In the old days it was simple. Top bosses were given a corporate credit card to pay for meals and flights. The company picked up the bill and the card-users let the company know the reason for it. These days, corporate cards are given to a wider range of employees and, while they are much less of a headache for the finance director, they can be less of a perk for users.
Corporate credit cards have been around for 20 years. It is only relatively recently that they have been transformed from a status symbol and reward into an indispensable part of a company's budgeting system.
The story goes like this: a few years ago, Visa launched into the European corporate market. This shook to the core Britain's cosy old oligarchy of Diner's Club, American Express and their much smaller rival, Mastercard, and they set out to do battle with Visa for the hearts and minds of Britain's finance directors. Happily, this renewed enthusiasm, plus a rise in the number of banks offering Visa cards, coincided with a revolution in technology that allowed card marketers to offer more services than they had in the past.
Thus, while a number of cards could still link into one single account, saving on administration costs, each card could now have a different credit limit. New software allowed finance directors to monitor card expenditure, and bills could be sent and settled entirely electronically. Furthermore, as competition heated up between the banks, they began taking a broad view, offering incentives on their other products such as discounts on loans and other services, in return for using the corporate card.
Yet the bad news for the profligate or disorganised traveller was that this new breed of flexible corporate card also offered the facility to make the named user, not the company, responsible for the final bill.
Even better for the finance departments, the expense claim forms required to charge expenses to the appropriate client or account - and to sort out taxes - would no longer come in late. If users hung around too long before filling in their paperwork, they wouldn't receive company money in time to pay their bills.
The credit card initiatives have met with some success. Over 50% of business travellers now carry corporate credit cards and this is likely to increase.
Visa estimates that large corporations currently pay around £13 billion a year on travel and entertainment, of which around 19% is charged to corporate credit or charge cards. By the turn of the century, it estimates, this figure will be 25%. The downside is the new generation of grumbling corporate card users, who now see using company cards as less of a perk and more of a chore. Some credit cards have begun offering personal incentives, such as air miles, to make the pill less bitter.
For most credit card companies, however, the odd gloomy card user is a small price to pay for a happy finance director - and much bigger sales.