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Wells Fargo, AmEx Partnership Stands Out


Every business day, companies announce "partnerships." Some work. Some do not.

Most are as newsworthy as two friends announcing they are meeting for a cocktail after work. But the partnership announced in April between Wells Fargo of San Francisco and American Express Financial Corporation of Minneapolis appears to be more than the ordinary alliance between financial giants.

"This one feels different to me," said Kathleen McClave, a practice leader at Tillinghast-Towers Perrin, a management consulting firm to the financial services industry, in New York.

One departure from typical partnerships is that the companies have agreed to distribute each other's products.

Wells Fargo has formed strategic alliances with other financial services firms, like Merrill Lynch of New York and Prudential of Newark, N.J., but the agreements have not given the bank much visibility, said McClave.

"It doesn't have the preferred shelf-space with them that it will have with American Express," McClave said.

Another component that distinguishes the Wells-AmEx deal is that the companies are planning to develop joint products for their combined distribution channels.

"Many times these partnerships don't work because the two parties are naive about how hard they're going to have to work at it," McClave said. "But in this case, both of these companies are savvy about it. This willingness to do joint product development is an indication of that.

"This partnership makes a lot of sense to me for both companies in their quest for creating competitive value, finding more shelf space and increasing distribution."

During the initial stages of the strategic alliance, two Wells Fargo variable annuities - its AdvantageSM and AdvantageSM Builder variable annuities - as well as its mutual funds, will be sold through Wells Fargo's network of 850 financial consultants and AmEx Financial's 11,300 financial advisors. In addition, American Express' mutual funds will be sold through the bank's network.

"In this case, American Express will really be pushing the Wells Fargo products, rather than just having them available," McClave said. "I think that's a big advantage when you're dealing with a big distribution network like that of American Express."

Other analysts, however, withheld judgment on the announcement.

"Joint ventures have been established in the past by others, and at this point, it's too early to tell if [this one] will have any lasting influence on the overall business model we're living with today in the marketplace," said Geoffrey H. Bobroff, a principal in Bobroff Consulting in East Greenwich, R.I.

Nevertheless, Bobroff said the concept behind the partnership was interesting.

"American Express is reaching out as far as it can to assist its own financial services reps with broader market distribution through the Wells Fargo organization," he said. "Although this isn't the first time American Express Financial has entered into one of these joint ventures, this one has some of the trappings that may lead to a more lasting structure, particularly from the standpoint that they intend to have joint products, which a lot of joint ventures don't do."

The partnership is a response to the company's long-term view of what will happen in the financial services industry, according to American Express Financial.

"There's going to be consolidation in the industry, and we would very much like to partner up with key players who have a similar vision of the future as to what types of products to develop for the consumer," said Randy Gabrielson, senior vice president for third-party distribution for AmEx Financial.

Gabrielson said that many partnerships tend to lack substance.

"I've been around the industry for about 15 years, and most of the alliances or partnerships that I have seen are typically in name only," he said. "There really isn't a lot of meat there. One of the key differences about us is that we want to put depth and breadth in our strategic alliances. We want to do more than one product. We want to do a number of products. And we want to have the products distributed in both channels."

While the Wells Fargo deal should broaden AmEx Financial's reach west of the Mississippi, that still leaves the East untapped. That may be remedied soon with a deal that is in the works with Fleet Boston. A formal announcement of that deal should be made as early as this week, according to Gabrielson. He said the partnership would be similar to the Wells Fargo alliance.

Although building blocks for success appear to be in place for the Wells Fargo-AmEx partnership, the outcome of the venture is not certain.

"This is not a slam dunk," McClave said. "This is going to be really hard to pull off. All of these kinds of partnerships are."