Citibank, which has traditionally catered to large corporations rather than to mom-and-pop stores, is ramping up services for small-business customers, a strategy it hopes will help it win customers from the market leader, American Express Co.
The Citigroup Inc. subsidiary on Monday took the wraps off a product that may become a key weapon in this fight: CitiBusiness Platinum Select MasterCard, the first Citi-branded credit card meant for small businesses. Companies that sign up for the card gain access to a Citibank team of "experts," who can answer questions ranging from how to build a Web site to how to set up an employee benefits program.
Faith Massingale, business manager of the travel and business segment for Citi cards, said there are 20 million small-business owners in the United States, and many of them have been relying on personal credit cards to finance their operations. "The CitiBusiness card was designed to not only attract this dynamic consumer group, but to provide them with the utmost service and crucial resources they need to stay competitive and profitable," she said.
In the greater New York marketplace, Chase Manhattan is the bank with a reputation for serving small and midsize business clients. But Citibank is introducing its small-business card nationally, with an appropriately outsized marketing campaign. Industry experts say the scope of the effort will put Citi in competition with American Express more than with Chase.
"They are in a full-scale assault against Amex in the small-business market," said Bernell Wright, managing partner at Advanced Business Concepts, a consulting firm in New York.
"The small-business market for Citi is starting to become a strategic marketplace," he said. "It's one they haven't been as strong at, and they see the rewards - particularly from these dot-coms that at first look insignificant but then turn out to be big."
Citibank said it will offer its small-business cardholders access to consulting services and product discounts that the bank previously only offered to larger companies. Because of its merger with Travelers, Citi is able to offer such extras as investment services from Salomon Smith Barney.
Other card issuers are trying a similar approach. American Express has long used its marketing might to broker discounts for its customers. U.S. Bancorp, the largest Visa issuer for businesses, is able to offer discounts on products and services that Visa has brokered with different vendors.
Industry experts said Citi's own brand, and its ability to offer virtually every financial service possible, is ample power to catapult it ahead of every bank card issuer, and place it neck-and-neck with long-time leader American Express.
"No one compares with the brand power or economic power of Citi, except Amex," said Charles Wendel, head of Financial Institutions Consulting in New York. "If they commit themselves to the small-business market they can challenge Amex, but that takes time and money. Amex has been doing this for years."
Citi already issues a cobranded small-business Advantage card with American Airlines and an AT&T small-business card that offers telephone access. But analysts said the stand-alone product unveiled Monday marks an increase in Citi's efforts to become a national leader in small-business services.
American Express is not sitting on its laurels. Last month it added another product to its arsenal: Blue for Business, an extension of its flashy hybrid card with a chip and a magnetic stripe, targeted for Internet users.
Blue for Business offers better financial terms than Citi's new small-business card. Blue charges no annual fee and comes with an introductory interest rate of 3.9% for balance transfers and purchases. The rate jumps to prime plus 3.99 percentage points after six months.
CitiBusiness is offering a balance transfer rate of prime plus 4.9 percentage points and a general interest rate of prime plus 6.9 percentage points. Small businesses that apply before Aug. 1 will receive their first card free; additional cards cost $20 a year for the first four, and $5 a year for every card after that.