Dennis A. Doyle, owner of world-champion harness horse "Silver Almahurst," has what he thinks is a thoroughbred idea for the credit card industry.
Mr. Doyle, 58, has copyrighted, trademarked, and made a patent filing for a card that would help customers put money aside for a child's education.
In addition to paying a flat percentage of charges into a special account, manufacturers and others would give significant paybacks for big- ticket purchases. The money would go into a bank account or a state prepaid-tuition program.
Mr. Doyle's is one among thousands of credit card ideas presented to banks every year, few of which become reality. Even concepts embraced by card companies and backed by well-funded marketing campaigns often come up lame in an unpredictable, crowded field.
Still, Mr. Doyle's entrepreneurial bent helped him develop some unusual features and sign up some big companies as partners.
Mr. Doyle, chief executive officer of Savor Inc., formerly worked for Ford Motor Co. As an entrepreneur he developed the "multidealer tent sale" concept. Using those contacts, he got verbal commitments from executives at the Big Three automakers to offer rebates to Savor cardholders.
Now all he needs is a bank to issue his card.
A small Ohio bank initially showed interest in the idea. But after Mr. Doyle's presentation-complete with balloons, helicopters towing banners, videotapes of focus group interviews, and soundtracks-a bank executive told Mr. Doyle that it did not want to hire the help required to handle the program.
That first presentation may have owed a lot to his auto marketing background. Presentations to big card companies are now being made by attorney William M. Aukamp, who used to be chief executive officer of Chemical Bank Delaware and president of the Delaware Bankers Association.
Mr. Aukamp heard about Mr. Doyle's idea from another attorney, a fraternity brother who had kept up with Mr. Doyle. All three were in Theta Xi at Lafayette College, Easton, Pa. in the late 1950s.
Mr. Doyle, known for his outgoing ways, quickly contacted Mr. Aukamp when he learned of his interest in the concept.
How did an entrepreneur with no financial services background come up with such an idea?
"Sometimes the professionals don't see the forest for the trees," Mr. Aukamp said. "He's a real entrepreneur and a creative guy."
In his last business, Mr. Doyle established kiosks inside warehouse clubs for customers to buy cellular phones and other items or be referred to a car dealer to get near-wholesale prices on new vehicles. In 1994 he sold the business, which was generating sales of $15 million, to Wal-Mart.
Before that was the "multidealer tent sale," where dealers congregate in a stadium or parking lot and bid for customer business.
Mr. Doyle also said he sold the phrase "Be all that you can be"-an Army recruiting slogan-to an advertising agency for $10,000.
Consultants say that despite his innovative ways, Mr. Doyle faces a tough task in making his Savor card fly.
"From my point of view, it really takes a laser focus," said Patricia Hudson, president of Porges/Hudson Marketing Inc. in San Francisco. "It takes a lot of money to launch, and you've got to break through the clutter."
The benefits don't matter if customers don't understand them immediately, she said.
The idea "is too remote for parents and not productive enough," said another consultant, who asked not to be identified.
Mr. Doyle argues that his program is simple compared with complicated frequent-flier cards and the like. Consumers can stop postponing saving, and they are assured that the college nest egg will not be disturbed-even the account holder cannot get access to it-until it is time to start school.
"Anything that will help families save is a good idea, but we don't want to encourage people to go into debt," said Maureen O'Brien, director of marketing for the Ohio Tuition Trust Authority, a state agency that runs a program allowing parents to prepay college tuition.
Nineteen states have such programs, and the six-year-old National Association of State Treasurers helps with running them. Five hundred thousand families are enrolled. Meeting designated savings goals at certain intervals usually ensures full tuition at colleges and universities participating in the program.
The Ohio agency is investigating Mr. Doyle's proposal and will bring it before its board of directors in May, Ms. O'Brien said.
His proposal is the first that the Ohio Tuition Trust Authority has seen with the idea of retail rebates, Ms. O'Brien added. "That's the unique twist."
Mr. Doyle said he offers a broad variety of retailer rebates, defeating the argument that cash does not build quickly enough for college savings. The rebates on large purchases can be obtained by filling out a form, without having to finance part or all of purchase on the card, he said.
Here is how it would work: A consumer buys a car (using the card or a rebate form) and gets up to $1,000. A refrigerator gets $50, an overnight hotel stay $5, a fill-up at the gas station 5 cents a gallon-all applied toward junior's college education.
"It's found money," Mr. Doyle said.
For those wanting to force additional savings, Mr. Doyle has a feature called "plus 10." For every purchase, the customer is billed an additional 10% that goes into the account, Mr. Doyle said.
Mr. Doyle won't be the first to try a card promoting college savings. Advanta Corp. introduced its Edvance card in 1994. Under the terms of that program, a cardholder gets a $50 U.S. Savings bond for every $2,500 in purchases.
Rising college costs continue to outpace inflation, and more students are going to college-signs of a lucrative market if an entrepreneur like Mr. Doyle can strike the right chord. But banks have not rushed to offer innovative investment product savings programs, said Geoffrey H. Bobroff, a consultant in East Greenwich, R.I.
"I haven't seen anyone rising on the radar screen," he said.
Bankers may be concerned that consumers are already under too many other savings pressures. People are having children later in life and getting caught in a squeeze-having to support them as well as their own parents. College savings lose out, Mr. Bobroff said.
Still, he said, a bank that takes a lead in this area can get a windfall of free publicity.
Mr. Doyle agrees, but is aghast at how slowly banks make decisions. One bank said it would consider the card after an executive is replaced- sometime in the next six months.
Things work differently in Detroit, Mr. Doyle said. "If a guy died in the middle of the day, they'd be making decisions by the end of the day."
"Banks don't make decisions quickly," Mr. Aukamp agreed. But he said the proposed card would not have to overcome any regulatory hurdles, which in a banking context speeds things up.
Mr. Doyle is accustomed to speed. Two of his 12 racehorses have won national titles. And despite the long odds in the card race, he has faith that his idea will come up a winner.