For a bank that has made its name with technological advances, Citibank has set out to augment its credit card portfolio in decidedly traditional ways.
While its competitors look to the Internet and high-tech information systems, the largest bank in the credit card world is focused on buying portfolios, introducing new cards, and cross-selling products to existing customers.
To be sure, technology will play a central role in the Citigroup subsidiary's varied efforts to amass more receivables. But the main emphasis seems to be on making creative use of resources and expertise that are already in place.
"Knowing that the whole tide of balances is not going to grow that fast, we have to find other mechanisms" to expand, said A. Sami Siddiqui, president of Citigroup's credit card business in North America.
"Today we are a respectable, large player," he said. "We want to be defined as the leading card company globally, in the physical and virtual worlds."
Citigroup will be relying on its brand name to accomplish this. Over the past several years top executives have talked about "Citi" becoming as ubiquitous as Coke or Nike. The strategy began in the late 1980s, when Citibank released the advertising theme "Not just Visa, Citibank Visa."
In the early 1990s the campaign dropped the Visa name and focused on the "Citibank card." Branding became a central concern for Citigroup in 1997, when the theme of the company's annual report was building a global brand.
In February, Citigroup's co-chairman and chief executive officer, John Reed, resigned from Visa U.S.A.'s board, because Visa refused to move its name to the back of Citibank's credit cards. Citigroup switched its primary allegiance to MasterCard International, where it now occupies a board seat. In June, MasterCard approved a measure Mr. Reed has been advocating: let individual issuers highlight their own brand on the front of cards, and put the association logo on the back.
Citibank's size and influence have loomed large over the U.S. card market for decades, but the institution is being challenged as never before. The First USA division of Bank One Corp. and MBNA Corp. are nipping at its heels.
As of midyear Citibank reported $70.3 billion in card loans, First USA $69.4 billion, and MBNA $64.5 billion.
Mr. Siddiqui said in a telephone interview that he is taking an opposite approach from First USA, which says it has shifted much of its $1 billion marketing budget to Internet initiatives. First USA says it has picked up 1.3 million customers through the Web.
Mr. Siddiqui said Citigroup's primary interest in the Internet is to get its cards used more, and to gain interchange income from banks on the merchant side.
"We are trying to develop more products and services where Citi cards will be used" on the Internet, Mr. Siddiqui said. Citigroup "makes a lot of money off of transaction volume" and plans to capture more that way.
Citibank also aims to profit from the decline of small and midsize credit card issuers, which have been selling their businesses for want of adequate returns. The New York bank's biggest acquisition came two years ago, when it purchased the then-$12 billion AT&T Universal Card business.
This year Citibank bought Mellon Bank Corp.'s $1.9 billion of card loans, but agreed under an agent banking contract to continue issuing cards in Mellon's name. That aspect of the deal was considered unusual for Citibank, which, in a departure from its history, now says it is eager to pursue more such relationships.
Mr. Siddiqui said the continued success of the credit card monolines (including MBNA and First USA before it was bought by Bank One in 1997) is among the factors that call for a rethinking of business as usual.
"It is becoming obvious that the role of the traditional bank is diminishing in the credit card business, which is becoming a very specialized field," he said.
Citigroup executives say their organization's full quiver of financial products gives them an advantage over more specialized or traditional banking firms. Cross-selling aspirations were a key aspect of the 1998 merger of Citicorp and Travelers Group, and the card business is regarded as a launching pad for growth in other parts of Citigroup.
Efforts to sell insurance policies to credit card customers have been particularly fruitful. "We have been very quiet, but we have a good story to tell," Mr. Siddiqui said.
Citi's cardholders are buying 1,000 auto insurance policies a month. Within four months the rate is expected to increase to 4,000 to 5,000 a month, Mr. Siddiqui said.
Citibank card customers who call the bank and fit a certain profile may be transferred to an insurance sales representative.
"We ask them whether they want to stay on the line to talk to an insurance rep," Mr. Siddiqui said. "We hot-transfer that call to one of our insurance service centers, and through that process we are able to book (policies) without any additional cost to us."
"We can acquire an account for $70, while it might cost Travelers $800," he said.
Mr. Siddiqui said an operations center is being built to handle new loans he is generating for Commercial Credit, a sister company that sells home equity loans to lower-income borrowers.
Despite those synergies, Mr. Siddiqui said, he has decided against trying to sell credit cards to Citigroup insurance customers. "It doesn't pay to do it the other way around," he said. "Most of our Travelers customers already have a credit card."
Instead, Mr. Siddiqui talks about gaining "wallet share" among the bank's customers. This goal is shared by virtually every bank that sells credit cards, but Citi seems to be breaking fresh ground.
"Citi is calling its current customers to invite them to apply for other cards with us," Mr. Siddiqui said. In some cases, that might mean encouraging people to replace cards from other banks with additional Citi cards.
"We are saying to them, 'You don't need to have so many cards with different banks."
Citibank representatives at two call centers are doing the telemarketing. Among the questions they ask customers are whether they want a card with a higher credit limit, and whether they would be willing to pay more for it.
"We are not necessarily reducing our pricing," Mr. Siddiqui said. "But we want to be flexible about pricing."
"We are saying, 'How can we be flexible to gain market share?'" he added. "The overall U.S. population is not going to grow, so the question becomes, 'How do the four or five biggest players get more of what your customer already has?'"
Mr. Siddiqui, a former Providian Financial Corp. executive who has spent two years in the Citibank post, has also begun a separate initiative to develop new products for so-called convenience users, who pay their monthly credit card balances in full and yield little or no interest income.
Mr. Siddiqui said 80% of the card industry's earnings come from those who revolve balances. Correspondingly, "the purchase side has been somewhat ignored." He said creating reward-bearing products may be the key to building transaction volume.
"We want to build a brand and products that will be the best for convenience users," Mr. Siddiqui said. "We want to have some kind of reward card in addition to the (American Airlines) AAdvantage card," which is popular with business travelers who use it heavily but tend to pay off their balances.
A cobranded card with Sony Electronics Inc. lets customers earn points toward discounts on Sony merchandise.
Some of the most aggressive card marketers-including MBNA, First USA, Capital One Financial Corp., and Providian-rely heavily on data bases and related technology to find prospects and present terms that will appeal to them individually.
Citibank has not done as much in that area, said Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst Ronald I. Mandle. Instead it is focusing on squeezing more business out of its current customers.
Citi's card balances in the second quarter were 13% higher than a year earlier. Mr. Siddiqui said that is satisfactory "even though Bank One is growing at 18% and MBNA is growing at 26%. I'm happy with that, because we have improved our return on assets and our total bottom line."
Some analysts are not particularly impressed with Citi's card performance. Steve Eisman, a CIBC Oppenheimer analyst, dismissed the 13% growth rate and said the only bright spot was the fourth quarter of 1998, during which Citigroup added $6 billion in receivables.
"That was organic growth," Mr. Eisman said, in part the result of convincing Universal Card customers-who tended to be convenience users-to accrue more debt.
When it comes to portfolio-building, Citibank is "really seeking profitable growth," Mr. Siddiqui said. "We are not interested in growth for the sake of growth."