James M. Cracchiolo's assignment at American Express Co. may seem like trying to move an elephant against its will.
Mr. Cracchiolo, president of global network services, is in charge of persuading banks to sell American Express cards. He must battle the popular perception that his company is a foe of banks. He also has to grapple with the U.S. bylaws of Visa and MasterCard that forbid member banks from issuing the American Express brand.
All Mr. Cracchiolo's successes have been outside the United States, where Visa and MasterCard do not have such restrictive rules and where American Express is perceived differently. The New York-based card company said it has entered into 31 partnerships with foreign financial institutions and has 30 more in the pipeline.
But American Express is not satisfied. Two years ago its chairman, Harvey Golub, made a combative speech to a bank credit card conference complaining that MasterCard International and Visa U.S.A. policies deprive banks of their "freedom of choice."
Mr. Cracchiolo moved into his job a year ago, beginning the bank recruitment strategy in earnest. With no U.S. banks in its corner, American Express is becoming increasingly restless. Particularly irksome, the company said, is that some bankers have said they would be happy to align with American Express if it were not for the card association rules.
American Express is exploring ways of getting around those restrictions. It recently began negotiating with several, mostly small banks that do not have significant ties to Visa or MasterCard, and therefore do not have to worry about renouncing their membership in the associations.
"We are beginning to work with institutions that want to be in the card- issuing business and feel that American Express would be an appropriate brand to work with," said Mr. Cracchiolo, 39, a 16-year veteran of the company.
For at least two years, American Express has been watching the Department of Justice investigate the bank card associations' membership policies. The probe was initiated largely because of American Express' persistent complaints that Visa and MasterCard's policies violated antitrust laws.
"We would always like it to move more quickly along," Mr. Cracchiolo said of the investigation. "We are hopeful that maybe the department will act shortly."
There are no signs that a decision is imminent. "The horizon is always the same distance away," said one industry attorney.
Moreover, at least three attorneys running the government's investigation have come and gone over three years, and there has been other staff turnover that may have slowed the progress.
In a meeting with analysts Feb. 4, Mr. Golub complained vociferously about the associations and their rules.
"Golub sounded frustrated," said PaineWebber analyst Gary Gordon. "He's losing patience," said another analyst.
While Mr. Cracchiolo conceded the relationships his group was pursuing with U.S. banks would not be "the ultimate" strategy for building market share, he believes these banks will provide "some kind of penetration in the U.S. market."
Some of these banks are members of Visa and MasterCard and others are not, but mostly they are small, he said.
Mr. Cracchiolo is hoping the impressive list of institutions with which American Express is working abroad-including National Westminster of London, Credit Lyonnais of France, Sumitomo of Japan, Banco Santander of Spain, and Bradesco of Brazil-will impress more U.S. bankers.
Most recently, American Express and Credit Suisse formed a partnership unlike the other bank alliances. The venture will support both Credit Suisse's and American Express' card programs in Switzerland. Credit Suisse agreed to issue American Express cards in addition to the Mastercard/Eurocards it already offers and the Visa cards it plans to offer. (Credit Suisse recently gained a Visa license in Switzerland.)
The arrangement is unusual because Credit Suisse will become the owner and issuer of Amex's existing accounts, plus any new ones. Thus, American Express will no longer compete with Credit Suisse in the card business.
In other countries where American Express has both bank partnerships and a proprietary card business, the company does not turn over its accounts to the partner.
Mr. Cracchiolo emphasized that Credit Suisse-and not American Express-is issuing the Visa and Eurocard cards. But the arrangement represents the first time that American Express will have a hand in supporting a Visa and MasterCard business.
The joint venture was "set up to help grow the card base in Switzerland," to be a "management servicing arm," Mr. Cracchiolo said this week in a telephone interview from Zurich.
So far these international deals contribute little to American Express' bottom line, but "we have very high hopes that this will be a sizable business opportunity," Mr. Cracchiolo said.
In the international markets where American Express has card partnerships, its card base has grown 25% and total billings have grown 40%, the company reported.
American Express has high hopes for the Caribbean region, where Banco Popular - the largest issuer of Visa cards in Puerto Rico-will get behind it.
Banco Popular signed an agreement last year to issue a credit card with the American Express logo, which is accepted at all merchants in the Amex network.
Fabio Garcia, assistant vice president for card products at Banco Popular, said mainland bankers may resist working with American Express because of the company's stronger market presence here. But he said his bank had no reservations about it.
Unlike some banks in the 50 states, Banco Popular believes American Express has the proper firewalls between bank cards and the activity Mr. Cracchiolo spearheads.
"We are providing them with confidential information about our marketing strategy, and they have to be extremely ethical with the information," Mr. Garcia said.
This is what worries U.S. banks.
Under a partnership with American Express, the nonbank "would get names and addresses of customers that they might not get otherwise," said Linda Echard, president of the Independent Bankers Association of America's bank- card program. "I don't see how the banks could protect themselves long- term."
Mr. Cracchiolo insists American Express would offer its products to bank partners' customers only if the bank agreed to it. Moreover, he said, his business unit does not report to the issuing side of the company. He reports directly to Thomas O. Ryder, president of American Express International.
American Express' biggest partnership coup may be its deal with National Westminster Bank.
Natwest, one of the top banks in the United Kingdom and the largest MasterCard issuer in Europe, last year began issuing a corporate card cobranded with United Airlines that operates on the American Express merchant network.
Natwest also agreed to launch a consumer card in the U.K. that carries the Amex logo. In November, the bank began piloting the Natwest American Express card.
Like many of the other banks marketing American Express cards, Natwest said its Amex program is meant for wealthier consumers.
Ultimately, American Express is hoping these partnerships will expand its merchant network, thus strengthening its brand. Also, American Express stands to gain substantial income from the fees merchants pay to process Amex transactions.
Richard Mount, a former president of IBAA and the current chairman of the association's card program, said banks would risk losing customers if they worked with American Express. Banks in partnerships "are basically opening up their customer list to someone they are in competition with," he said.
Mr. Mount, chief executive of Saratoga National Bank in California- presumably the kind of community bank American Express is seeking out-said he does not put "a lot of faith" in the firewalls Amex says would protect bank interests.
Mr. Cracchiolo said American Express "does not have the ability or desire" to steal banks' customers. "What we would want to do is deepen the extent of their own relationship with their customers."