The battle for credit card supremacy took a new turn Thursday with American Express Co. chairman Harvey Golub's overt pitch for the business of banks now loyal to MasterCard and Visa.
Shaking up an industry gathering with his self-styled "sales call and invitation," Mr. Golub launched a frontal attack on the Visa organization and offered its member banks an opportunity to jointly explore new types of products and business relationships.
Mr. Golub had nicer things to say about MasterCard because he said it has a more permissive attitude toward alliances. But he was suggesting that all banks "consider joining us in issuing consumer and business cards on the American Express network."
Stating principles similar to those in a speech Wednesday by a Dean Witter, Discover & Co. executive, Mr. Golub seemed to be assuming leadership of a growing and increasingly vocal anti-Visa brigade.
"This is about your ability to have multiple channels of distribution," said William L. Hodges, executive vice president of the Novus payments unit at Dean Witter Discover, which has joined with American Express in legal challenges - mostly unsuccessful to date - to Visa membership policies.
Mr. Golub's presentation, which was much more specific than Mr. Hodges' in laying out a partnership proposition, was courteously received, and agreed with at least in principle by many of those in attendance at the annual Faulkner & Gray Credit Card Forum in Atlanta.
Mr. Golub framed his argument as one of "freedom of choice." He accused Visa of stifling that freedom through bylaws - one that exists in the United States, and a similar one proposed for other regions - that prohibit member banks from issuing a nonbank brand of card.
Mr. Hodges of Discover-Novus was especially harsh on this point, saying, "What is at stake in Europe is precisely what Visa has already taken away here in the United States - the freedom to make your own decisions as to what networks you will use to issue your card brands ... Just whose interests are served by efforts to restrict competition?"
"Only Visa's restrictive bylaw stands between banks and their freedom to choose," Mr. Golub said. He cited results of an American Express survey of the top 300 U.S. Visa banks showing half were critical of Visa's ban on intersystem alliances and a third would be interested in a cobranding arrangement with American Express or Discover.
Mr. Golub jokingly invited people to call him at 1-800-CALL-HARVEY, then provided his actual telephone number and the American Express World Wide Web address. He said he was under no illusion that he would be besieged by inquiring bankers, but he said he is willing to work with institutions of any size.
The prospective cobranded card might have the American Express logo at the bottom right-hand corner and the bank's name across the top of the card.
Bankers and other observers did not reject the overture out of hand.
"Given that banks sell American Express travelers checks and banks also let American Express have access to their ATMs, I don't know why we shouldn't also have the right to issue an American Express card," said former MasterCard president Alex W. Hart.
He likened the competitive alternatives to those of a supermarket that "wouldn't want to be told (by Pepsi) that it couldn't also sell Coke." "I believe it's in the best interest of the (card association) membership that they be entitled to issue a Novus or American Express card," said Mr. Hart, now chief executive at Advanta Corp., with which American Express said it is testing an equipment leasing product.
"There is tangible benefit for an issuer to have multiple brands," said Ronald Zebeck, the developer of the General Motors MasterCard program, now president of Fingerhut Financial Services. "Otherwise banks wouldn't issue Visa and MasterCard."
Under the proposal outlined by Mr. Golub, banks would have the rights to card members and information about them. Issuers could also purchase from American Express a range of services such as back-office systems, customer service, credit management, and loyalty-reward systems.
American Express has entered into such arrangements with banks in Israel, Portugal, and Greece. Visa's proposed international bylaw would curtail such efforts, which are reminiscent of the American Express Gold Card program. Banks provided lines of credit on the cobranded gold cards, but their participation ended in the 1980s with MasterCard's and Visa's entry into the premium card market and American Express introduction of the Optima revolving credit program. "We have more credibility now," Mr. Golub said in an interview after his speech. "If we made this offer five years ago, banks would have thought it was sign of weakness."
"As is often the case with bureaucracies," Mr. Golub said in his formal remarks, "Visa has taken on a life of its own. Its interests often diverge from those of its members."
Susan Roth, an analyst with Bear Stearns & Co., said it could make sense for some banks to offer American Express products because they could benefit from the higher fees that retailers pay to accept the card, as opposed to MasterCard and Visa.
"If MasterCard allows this to fly, Visa will have to," Ms. Roth said.
One banker from a top-20 Visa issuer said the proposal could give smaller and medium-size banks a chance to pursue bigger-time aspirations.
"Economics will drive the decision," said Brian Short, senior vice president of SouthTrust Bank's credit card division in Alabama.
"I think there will be banks that will take advantage of this," said James Accomando, a Connecticut-based consultant and chairman of the Credit Card Forum. "It is an interesting and potentially lucrative proposition."
"The most potent switch would be if Citibank took its American Airlines (Visa) card and ran it on our network. I don't think that will happen, though, " said Mr. Golub.
"The advantages of our proposal are that we would tailor our contracts with banks to meet their individual requirements. What MasterCard and Visa do today is apply rules to all of their members."
Visa responded by pointing out that its own members implemented bylaw 2.10, which prevents cross-overs to American Express and Dean Witter brands.
"It sounds like Harvey and his team have been out talking to banks," said Visa senior vice president Francine Schall. "Yet in their annual report, American Express talked about getting (market) share. How are they going to get share? At the expense of banks."
A Visa member could be expelled for taking Mr. Golub up on his offer. "This is exactly my point," he said. "This is the gate you have to walk through. And, to push the metaphor, you own the gate. You own the key. You pay the gatekeeper."