A changing of the guard at Citigroup Inc.'s North American branch banking business could signal that the giant company is becoming more willing to grow by acquisition.
Marge Magner, who was named Friday to take the helm after Joseph Plumeri's unexpected announcement that he plans to resign at yearend, said she plans to continue to infuse a sales culture into the operations and suggested she could build Citi's 450-branch network by acquisition. "We would love to be bigger and have more customers in whatever shape and form that might take," she said.
Ms. Magner, 50, is chairman of CitiFinancial, the banking company's growing consumer finance division.
Her appointment comes less than one year into an intensive effort begun by Mr. Plumeri to reshape Citi's branches into sales centers. Mr. Plumeri, 56, acknowledged in a telephone interview Friday that he was departing at a critical time in the project, but explained that he wanted to pursue a top job outside the financial services arena.
"I have a dream," said Mr. Plumeri, "to run my own public company."
Analysts credit Mr. Plumeri with substantially reducing costs in Citi's North American consumer bank but said the sales effort, designed to boost revenues by cross-selling the bank's traditional products with those offered by Primerica and other Citigroup units, was still in its fledgling stages.
To date, about 3,000 branch staffers have been retrained and licensed to sell more sophisticated products like insurance and mutual funds.
A new product, CitiPro, is just being launched in the branches. It mimics the type of financial analysis Primerica sales representatives do for their clients. In a telephone interview Friday, Ms. Magner said that significant progress had been made but that there is still "lots of work to be done."
The changes have also been met with criticism. Mr. Plumeri acknowledged that some employees have become disgruntled or left the bank over the issue of sales training. "When you try to make something great and take it to the next level, there is going to be some upset along the way," Mr. Plumeri said.
Ms. Magner said she would like to build Citi's consumer presence in North America, either by expanding the company's remote banking capabilities, by branch openings, or by acquisition.
Some analysts have speculated in recent weeks on the possibility that Citi would make a bid for Bank One Corp., which has disappointed Wall Street this year because of revenue growth troubles in its First USA Inc. credit card division.
But the companies have declined to comment.
Ms. Magner's openness to acquisition, however, is in keeping with comments of other Citi executives, including Mr. Plumeri, analysts said. "They have said that if the sales effort shows reasonable success, the next logical step would be expansion," said George Bicher, an analyst at Deutsche Bank Alex. Brown.
Mr. Magner also said she plans to build Primerica, a unit that already deploys over 100,000 financial planning associates throughout the United States. "It can get bigger yet," she said.
The executive, who will become Citi's highest-ranking woman in charge of a business line, joined CitiFinancial (previously called Commercial Credit) in 1987. She was named president in 1993 and became chairman of the unit earlier this year.
During her tenure, she presided over CitiFinancial's expansion in the United States and its entry into Canada, Mexico, and South America.
This year alone, the CitiFinancial acquired 141 branches from Dallas-based Associates First Capital Corp., bringing the unit's total number of branch locations to 1,200. Managed receivables have grown from $3 billion to $15 billion. "We have a lot of experience with acquisitions," Ms. Magner said. "It's something we do really well."
Analysts rank the unit among the banking company's most profitable. CitiFinancial specializes in subprime lending and home equity products, two hot markets that have seen the departure of many competitors in the last year. "They are in a real sweet spot," said Steven Eisman, an analyst at CIBC World Markets.
Ms. Magner will report to Robert I. Lipp, head of Citigroup's worldwide consumer operations.
Two executives who act as co-chief executives of Primerica - John Addison and Rick Williams - will report to her, as will Steven Ligouri, head of branch banking.
Michael Knapp, chief executive officer of CitiFinancial, will replace Ms. Magner and will report to Robert Willumstad, head of global consumer lending.
Mr. Plumeri, who has spent his entire 32-year career at Citi and its predecessor company, Travelers Group, said he will continue to work as a consultant for the company until he finds other employment.
"I feel no less passionate about the work being done here," he said.