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First Card expansion to go before Planning & Zoning

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by Karen E. Culp

SBJ Staff

First Card's Springfield customer service center is seeking the approval it needs from the Planning and Zoning Commission to expand the size of its planned second building.

The yet-to-be-built structure is going to be about 55,000 square feet larger than was originally planned, said Patricia Laxton, First Card's first vice president and manager of the Springfield center.

Originally, the two buildings on 22.7 acres on Republic Road were to have comprised a total of 225,000 square feet. With the additional square footage, the total square footage of both buildings will be about 280,000 square feet.

The additional room in the second building is not to accommodate more employees, but to have increased area for employee amenities.

"Our projections for this center are still that it will have about 1,500 employees at its top capacity. What we need the extra space for is to add more employee amenities," Laxton said.

First Card is moving a little more quickly toward its ultimate goal of 1,500 employees on-site. The center opened in January and at that time, about 250 employees were to be on staff by the end of 1998. Now, Laxton said, there will be about 300.

"We're a little ahead of where we projected we'd be in terms of hiring. We're continuing to progress as call volume is added and as we need more employees," Laxton said.

An October 1997 job fair introduced the call center jobs to the area, and since then, First Card has had about 75 walk-in requests for applications a week, Laxton said.

"We've had a steady interest in employment out here. At this time we do have more applications than we have positions," Laxton said.

First Card is a wholly-owned subsidiary of First Chicago NBD, which is now in the middle of a merger with Banc One. The merger is set to close in the fourth quarter of 1998, and Laxton said she expects the merger to add volume to the Springfield center.

"We entered into the merger to increase the business, so the expectation is that all components of the business will be growing," Laxton said.

The merged financial corporation will be the second largest credit card issuer in the nation, Laxton said. First Card now serves about 15 million customers and issues about a dozen different credit cards, Laxton said. She added that those cards should complement the merged corporation's portfolio.

Banc One's credit card subsidiary is First USA, which issues its own cards. How the two companies will combine is not yet certain, but Laxton said the credit card companies will probably remain separate and distinct.

"First USA will continue to market and process its cards; First Card will continue to market and process its cards, but the First Card products will be another of First USA's. We'll operate from a common platform, but with distinct products," Laxton said.

Laxton said more employees will be needed in the customer service area as a result of the merger. First Card receives inbound calls from customers who need assistance with their cards, such as checking balances, reporting lost cards or activating new cards.

"We'll need more people to do this job than if we had not merged," Laxton said.

First Card's Springfield center already has between 230 and 250 employees, Laxton said, and will have 300 by year's end. The second floor of the building is now being completed. The lower level and first floor are already complete and in use for employee work stations, a cafeteria, break rooms and conference rooms.

The second floor will be complete in September or October and will be used to house additional employees.

"We have a financial commitment from the company to finish that space because we anticipate that we will need it before the end of the year," Laxton said.

Construction on the second building, originally slated to take place within the next five years, could begin in the next 18 to 24 months, Laxton said.

"As the merger goes through and as our business grows, we may need that additional capacity sooner than we had anticipated," Laxton said.

First Card has three other call centers in the country; right now the Springfield center's only function is customer service, though it was built with the potential for several call-related services.

"There are certain functions that will never come here, such as billing, for example, but we are in a position to expand the type of activity that goes on here if necessary," Laxton said.

Laxton said First Card's impetus for locating in Springfield was the quality and availability of the work force, and that she and the company have not been disappointed.

"We anticipated that there would be a great work force here, and I am constantly reassured that the work force here is, in fact, excellent," Laxton said.

First Card wants to raise the level of employee amenities so that employees can "get everything they need right here," Laxton said.

Right now, the company has standard health care, life insurance and vacation benefits, but has plans for an on-site day care facility.

The day care will be part of the second building.

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