Visa International president Edmund P. Jensen opened a new front in his anti-American Express campaign with a stern rebuke to the aggressive nonbank's advances in Latin America.
"There is a huge difference between us and them," Mr. Jensen said, characterizing any proposed marketing alliance with American Express Co. as counterproductive and self-defeating.
Speaking last week to 500 bankers at the annual meeting of Visa's Latin American membership, Mr. Jensen returned to themes he and other Visa leaders have sounded since American Express chairman Harvey Golub made his first "partnership" overture at a card industry conference in May.
But Mr. Jensen's Orlando speech took on new urgency in view of American Express' recent signing of a Brazilian bank to issue its cards, and a pending vote by Visa's Latin American board on whether to prohibit Visa issuers from offering rival brands.
Accusing American Express of seeking a "free ride" into the bank card business, Mr. Jensen said the New York-based company "is outside the rules (Visa) members have so diligently woven into their association. Let's leverage Visa, not dilute it." Visa "should not be given away to any nonbank organization."
American Express' announcement last month with Banco de Credito Nacional of Sao Paulo, the first bank in the world to agree to become a direct American Express card issuer, was a shot across Visa's bow in Latin America.
But Banco de Credito, Brazil's sixth-largest bank, was not an issuing member of either Visa or MasterCard. James F. Partridge, president of Visa's Latin America and Caribbean region, said he viewed the comarketing deal as a mere extension of a card called Sollo that Amex and Banco de Credito had been jointly selling for 15 years.
"I trust that this is not a trend," Mr. Partridge said in an interview.
Looking ahead to an October board meeting, when Visa's Latin American directors are to decide whether to adopt a rule similar to one in the United States that bans nonbank marketing affiliations, Mr. Jensen and Mr. Partridge minimized the battle with American Express as a "media event." They said Visa members in Latin America regard the controversy as a "ho- hum" issue.
But American Express is taking it seriously, intending to "challenge this on a global basis," said spokesman Michael O'Neill. American Express recently defeated Visa on this point in Europe, where European Union regulators signaled that they would not allow Visa's regional board to enact a Visa U.S.A.-like bylaw.
In contrast to the EU, where a single commission can set policy for member countries, Latin America would have to be lobbied country by country by American Express if Visa's Latin American directors adopted the comarketing restriction.
With Amex apparently willing to attack on multiple fronts, Mr. Jensen pulled no punches last week in his prepared remarks.
To help American Express build its brand, he said, "is to help your competitor build a global financial services brand, which only a handful of banks have been able to do."
Mr. Jensen said Visa would "steadfastly protect its membership and operating rules" in Latin America, where its charge volume grew 49% last year, to $24.6 billion.
In other comments during the Florida gathering, Mr. Jensen stressed Visa's dedication to being flexible in the ways it delivers services to members and responsive to their desires and demands.
As banks become larger, he said, they may want Visa's services to be more customized for their needs. Advances in transaction processing technology make it practical to "unbundle" services that historically were packaged.
"Visa does not have to perform (all) these functions," Mr. Jensen said. "We will play varying roles in different countries."
In one example, a group of Visa banks recently awarded Electronic Data Systems Corp. a $100 million contract to support merchant processing in Brazil.
The arrangement is part of Visa's effort to keep its member banks in control of the merchant, or acquiring, side of the card business. Visa acted differently in the more mature U.S. card market, forming a joint acquiring venture with Total System Services Inc.
"Visa must be flexible to support members," Mr. Jensen said, perhaps trying to counter allegations by American Express that Visa has grown bureaucratic, domineering, and overly protective of its interests at the expense of members.