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Citibank is closing Towson operation


Citibank has decided to close the Towson-based headquarters of its Choice credit card program, eliminating more than 600 full- and part-time jobs, the New York banking company acknowledged yesterday.

Some of those losses will be made up in Hagerstown, the headquarters for all of Citibank's credit cards, which will gain 340 telemarketing and computer systems jobs, said Citibank spokeswoman Susan Weeks. About 1,600 people currently work at Hagerstown.

But only some of those new jobs will come from Towson, she said, because not all of the workers' skills are transferable, and only some workers may choose to make the move.

The rest of the mostly marketing work done at Towson and at the smaller Ambassador Center near Security Square Mall in Woodlawn will be transferred to a Citibank center in Long Island, N.Y.

"Those jobs in Towson and the Ambassador Center will go away," Ms. Weeks said.

She said that the decision was made during the first week of July and that workers were notified on July 8. The employees at Ambassador Center will be moved temporarily to the Towson facility, at 7720 York Road, next month, and the first layoffs will occur in September.

The Towson operation will be closed by next spring, Ms. Weeks said. That will reduce Citibank's Baltimore-area presence to a dozen bank branches, and a 100-employee ATM "command center" in Hunt Valley.

Ms. Weeks said Citibank plans to sell the Towson building.

Citibank, the main subsidiary of Citicorp, gradually has been paring employment in Towson as the parent company has searched for ways to make all of its credit card operations more efficient.

As recently as two years ago there were 1,300 workers in Towson. The company has been closing units and reducing the work force ever since.

For instance, two years ago 150 people were laid off in Towson because of a restructuring that combined some functions of Choice and Citibank's other credit card programs. And just six months ago, the company closed a collections unit and shifted a small fraud early warning department to Hagerstown; about 300 jobs were lost.

Now there are 385 full-time and 260 part-time workers in Towson and Woodlawn, according to Ms. Weeks.

"This is a process that's going on around the corporation, not only in Maryland but around the world, as part of an effort to consolidate locations," she said.

"This is absolutely not a reflection on the jobs they were doing" in the Baltimore area, Ms. Weeks noted. "They were all excellent people."

E. Neil Jacobs, director of economic development for Baltimore County, said his office had heard about six months ago from local Citibank executives that the Towson headquarters would be closed eventually.

'Good back-office jobs'

"They are very good back-office jobs that will be leaving," Mr. Jacobs said. He said county officials have talked to one of Citibank's outplacement consulting firms about finding jobs for some of the laid-off workers.

One strong possibility is AT&T; Capital Corp., the telephone company's auto leasing subsidiary, which recently agreed to occupy 40,000square feet of space at Towson Commons. The company has said that it will employ close to 200 people, Mr. Jacobs said. "We're hoping that some of these [Choice] people" will be hired by AT&T.;

Citibank acquired the Choice card when it was part of a Baltimore-based company called National Acceptance Corp. The NAC card, for many years a fixture around Maryland, became known as Choice when Citibank acquired the company in the late 1970s. About a decade later, Citibank linked the Choice cards with the Visa and MasterCard networks.

No-frills cards

The Choice Visa and MasterCards became the banking company's low-priced, no-frills cards for creditworthy customers who didn't need the extra products and services of the Citibank credit cards.

Ms. Weeks said Citibank has no plans to end the Choice brand. "It is alive and doing very well," she said. Citibank has 30 million credit card customers overall; it doesn't report Choice membership figures separately. Two years ago the company said there were 2 million Choice cardholders.

'Come back to life'

"Particularly in the last year the Choice program has sort of come back to life," said Robert B. McKinley, president of RAM Research Corp., a Frederick company that tracks the credit card industry.

"There seems to be more [marketing] muscle going into it than there has been in the past," Mr. McKinley said.

At the same time, he added, the entire industry is facing "intense price pressure," as new, nontraditional credit card issuers such as General Electric Co. and General Motors Corp. have entered the fray.

"The long term for Citibank or any of the large, traditional issuers is really not that good," Mr. McKinley said.

At least for the short term, the big winner in Citibank's credit card shuffle is the Washington County city of Hagerstown. Citibank opened its processing center there in 1985 with a promise of at least 250 new jobs a year.

Employment had grown to about 1,700 in 1992 when the company decided to sell its merchant card division to Melville, N.Y.-based Card Establishment Services. About 550 employees now work for CES, which is ready to move out of its rented space at the Citibank site into a newly built complex nearby.

Jobs shifted

Employment at the Citibank operation has almost bounced back to its pre-CES peak. That's due in part to job shifts such as the latest announcement and another one in April, which brought about 100 new positions from a Citibank division in New York, according to Sharon Disque, an economic development coordinator for the county.

"That made Citicorp the largest private, for-profit employer in Washington County," Ms. Disque said. "Wouldn't want to lose them."

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