Monoline companies have been darlings of the financial services industry in recent years. They quickly built significant market shares in highly fragmented product areas, rewarding shareholders with huge profits and growth rates.

Many banks worked hard to emulate the monolines' success in credit cards or mortgages, but few were successful.

The bloom appears to be off the rose in view of the troubles at First USA, the highly focused credit card issuer that became a subsidiary of Bank One Corp., and the earlier crash of Advanta Corp.

But many monoline companies are still extremely effective, among them Capital One and MBNA in credit cards and Countrywide in mortgages. Why have some succeeded where others failed, and how come none of them have cracked the cross-sell equation?

Monoline companies became the envy of the industry by selling a single type of product to a large group of people. This occurred, in my opinion, only when the product sold was simple and not relationship-oriented.


Credit cards are a great example. Customers are indifferent as to which company they buy the card from; the Visa and MasterCard networks and brands helped make the actual originator irrelevant. In fact, many customers do not even know what bank is the true issuer and owner of their card. MBNA has built a huge business on that premise, using affinity groups as marketing channels yet keeping the balances and customers on its books.Credit cards and mortgages are two of a kind. They are not perceived by the customer, nor are they sold by the originator, as relationship-based products. They have been sold "one-off" in a highly targeted fashion with the help of sophisticated data base marketing models and continuous learning programs. At any given time, First USA and Capital One are conducting 10,000 tests to refine their value propositions and targeting strategies. They have been effective in capturing and increasing market shares among attractive customer segments, at least until recently.

What these and other successful monolines have not been able to do, however, is cross-sell additional financial products effectively. Cross-selling is a great retention and profit-building tool when done well. It also increases the value of the customer to the company, and this gets reflected in stock analysts' assessments and in market valuation. Therefore, monolines' cross-selling shortcomings are of concern.

Some have learned the hard way that their brands, though strong in some cases (Money Store being one), were not powerful in extending customer relationships beyond the original product. Both Money Store, now part of First Union Corp., and Advanta created several single-product selling machines under their brand umbrellas, offering mortgages, insurance, and Small Business Administration loans, among other things. But they were typically frustrated when attempting to make one-off relationships broader.


I believe the reason for this failure is rooted in the very concept of monoline success: the lack of relationship orientation and the customer's indifference to the brand. This suggests that the relationship-building problem is inherent to the monoline model and cannot be blamed merely on bad execution. It requires a paradigm shift to facilitate monolines' move into a more leveraged customer position, and we have yet to see a company that has found the way. Ms. Bird is an executive vice president of Wells Fargo Bank. She is based in Sacramento, Calif.

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