MasterCard International is trying to raise its profile in corporate cards.

Eighteen months ago, the bank card association created a distinct group to market the category. Since then, its product line has expanded from two to six, and the products are being used in 72 countries, up from 50.

International sales volume on these cards-including purchasing, fleet, and travel and entertainment-rose to $24.2 billion last year from $19.5 billion in 1996, the Purchase, N.Y.-based company said.

"Eighteen months ago we weren't perceived as a T&E brand," said Alan A. Brown, vice president of global cobranding and T&E marketing. "In the last six months alone, we have had 41 new requests from banks" for the products.

Among MasterCard's goals is to see sales volume of $40 billion to $50 billion within five years.

Travel and entertainment is "going to pass retail as the largest single spending category," Mr. Brown predicted. Airline tickets and hotel rooms "are very large-ticket items."

MasterCard still has far to go to catch competitors. Spending on Visa corporate cards in the United States alone rose 45% in 1997, to nearly $22 billion. MasterCard's slightly higher figure represents both domestic and foreign volume.

American Express is still the category killer, with 70% of Fortune 500 companies as corporate services clients. The Nilson Report said American Express had a 65% share of spending on general-purpose corporate credit cards in 1996, Visa 18%, MasterCard 11%, and Diners Club 6%.

While MasterCard is busy touting its gains in the category, Visa U.S.A. has kept "relatively quiet on the marketing side" as it works to build new reporting features into its products, said Bruno Perreault, senior vice president, commercial card products, Visa U.S.A.

Visa is "still the market leader by a large margin" in purchasing cards and has made strides in travel and entertainment, Mr. Perreault said. Visa U.S.A. ended 1997 with 4.3 million corporate accounts, up 36% from 1996.

Visa is focusing on the small-business market and expects 1998 to be a year of "significant growth," Mr. Perreault said.

"The marketplace is looking for more acceptance," he said. "With 14 million locations, Visa is a superior product."

MasterCard's third-place position did not stop it from issuing a press release claiming it is "replacing American Express as the travel and entertainment expert." It based the claim in part on having more acceptance locations.

MasterCard also said it has a "$120 billion share of the travel and entertainment segment," a figure it derived by including consumer credit and debit card spending around the world. "MasterCard's approach to T&E is very holistic," said a spokeswoman, Julie Hurbanis. "It's not just corporate cards, it's all T&E spending on MasterCard cards."

An American Express spokeswoman called the figure "very odd," saying, "a share is a percentage of the market, so we don't know what they mean."

The spokeswoman, Christine Levite, said, "We assume T&E is business travel and entertainment, but then they throw in consumer travel, so I don't know how to respond. I'm not sure what they are saying about their program vis-a-vis ours."

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