Plus's President Looking Abroad

In the high-stakes global game, D. Dale Browning, president of Plus System Inc., may be holding an ace: his Visa card.

Visa U.S.A. purchased a $3.5 million "special membership" in Denver-based Plus four years ago. But if the credit-card giant successfully concludes talks to acquire the remainder of Plus anytime soon, the network could build overseas clout.

The timing would be perfect. Mr. Browning is planning expansion in Southeast Asia and South America, and he also hopes to have Spain and Portugal "well covered" in time for the 1992 summer Olympic games in Barcelona.

Tough Fight with Cirrus

Mr. Browning declined to discuss the Visa negotiations. But underscoring the importance of an international credit-card partner, he observed: "Visa International is responsible for Plus's international growth."

Both at home and abroad, Plus is locked in a battle with rival Cirrus System Inc., wholly owned by MasterCard International.

Plus processes about 13 million transactions a month through its Denver switch. The network has 61 member banks, 54,000 ATMs in the United States and Canada, and 175 million U.S. cardholders.

As of June, Plus controlled 6,900 ATMs overseas. But an estimated 4,000 are in Britain. Thus the emphasis on tackling new markets.

Concentration in Britain

Visa International brings to the game its European bank members' ATMs and ATM-accessible credit cards. But Mr. Browning noted this process has been slowed as foreign banks bring their ATM and network technology in line with Plus requirements.

At home, meanwhile, despite Plus' transaction growth of 80% a year over the last four years, Mr. Browning is seeking to shore up the network's marketing efforts.

Mr. Browning is particularly unhappy with the national networks' penetration of the ATM user market. According to surveys commissioned by Plus, only 42% of all ATM users know they can use their card outside of their own area.

Utility Not Understood

"There's still a lot of education to do," said Mr. Browning, who is also president of Colorado National Bank of Denver.

Toward that end, Mr. Browning is recommending "a substantially higher marketing budget" to his board. In recent years, he said, Plus' outlays averaged $2.5 million.

Also crucial are plans to hook more travelers on Plus. Mr. Browning said the network is seeking to get more locations in travel destinations, such as Disney World and New Orleans' Riverwalk, and in hotels and airports.

Some of these locations will have more than ATMs. The network is planning to expand so-called Plus Travel Centers, which will include phones that provide local transportation information and displays for maps and other tourist information. New Orleans and Phoenix already have such centers.

Conflict over Pricing

Meanwhile, an obstacle on the home front has been an operational and pricing struggle with regional networks, which provide valuable gateways to the national networks. A key question has been how to route transactions between Plus banks when those banks also use a regional switch.

"Plus remains fiercely independent," one industry analyst said.

But Mr. Browning said nationals may have an edge in the competition because of the industry's rapid consolidation. As big banks take on more marketing territory, he said, they are bound to question whether they should put their marketing support behind one national mark or several regionals.

But the strongest regional networks will remain viable competitors, said Mr. Browning, who also heads Colorado National's card-processing unit, Rocky Mountain Bankcard System. He said the regionals were still needed on the local level, partly because they provide valuable links to national networks.

PHOTO : D. DALE BROWNING may have an edge in Visa's Plus membership.

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