creating a more complex environment, Scaglia says. He adds that the number of businesses using B-to-B transactions is presently not as great as he had hoped.

"When the community has different standards, different resources in terms of money to invest, and different people it is very hard for the company that is leading that type of initiative," he says. "If you have one big company and a big branch of suppliers and that big company wants to move the community of suppliers and buyers to the Internet it is a very complex process and it takes some time."

Buyers and sellers must be patient about online communities forming fully and about revenues and transactions increasing, Scaglia says. "It's like pushing a big ship; it's not easy for the ship to gain momentum."

Like Scaglia, Cubillos says the most difficult part of B-to-B is changing the thinking of companies that have habitually conducted business via the Internet instead of by phone or fax. Despite such problems, Citibank remains confident.

"Latin America has one of the fastest growing Internet access landscapes compared to other regions," says Temsamani of Citibank Latin America. "We are seeing heavy penetration of wireless technologies, and we are seeing major investment in a lot of different portals in the region today." For these reasons, Temsamani sees Latin America's underdeveloped infrastructure not as a barrier but as an opportunity with Latin American banks anxious to leapfrog to the newest technology.

Citibank, he says, is also making progress rather than merely promises.

"Looking at the companies announcing, some say they have a Web site, some say they have initiatives and some have real customers with real transactions," he says. "We are in the last category, and today there are very few or none in that category."

Scaglia also sees encouraging signs for B-to-B for Citibank Mexico with its 1,300 corporate customers.

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