At first blush, it might seem logical for companies to want to combine a variety of corporate functions on a single card: purchasing, travel, fleet, etc.
There is disagreement about when and under what circumstances a one-card solution makes sense, but most issuers and their product lines tend to steer companies toward segmentation.
"We sit down with a company and look at what they're trying to accomplish, because one size does not always fit all," said Cathy Raffaeli, Citicorp's executive director of commercial cards.
Ms. Raffaeli said companies were increasingly looking for a single vendor to fill multiple card needs-but not necessarily on one product.
Many executives agree that fleet and purchasing functions dovetail nicely on a single card. Some also see overlap between fleet and travel and entertainment functions. At some large corporations, the same department manages both vehicle fleets and travel.
"The trend we see-at least in the Fortune 1000-is primarily for companies to look for one provider," said Steve L. Abrams, senior vice president of corporate products at MasterCard. "They're looking for a consolidated management information system, usually on the desktop. The third priority might be to have fewer pieces of plastic, so their employees can maybe carry one card."
Bruno Perreault, senior vice president of commercial cards at Visa U.S.A., said there is "a lot of noise in the marketplace about a one-card solution." But different customers have different needs, he said. "It really depends on how that particular customer wants to use the card or card products, combined or independently."
Small businesses are viewed as good candidates for single-card systems. They are looking for "a scaled-down version of a purchasing card" that can serve several purposes, Mr. Abrams said.
Not all issuers discourage one-card systems. U.S. Bancorp has some clients that have loaded multiple functions on a single card, so that, for example, a business traveler can purchase supplies and have the bills reconciled with the appropriate departments.
First Chicago NBD Corp. is seeing more demand for combined cards. "Companies and organizations are looking to consolidate different types of purchases onto one or a limited number of pieces of plastic, instead of having a fuel card, a travel card, a purchasing card, etc.," said David W. Houser, first vice president.
American Express Co. takes the opposite view.
"In today's world if you wanted one card, the corporation would be liable for all charges on that card, and that's really one of the obstacles, why it hasn't gotten anywhere," said Edward P. Gilligan, president of American Express Co.'s corporate services.
"The second obstacle is people really want to segregate the information. They want their T&E information going to their travel department, they want their purchasing information going to the purchasing department, and most issuers in the commercial field have not been able to segregate the data."
Moreover, not every employee needs a card that does it all.
Mr. Gilligan said he needs a travel and entertainment card but not a purchasing card. It is vice versa for his secretary.
Mr. Gilligan cited research that said 70% to 80% of companies with purchasing cards want two cards or more.
But companies with no experience often say they want one card, since it sounds better on the surface, Mr. Gilligan said. Those companies soon learn that "one card cannot do all in today's world," he said.