Unlike most of his American compatriots, Dwane Krumme never believed that the Japanese credit card company JCB was out to conquer the western world.
When Japan's economy was riding high, when that country and its leading corporations seemed capable of just about anything, U.S. credit card bankers scoffed at Mr. Krumme's demurrals.
But he was the one with the inside information.
As general manager and executive vice president of JCB International Credit Card Company Ltd., based in Los Angeles, Mr. Krumme knew the strategic plan. After he joined JCB in 1988, he quickly came to appreciate the Japanese corporate tendency to set a course and stick to it-as JCB has even in harder times.
It did not involve frontal assaults on the MasterCard and Visa market- share bastions.
It was more like American Express with a Japanese flavor, serving multinational business travelers and those who frequent higher-end retail establishments.
The company had growth ambitions, to be sure. And Mr. Krumme was to play a big part in fulfilling them in the Americas. But he is still bemused by the more conspiratorial utterances.
"People said some of those things about us," Mr. Krumme recalled in a recent interview.
"Chuck Russell, then the president of Visa, once described us as the Toyota of the card business. We never had that intention."
Today the JCB logo appears alongside American Express and the bank card brands at hotels and other travel and entertainment establishments in major U.S. and international cities. JCB Plazas have sprouted up in five U.S. cities and 25 other destinations worldwide, welcoming cardholders who need information or advice, tickets to the theater, or help in replacing a lost passport.
But the JCB office in New York's Rockefeller Center or the tricolor decal on a Chicago or San Francisco restaurant window would be meaningless to most passers-by. It got there in part through cooperation with U.S. merchant-acquiring banks and processors-the likes of Bank of America, Bank of Hawaii, First National Bank of Omaha, and First Data Corp.-who presumably would not have supped with a foreign enemy.
JCB formed a limited-purpose U.S. credit card bank in 1993. The next year it issued a card-issuing license to Household Credit Services, which is still in effect. Some U.S. bankers hunkered down against what they saw as the plastic-export equivalent of Honda and Toyota automobiles, but the results were more subtle.
Also in 1994 JCB introduced a cobranded card with Yaohan, which operates supermarkets in eight cities. The target market was simple and specific: Japanese expatriates.
Another cobranding innovation-a Northwest Airlines WorldPerks card for Asians in the United States-did not cause much harrumphing among U.S. bankers. The card, with marketing and support in Asian languages, was introduced in August.
As much as U.S. bankers may be seeking out untapped ethnic markets, they don't go so far as to solicit Asians for T&E-oriented accounts entirely "in language," as Mr. Krumme said JCB is doing with Northwest.
"Of our 36 million cardholders, 35 million are Japanese," said Atsushi Niimura, deputy president of JCB International Company Ltd., the parent in Tokyo. "Most of the other million are from Asian countries outside Japan."
Mr. Niimura, speaking in September while accompanying Mr. Krumme to the American Bankers Association bank card conference in Long Beach, Calif., said the Japanese economic crunch was affecting JCB. It is adding no more than two million cardholders a year, he said, because "we are becoming saturated."
"We are issuing cards in the United States," Mr. Krumme added. "But to say we are doing that actively would be an overstatement."
So much for the massive threat.
The JCB executives are content, for now, with a market share some distance behind the Big Three international card brands. They believe their strategy is sound, and they don't need a higher ranking to stroke their egos.
Having come up through the very different U.S. bank card culture, Mr. Krumme can understand the skepticism about JCB. It may keep a low profile, but its cardholder base is roughly comparable to that of Citicorp, American Express, or Discover, and therefore world-class enough to make an impact.
JCB also has an imposing corporate pedigree, its ownership including banks like Sanwa, Sakura, and Daiwa; nonbanks Nomura Securities and Toyota; and the retailer Takashimaya.
Sanwa Bank, where Mr. Niimura worked 30 years in international positions before joining JCB in 1989, founded the company in 1961, predating all but a handful of pioneering U.S. credit and charge cards.
"The primary purpose always was card issuance and the support of a merchant base for Japanese travelers," Mr. Krumme said.
Mr. Krumme, 54, said he never "had any concept I would be working for a company like this"-until it happened.
With a boss thousands of miles away, immersed in unaccustomed business practices and customs, Mr. Krumme said he went through "some frustration in the early days." But he stayed the course, and in keeping with personal preferences and Japanese norms, it is a long one.
"I think I'd stay another 10 years with JCB," Mr. Krumme said. "It took eight or nine years to really understand the company. It would be inappropriate to leave until we really do something with that understanding."
Before 1988 he spent two and a half years at Pepperdine University, serving on the board of regents.
For 17 years before that he was with First Interstate Bancorp and its predecessor, United California Bank, one of the original owners of MasterCard. Before being absorbed by Wells Fargo & Co. in 1996, First Interstate had a tradition of bequeathing talent to the wider credit card world. Its former chief technology officer, Daniel Eitingon, is the No. 2 executive of Visa International. Another alumnus, Alex W. "Pete" Hart, is a former chief executive officer of MasterCard International and, more recently, of Advanta Corp.
Mr. Hart said he regards his former colleague as "a really smart guy" and he agrees that "while JCB is a really strong product, I don't see it doing much" to compete against domestic U.S. issuers.
"The Northwest Airlines cobrand is very interesting," he added.
Product announcements like that get competitors' attention, but Mr. Krumme sees a bigger picture.
"My gestalt, my world view, has changed for the better in the 10 years I have been with the company," he said. "I continue to learn about the Japanese business style," he said, and he finds much to like.
"Business in the U.S. has a short-term, quarter-to-quarter focus, which develops a quick-to-act mind-set," he said. "Get decisions done and go on to the next.
"At JCB we set very high expectations, but we look beyond the short-term to the long-term, at how what we do affects us strategically as well as tactically. When I ask Mr. Niimura how it might be best to react to something, he will say, 'Keep a balance between the short term and the long term.'"
Mr. Niimura nodded approvingly from across the table.
The deputy president said he spends much of his time on strategic issues, including technology and keeping an eye on the Internet. He said he is somewhat skeptical about Japanese electronic commerce prospects because the population is less accustomed to mail-ordering than Americans are. He believes e-commerce will take off here faster for that reason.
"We do study electronic commerce," Mr. Niimura said, "but we are conservative about its large-scale impact."
Takatoshi Ikuta, executive vice president and second-in-command to Mr. Krumme in Los Angeles, said JCB does well by being deliberate: "In the bubble economy, we didn't get into all kinds of other businesses, and we are happy about that." The company is small enough to be nimble, "yet it has a lot of capital behind it."
"JCB consistently focuses on its core business first," Mr. Krumme said. "We are careful about getting carried away with enthusiasms."
Mr. Krumme said he is almost constantly in "marketing mode," looking both at card-issuing opportunities in the U.S. and at strengthening the JCB infrastructure in Latin America and the Caribbean. He said he travels more to that region than to Japan; visits from the head office to Los Angeles are more common.
"We try to create as much country-independence as we can," Mr. Krumme said of the emerging markets. "The ideal for me is when a country organization can stand on its own."