Jill M. Considine has learned the hard way that when her pager starts beeping, it usually means bad news.
Last winter, the president of the New York Clearing House Association was shaken from the serenity of a post-holiday weekend at home by a message that disaster had struck at work.
Extreme cold had cracked a sprinkler pipe above the room housing the computers for the Clearing House Interbank Payments System, the international network known as Chips. Water cascaded down on the Unisys Corp. A19 mainframes that process more than $1 trillion of payments in an average day.
With Chips temporarily out of commission, clearing house officials "made the decision that we were going to switch to the backup site," Ms. Considine recalled.
Thanks to effective disaster-recovery planning, worries about any long- term effects had subsided by the next day. While at the backup site, Chips set a volume record by clearing 315,000 payments valued at $1.8 trillion.
"The recovery we had was extraordinary," Ms. Considine said. "You see all your backups and contingencies come into effect."
Thankfully, such traumatic events have been few and far between at the New York Clearing House - a fact many attribute to Ms. Considine's leadership.
"She is a great advocate for what she believes are the right policies for the industry," said Leonard H. Schrank, chief executive officer of Swift - the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication - who has worked with Ms. Considine for several years. About 80% of the payment instructions sent via Swift are fed into Chips for clearing and settlement.
"If you take a survey of bankers, I think you'll find she's among their most favorite people due to her personality and intellect," Mr. Schrank said of Ms. Considine. "She's probably one of the most influential women in America."
As the top executive in the nation's oldest and busiest clearing house, Ms. Considine, 49, is responsible for several payment systems that are crucial to both foreign and domestic banking and commerce. Together the systems each year handle millions of bank-related financial transactions valued in the hundreds of trillions of dollars.
The New York Clearing House was formed in 1853 when bankers decided it was easier to exchange checks and drafts at a central site rather than sending them to each other individually.
It still performs that function for its owners - New York banks that are among the nation's and the world's largest - but has evolved into a multi- faceted enterprise. In addition to Chips, the organization operates the New York Automated Clearing House, the nation's first private-sector ACH operator.
It is also refining Checcs, a nearly three-year-old electronic check presentment service, and Checcrs, a check image exchange that Citicorp and Chemical Banking Corp. will soon test.
Chips, which is used by foreign and domestic corporations for overseas purchases of goods and services, is the association's bread and butter. Dollars are involved in most foreign exchange transactions, and 95% of all dollar-denominated foreign exchange transactions are processed through Chips' multilateral netting scheme.
Each participant's transactions are recorded and net debit or credit positions are settled using Fed Wire, the Federal Reserve System's funds transfer service.
Each day Chips handles an average of 200,000 transactions, valued at over $1 trillion. Chips handles approximately one-fifth of all value moving among the world's most industrialized countries.
Despite incidents like the 1994 flood, Chips has never failed to settle in its nearly 25 years of operation. A large part of Ms. Considine's job is to ensure that this record continues.
Her leadership talents were recently tested as the clearing house was sent scrambling by the New York State Banking Department's seizure last month of Nationar when cash flow problems prevented the trust company it from covering its daily obligations.
It provided check processing and other support services to savings banks that owned it.
Upon hearing of the seizure, Ms. Considine and other officials moved at once to unwind or recast automated clearing house transactions sent to Nationar.
Observers said she handled the emergency well.
"We provided a lot of technical help to the folks over at Nationar and the banking department in terms of the settlements," said Ms. Considine. She headed the state banking department from 1985 until 1991.
Observers said Ms. Considine's ability to lead the clearing house through adversity is a testament to her background.
The milestones in Ms. Considine's career seem carefully laid out. But Ms. Considine said her appointment to the top job at the clearing house was not the result of some master plan.
Reared in Brooklyn, she first leaned toward a career in biochemistry and obtained a degree in biology from St. Johns University, New York.
Taking the advice of a friend working at Bankers Trust Co., she gave banking a try, starting in BT's data processing area.
After two years at Bankers Trust, Ms. Considine moved on to Chase Manhattan Bank, where she spent 10 years working on large, bankwide systems. The job often took her abroad.
Later, she served as president of First Women's Bank in New York before becoming state banking superintendent.In 1991, she became chief administrative officer of American Express Bank, and moved to the clearing house in July 1993.
In her current position, Ms. Considine's biggest challenge is payment system risk - a concern of nearly every banker since the 1974 incident involving Bankhaus Herstatt, a German bank whose failure nearly caused an unraveling of the chain of international payments.
Today, "Herstatt risk" refers to the perils banks face in awaiting the dollar portions of foreign exchange transactions to be settled.
Addressing Herstatt risk, Ms. Considine and others at the clearing house recently issued a "green book" to review the wholesale payments process from a public and private sector standpoint.
It identified several policy objectives that both sectors share, such as improving controls and reducing the risks of large-value payment systems.
"We looked at what are some of the forces that are driving change for large-value payments," said Ms. Considine. "We looked at the rapid growth of cross-border capital flows and how to have efficient, low-risk means to settle."
The Global Payments Committee, which issued the green book, has started several initiatives to address those needs, such as developing private- sector payment systems for large transactions in currencies other than the dollar.
Characterizing the approach as a "cloning of Chips" on worldwide basis, Ms. Considine said these systems could then serve as a backups for one another.
"If they are going to have a netting system, maybe they should consider using a Chips system," Ms. Considine said.
The clearing house also wants to develop so-called "payment versus payment" systems, which handle synchronized processing of foreign exchange payments. Simultaneous payments are perhaps the only way to eliminate risk.
In the payment versus payment system, a final transaction in one currency occurs only if you have "a final transfer of another currency taking place," Ms. Considine explained.
Ms. Considine has just returned from Switzerland, where she briefed the Bank for International Settlements on the latest activities of the clearing house.
Typically, her stay at home in New York with her husband, New York Supreme Court Justice Martin Rettinger, will be short, as discussions of new initiatives will take her to Washington, Atlanta, and New Orleans in the coming weeks.
On these visits, Ms. Considine hopes to act as an ambassador who can tell banks outside New York that "although New York remains the financial capital, the ongoing communication and education continues."
And she will be sure to take her pager - just in case.