As bank card issuers and American Express Co. rev up their procurement card programs, John R. Birk is intent on protecting a business his firm has built in the past decade.

Mr. Birk is president and chief executive officer of Wright Express, a Portland, Maine, firm that is the leading provider of transaction processing for automotive fleet managers.

Wright provides its clients with cards similar to procurement cards.

The Wright cards are good at nearly half the 190,000 gas and service stations around the nation. Its closest competitor's cards are honored at fewer than 3,000 gas stations, Mr. Birk said.

Detailed Spending Reports

Wright gives the fleet managers, Who pay about $2 per vehicle, detailed, customized monthly reports on their drivers' spending.

"You'd see location, date, time, driver, product, number of gallons, miles per gallon, cost per mile" on the report, Mr. Birk said. Another section flags unusual activity.

Card for Each Vehicle

"If you had a 23-gallon transaction for a truck with an 18-gallon tank, you'd know you have a problem." he said

Clients such as Federal Express Co. and Airborne Air Freight are issued Wright cards for each of their vehicles, and the drivers are assigned personal identification numbers.

In addition to its main product, Wright Express issues 10 "private label" cards and plans four more in joint ventures with oil companies.

The cards, good only at the sponsors' filling stations, are suitable for local and smaller regional fleets, for which the $2-per-card fee is impractical.

Theoretically, MasterCard or Visa bank cards and the American Express product could be customized to provide virtually the same reports, and blocked for use except as specified by a fleet manager.

Mr. Birk is taking special steps to ensure that Wright Express remains in the lead. He disclosed last week that he is talking to "several associations" about cobranding the, Wright Express card.

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