December 15, 2019
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"We Are Bullish About India"

Bharat Ahluwalia spoke to corporate America's latest star Kenneth Irvine Chenault on board his Gulf Stream 4 SB en route from Delhi to Mumbai. Chenault, 47, president and chief operating officer of the $19-billion American Express, is credited with t

"We Are Bullish About India"

On American Express' India operations: I think the opportunities are very substantial in India. Given the very low penetration of plastic spending, growth potential is very significant. In '93, there were about half-a-million cards in India. By '98-end, it's three million. And our cards business is growing almost twice as fast as the market. Our banking business is quite strong, and we've been in India for over 78 years. So, we are quite bullish.

On Amex's thrust area: Our cards business has over the last two or three years introduced some exciting products. Corporates too are increasingly interested in taking advantage of our capabilities in helping them manage their travel and entertainment expenses. In personal financial services, we have a very substantial opportunity to build a business with our existing card members, and bring customers to the American Express franchise, marketing a variety of products. So, if we work at our cards, travel and financial services businesses, we're very confident about the possibilities. And we're investing in each of those areas.

On retail banking focus: One thing we have established for our bank in markets world-wide is an increased focus on individual consumers. The retail sector in India represents substantial growth opportunities. If you add to that our brand name, our history and the overall trust that people have in our brand, it's a natural extension for us.

On co-branded cards: The network cards business allows us to offer consumers the opportunity to form a relationship with a local institution and benefit from the services, products and scale of a global company like Amex. I can't go into specifics of what we'll do in India, but clearly, network cards will be an integral part of our strategy.

On being late with co-branded cards: The time-frame is not the issue. It's about providing value to the customer. In the US in the early '90s, co-branded cards were extremely popular, but what became very apparent was that unless the value proposition was strong and unique, it's very diffi-cult to sustain the success. Today, there are really only a few co-branded cards in the US that are of sufficient size and scale. That's why we are being very careful in how we select our partners, since we don't want to develop short-term relationships.

On India's fitment into Amex's global plans: It's no idle statement when I say India is a major market in our strategy. It's one of the markets we've identified for substantial growth. We've said as a company that we need to dramatically expand our presence in markets outside the US. We, in fact, have said our international businesses will generate on an average, and over time, between 25 and 30 per cent growth in earnings. That places a substantial burden on the markets that we've selected to grow. India's importance in our overall strategy is one of the reasons why I'm making this trip, and spending this time.

On global thrust areas: We have three over-arching growth needs. One, we want to substantially expand our presence internationally. Two, the network cards opportunity. We have come from a standing start two-and-a-half years ago to deal with over 44 financial institutions all over the world that are issuing or distributing Amex cards. The third growth need is financial services. We want to achieve profitable marketshare in each of the businesses we are in.

On the Internet: Our strong view is that the Internet will dramatically change the existing business model. That's an area where we believe the company is uniquely positioned, because we have a very advanced and sophisticated customer base, a customer base that will adapt to the Internet at a faster rate than other customer segments. Secondly, in an emerging technology with a great deal of change, consumers will want to do business with a brand and a company that they can trust, and the security and trust of American Express will be very beneficial as we expand our role on the Net. With the Net, we will be able to further leverage the advantage of being a global company, where we can do something in a particular market as a test, see if it works, and then roll it out very aggressively. One of the points that I'm making throughout our company is that a major consequence of the Internet is the premium that's going to be placed on speed. The balance that exists in business today between perfection and speed is changing. It's much better to be in the market quickly than be perfect.

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