Like emerging markets across the world, Colombia has been increasingly embracing the world of credit cards over the past decade. Now, in the major cities, paying with plastic is the norm for many people, but Visa and MasterCard still rule market along with local bank debit cards.
American Express has been putting up a challenge in recent years, however. It has partnered with Bancolombia, the nation’s biggest bank, for more than a decade to pick up clients. By building a foundation slowly, AmEx now has a 10% participation in the Colombian market — and is looking to double market share quickly.
To reach this goal, the global credit card giant wants to get its name out there in the country. In May, for example, it sponsored the popular Bogotá Food Week, an event that offers price fixe meals at some of the most exclusive and prestigious restaurants throughout the capital. While AmEx maintains that it is trying to increase its presence among Colombians of all income levels, those who take advantage of food week are the most likely to jump on new card offers.
To further explain the company’s strategy in the country, Finance Colombia recently sat down to chat with Facundo Mendez, vice president of the global network of American Express Services for Latin America.
Finance Colombia: How does American Express view the Latin American market in terms of growth? More specifically, what is the importance of Colombia as a market for American Express?
Facundo Mendez: Latin America is a very important region, and within the regional strategy Colombia plays a very leading role. In the local market today, American Express in a very relevant brand name. We have worked for more than 12 years with our partner Bancolombia, which is a local strategic partner and the one that is, in a way, directing our expansion strategy in Colombia. We are generally following the new trade models that allow us to incorporate new emitting banks into the network so as to be able to reach more segments of consumers and companies.
Finance Colombia: What is the profile of the consumer? What is the target? Who is a typical consumer as an American Express client here in Colombia?
Facundo Mendez: Today, jointly with our strategic partner Bancolombia, we are working in all segments of the population. Our most traditional segments are those with medium and high incomes. But today we have products to attend to all segments, both for consumption and for companies. Also we work for small, medium, and large businesses.
So today, business in Colombia, and I can share this because it´s public, we have quite a relevant participation in the market — approximately 10% participation in the credit card business. And our idea is to double that presence in the short term.
Finance Colombia: In the North American market, American Express has always been very strong in services to travelers, and it has always had value-added products for travelers. Is it the same strategy in Latin America, and specifically for Colombia?
Facundo Mendez: In a way, that’s what differentiates American Express from other global networks. The fact is that American Express has an integrated business model. In the United States, American Express emits directly and also maintains a relationship with businesses. So, based on those relationships we have in the United States, we join up with local partners.
In this case, in Colombia, with Bancolombia, we bring all those assets into the viability of the local market. So, as far as travel is concerned, we have global platforms that we can position in all segments of consumption in Colombia. We have strategic agreements, with big hotel chains, airline companies, car-rental companies. And what we do is personalize it for the needs of local consumers in Colombia.
I think, in some way, there is an interesting strategic synergy between assets and strength: American Express on the global level, and the assets and strength of our partners on the local level.
Finance Colombia: Here in Colombia, like in the whole world, there are a lot of innovations in terms of payment technology. Where does American Express stand when it comes to, for example, e-wallets, payment technologies, transfer technologies? What is the American Express strategy in general and also more specifically in this market in Colombia?
Facundo Mendez: Well, specifically in the case of the United States, I’ll give you two concrete examples. For the consumption segment, what is called “electronic currency,” there is a product called Serve that we launched two years ago with the aim of being able to start to gain terrain over cash. Basically we’re talking about the growth in the population in collaboration with large stores. Like the case of Walmart, where many of the people who usually used checks or cash are looking to this new technology and these forms of payment.
As for the business and micro-business sectors, we had a whole division in the United States, and that is a value proposal that covers the needs both for purchasing and for financing of the businesses. We collaborate with the businesses as far as any category of work is concerned. We bring together, through business communities, the different referers of the sectors, and this is what we’re trying to do at the international level.
Specifically in Colombia, we’re participating, of course, with Bancolombia, in everything that has to do with the electronic currency program that they launched last year. And they’re doing it very well. So from there on, we’re looking at options to go on working together with our partner banks in everything that has to do with digital transformation and everything that has to do with the development of e-commerce. Those are the main areas of investment, and in the next few months there is sure to be much more news.
Finance Colombia: Speaking of innovations, I see that now American Express was the sponsor of the third edition of Bogotá Food Week, which took place in the capital last month. What motivated American Express to sponsor?
Facundo Mendez: In making these proposals of benefit to our clients, we are in some way supporting industry and contributing to the local economy. We exclusively sponsored Bogotá Food Week and offered many special benefits for all American Express clients. And now that it’s over, we have extended these benefits for one more year — everyday — in a very select group of restaurants.
So, not only were we working this year hand-in-hand with people from restaurants for Bogotá Food Week, but we have also developed alliances to keep up all these benefits everyday for one year. We’re very pleased with this initiative to support the people.
This Q&A has been condensed for space and edited for clarity from a longer conversation.