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By Maria Aspan
SEP 30, 2009 5:24pm EDT
As JPMorgan Chase & Co. rolls out a full spectrum of credit card products with paint-chip names like Sapphire, Ink and Slate, one shade has been noticeably absent: Wamu blue. A year after JPMorgan Chase bought the retail banking operations of Washington Mutual Inc., it has finished integrating all of the failed Seattle thrift's credit card division. And little of Wamu is visibly left in JPMorgan Chase's card operations — despite a recent spate of brand-new-product announcements. "We really wanted to make a break, in a sense, with the past," said Richard Quigley, JPMorgan Chase's president of business cards, in an interview last week. As the company unveiled a new line of business cards, Ink from Chase, he called such new products a "fairly dramatic way to showcase that Chase really is interested" in some — but hardly all — new customer segments. Since June, JPMorgan Chase has introduced the Sapphire premium cards with a revamped "Ultimate Rewards" program, the Ink small-business cards (including a charge card), and the Blueprint payments tool for its most prominent credit cards. And it has done so all on its own, without incorporating either the products or much of the potential new audience it acquired along with Wamu's card operations. That was, to some degree, to be expected. Wamu's credit card portfolio, which developed out of the former Providian Financial Corp., served a riskier customer base, and JPMorgan Chase said when it bought Wamu that it would let the subprime half of that card portfolio run off. The intervening year has only brought surviving issuers even further away from the higher-risk, less-creditworthy cardholders that Wamu cultivated. But JPMorgan Chase has also raised some industry eyebrows by deliberately shutting down Wamu products like a secured credit card, and disbanding Wamu card groups with expertise in reaching a broader swath of customers. For example, although JPMorgan Chase considered retaining a Wamu card-risk group to help it eventually expand into a higher-risk — and sometimes more profitable — cardholder base, it ultimately rejected that plan by the end of this summer. "Chase did toy around with the idea of maintaining a separate card-risk group that would maintain the Wamu portfolio, and help them better understand how to potentially grow a lower FICO portfolio than their own," said Rick Wittwer, who oversaw collections and
recoveries as an executive at Wamu and Providian until he left Wamu in 2007. "They batted that around until August of this year, and ultimately said no. … They're very risk-adverse." JPMorgan Chase ultimately retained only four of the 30 to 40 people in Wamu's card-risk group, according to Wittwer. Wamu executives who participated in the transition did not return calls. A spokesman for Chase said by e-mail: "As we have stated since the time we acquired the Wamu card portfolio, our intention is to allow it to run off. … We have centralized our portfolio management teams here in Wilmington and offered opportunities to a number of former Wamu employees, some of whom decided to relocate here." Indeed, the contrast of JPMorgan Chase's efforts to eliminate as much as possible from one new card portfolio — at the same time that it built a second one from scratch — illustrates the focus and strategy that its credit card division has used to manage through the past year of crisis. "Providian is not a direction that Chase would go in on its own," said John Grund, a partner at First Annapolis Consulting Inc. "The spots that Chase is picking are clearly that of loyalty, the high-spending, affluent market, and leveraging the Chase brand. One of the spots that they are picking is not the subprime space — that's one of conscious avoidance. … I don't think the rewards for Chase would have been worth the risk in terms of using that platform or that product set … to grow." Other industry members echoed Grund's dismissal of the Wamu card portfolio as "a necessary evil" for JPMorgan Chase as it bought an otherwise-coveted retail branch network. Wamu's card operations "just got sort of handed to them. 'This is part of a bigger package, you'll take it and you'll like it,' " said Irving J. Levin, a veteran subprime card executive and now the chief executive of Genesis Financial Solutions Inc. "They certainly moved quickly to put it on their platform, they closed down the secured card, and pushed as quickly as they could" to integrate the parts of the Wamu portfolio they wanted to retain. The decision to shutter products and some accounts with potential benefits was "more expedience than anything else," Levin said. For example, the secured card "didn't fit up with anything else Chase had, and they weren't going to maintain legacy systems." For William Wallace, the president of JPMorgan Chase's card services unit, the Wamu integration was more of a distraction than an opportunity as he worked to finalize Blueprint, an interactive customer payment tool two years in the making. "The challenge obviously was, we did that conversion while also doing the implementation and buildout for Blueprint," he said earlier this month. The Wamu conversion is now complete "from a Chase card perspective," he said. "We're a very capable organization, so they were able to manage that quite well." If there is one issuer from which JPMorgan Chase is taking lessons these days, it is all the way at the other end of the spectrum from Wamu and Providian: American Express Co., with its long dominance of the high-spending, low-risk affluent cardholder segment. (Not
coincidentally, Gordon Smith, JPMorgan Chase's chief executive of card services, joined the company in 2007 after spending more than 25 years at Amex.) "Going forward what we're trying to do is make sure that we're attracting the best customers we can, with the best value proposition in the market place," Quigley said last week. For example, JPMorgan Chase's Sapphire Preferred cards, with their $95 annual fee and their "Ultimate Rewards" program, echo Amex's premium fee-based cards and well-known rewards offerings. The Ink cards are aimed at the small businesses who also comprise a large portion of Amex's business, and one of the Ink cards even comes in the charge card form that is Amex's specialty. (JPMorgan Chase claims it is the first charge card issued on the Visa Inc. or MasterCard Inc. networks, and pointedly noted last week as it unveiled Ink that "all Ink business cards are accepted at twice as many locations worldwide as American Express.") And then there is the color issue. As JPMorgan Chase unveils product after product named in the spectrum of indigo shades, it is hard to miss that the most obvious synonym of all — "Blue" — names an Amex card. Marina Norville, an Amex spokeswoman, said, "We've been flattered by competitors for years, and what they've been doing is another example of a copycat." As Grund said, "Every issuer has tried to go after American Express," but "it has proven to be one of the harder segments over time." JPMorgan Chase "certainly has a ton of assets to make a run at that market … but I don't think they believe it's easy," he said. "In past phases of the industry, a lot of the growth was through acquisitions and the like. Now we're talking real organic growth, which requires marketing and execution, and patience and time."
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