Bradford City versus Swansea City: Capital One takes credit for a fairytale League Cup final

As lowly Bradford head for Wembley to take on Swansea, Simon Read talks to the plastic cards chief who has put millions into sponsorship
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Wembley tomorrow marks one of the most-eagerly anticipated Cup Finals for years. It will be the first time that a team from the bottom tier of English football has made it to a major Wembley final.

Bradford City's fairytale journey to Wembley has captured the hearts of football fans as the underdogs took on and beat the likes of Arsenal, Wigan and Aston Villa. But has the story pleased the competition's latest sponsors Capital One?

"We're really excited about it," says Brian Cole, the managing director of the credit card company's UK business. "We feel that this is a cup for those with aspirations. It gives smaller clubs a one in a million oppportunity to compete in a final."

But with Premier League Swansea City being the other finalist, you could be forgiven for expecting the sponsors to regret that the first final of its multi-million-pound four-year deal hasn't culminated in a showpiece featuring England's biggest teams. "We're absolutely not disappointed," says Mr Cole. "The cup has been full of great football and great viewing and the two teams in the final deserve to be there."

The American has worked for Capital One since 1997, moving to the UK in 2006 and taking charge of the business here three years ago. He set out to change the culture of the firm, whose owner is American's fifth-largest bank with 40 million customers and 30,000 employees globally.

Capital One came to the UK in 1996, two years after its American parent started up. From its Nottingham base it introduced the balance transfer concept to the UK, which helped it quickly gain 4.5 million customers attracted by 0 per cent credit deals. But Mr Cole has reversed that to create what he claims is "a more sustainable business". He is scornful of balance transfer deals and instead claims to be building a business based on a vision to "make customers' lives better" by truly meeting their needs; giving them what they would expect; and building lasting relationships.

"Balance transfer deals don't create customer loyalty," Mr Cole says. "One of the reasons people switch so much is they want to find zero per cent deals. But another reason is that people's lives are busy and so they have a late payment now and again. When they do, they get re-priced and suddenly their 0 per cent deal goes up to 12, 14, 16 per cent, or more. That makes them switch again because they've been let down by their credit card provider."

Capital One pulled out of competing in the balance transfer end of the plastic card market, a move which saw their customer base shrink to 3 million and to be eighth-largest UK credit card company. Now it attracts new customers with generous cashback deals, paying between 1.25 to 2 per cent plus a 5 per cent initial offering.

"We want to fulfil on our promises so we won't suddenly increase the interest rate we charge people or cut the cashback. Taking a long view, I believe that approach will drive more loyalty," Mr Cole says.

At the other end of the market Capital One is active in the sub-prime market. Are they guilty of preying on vulnerable people who can't really afford credit?

"Far from it," says Mr Cole. "We credit check people properly to ensure they can afford credit.In fact we turn down three out of four applicants and I worry what happens to those we turn down, and that they may fall into the clutches of unscrupulous lenders."

Hearing a credit card boss talk about ethics and helping people is unusual, but Mr Cole says he is commited to the vision of improving customers' lives. The company has produced a range of Credit Made Clearer videos, while last year it was named as one of the UK's best employers when consumer group Which? picked it as the UK's best financial services provider.

The company's Progress Card is aimed at people who want to improve their credit rating. At a typical 34.9 per cent it's not cheap, but compares favourably to the 4,000 per cent APRs quoted by some payday lenders. But, crucially, the card rewards people who use it responsibly by cutting the rate and, eventually, migrating customers on to standard cards.

The football sponsorship, which lasts until 2016, is part of Capital One's attempts to raise its profile as a responsible lender.

Its first battle is to try to erase football fans' memories of previous sponsors, not least Carling, which sponsored the League Cup for nine years until 2012. "We weren't naïve enough to think that in the first year we would be able to eradicate any historical references but we're really pleased with how quickly fans have taken to it, they're the ones who make the game," says Mr Cole.

As an American he admits he grew up playing "soccer" but his animated discussion of the merits of both teams in tomorrow's final reveals how he's been caught up with the excitement of the game. However, he refuses to be drawn on which team he hopes wins. "I just want a great match," he says.

Winning ways: the previous cup sponsors

Year Sponsor Name

2012-2016 Capital One Capital One Cup

2003-2012 Molson Coors Carling Cup

1998-2003 Worthington's Worthington Cup

1992-1998 Coca-Cola Coca-Cola Cup

1990-1992 Rumbelows Rumbelows Cup

1986-1990 Littlewoods Littlewoods Challenge Cup

1982-1986 Milk Marketing Board Milk Cup

1960-1982 - Football League Cup