Branson looks to send Virgin cards overseas

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The Independent Online

Sir Richard Branson is hatching plans to export the Virgin credit card business to the US and Australia.

Virgin has flown out two teams to New York and Sydney to assess the markets. It is understood that executives met to discuss progress at Virgin Money's head office in Norwich last Wednesday. Insiders said that a US launch is likely to come first, sometime next year.

A spokesman for Virgin said: "We are making an assessment of the markets. All the research we have done into the acceptance of the Virgin brand is encouraging. But we will only go to the markets if we can make a difference. We will make a final decision by the end of the year."

However, he added: "The previous experience of UK financial services companies expanding in the US is not good. That is the sort of thing we'll take account of."

If Virgin rolls out its card internationally, it will do so in a joint venture with the Australian financial services group AMP, which owns 50 per cent of Virgin Money. It is understood that MBNA, the US banking giant, will issue the cards.

Virgin launched the credit card in the UK in January and has built up over 100,000 customers. Operating in one of the most crowded credit card markets in the world, it has tried to stand out by offering customers discounts on products and services from other parts of the Virgin empire.

Virgin is interested in the US and Australia because it already has a presence in these countries. In the US, it operates 22 Megastores and has launched Virgin Mobile. The Virgin Atlantic airline also flies to major US cities. Similarly, in Australia the company is rolling out Megastores, operates the Virgin Blue airline and has launched Virgin Mobile.

Sir Richard broke into the financial services market in 1995, with the creation of Virgin Direct, offering Peps and pensions. He later launched Virgin Money, the online personal finance division, which was merged with Virgin Direct earlier this year.

Virgin Money has yet to turn a profit. A spokesman said: "We are heading for break-even. If we decided to stop growing the company, then we would reach profitability quickly."

The launch of Virgin's UK credit card was backed by a £7.5m marketing campaign.