The chairman and chief executive officer of ABN Amro North America Inc. can rarely be found in his Chicago office. Harrison F. Tempest travels the continent with a modem-equipped laptop, which he often uses to fire off electronic mail or log into the bank's computer systems.
"I think most people don't know where I am," the 60-year-old executive said. "But I'm always in touch.
"I carry my laptop around with me, and I can get into all of the systems as if I were in the office."
Not merely an avid computer user, Mr. Tempest epitomizes the new and growing breed of CEO who takes an active role in technology initiatives, staying in tune with the latest developments and making decisions with a major impact on profitability.
"The business is changing fast," he said. "The type of people required to run a financial institution today is so different than it was 10 years ago."
Mr. Tempest said bankers "better understand" technology and how it can be applied to meeting customers' needs.
Mr. Tempest, for instance, travels often to meet with as many wholesale customers as possible and hammer home the concept of the "network bank."
With new technology emanating from two Chicago-based information technology and services subsidiaries, ABN Amro can provide top-notch corporate services to virtually any company, he said.
Mr. Tempest runs the North American operations of ABN Amro Holding NV, a $385 billion-asset behemoth with headquarters in Amsterdam.
Renowned for capital market transactions and structured finance deals as well as a strong retail presence in its home market, ABN Amro has a presence in 69 countries. The company employs about 65,000 people, 11,000 of them in North America, where assets total $72 billion.
Observers say it ranks as one of Europe's most profitable banks, with earnings growth averaging 14% over the last five years. The non-Dutch operations accounted for 41% of profits and 44% of total assets in 1995.
A London-based analyst, who asked to remain anonymous, said the two main American banks - LaSalle National Corp. in Chicago, and European American Bank in New York - are highly profitable, with returns on equity of about 20%.
The North American unit reported pretax profits of $930 million for the first half of 1996, 38% better than in the comparable 1995 period.
It recently ratcheted up its Midwest expansion strategy with an agreement to buy Standard Federal Bancorp. of Troy, Mich., in a deal valued at $1.9 billion.
The Michigan thrift company, with $15.5 billion of assets and 182 offices, would be the largest acquisition yet by ABN Amro.
Also pending is the $180 million cash purchase of Chicago Corp., an investment banking and brokerage firm. That deal is expected to close this week.
Mr. Tempest said the addition of Chicago Corp. would shore up several business lines, including equity capital markets, asset management, and broker-dealer services. ABN Amro could then offer products superior to Merrill Lynch & Co.'s Cash Management Account, Mr. Tempest claimed.
The Dutch organization's aggressive moves have made its U.S. operations the largest of any foreign bank, and it intends to build on that foundation by becoming No. 1 in the Chicago-area retail market.
"We have unique market share for a so-called foreign bank," Mr. Tempest said. "We don't really consider ourselves a foreign bank in the U.S. any more. We are as domestic as anybody."
ABN Amro, the parent with roots in an amalgamation of banks dating back to the 18th century - its name comes from Algemene Bank Nederland and Amsterdam Rotterdam Bank, which merged in 1991 - has come a long way in the United States.
Algemene Bank established the first U.S. foothold in 1941, through a New York office. The company's presence there has evolved into $9.2 billion- asset European American Bank, with 85 branches in the New York City-Long Island region.
But the U.S. operations are most firmly entrenched in the Midwest, having begun with ABN's purchase of LaSalle National Bank in 1979.
Bert Ely, a consultant in Alexandria, Va., noted that most foreign banks have not been successful in the U.S. retail market, and many have retreated.
"Market share is the name of the game," and you either have it, become a niche provider, or else exit, as National Westminster Bank of London did recently.
But with roots firmly planted in the Chicago area, and trying to be as much of an "American institution as possible, (ABN Amro) may have a better shot than some of the others," Mr. Ely said.
In addition to building upon the retail side of the bank, Mr. Tempest has set his sights on the corporate side of business.
ABN Amro North America takes a multi-tiered approach to treasury management services. For instance, 15 regional offices in the United States, Canada, and Mexico focus on companies with annual sales of $250 million or more.
LaSalle in Chicago, meanwhile, specializes in middle-market services, while European American tailors cash management services to smaller companies.
Mr. Tempest said ABN Amro, LaSalle, and European American serve as brand names, and a certain level of autonomy is given to each group for marketing to the respective target customers.
But he stressed that any ABN Amro unit operating in North America can address the cash management needs of any type of company, since all of the banks' offices "run out of the same data center," Mr. Tempest said.
The bank is taking its network approach to the next level, with a focus on multinational companies. It recently launched a set of advanced foreign exchange services, corporate treasury workstations, and check-related services that can be used by corporate treasurers anywhere in the world.
"We are at the leading edge of technology in virtually every one of our global cash management products," Mr. Tempest said. "Technology, combined with the global network, really distinguishes ABN Amro from all but a handful of banks."
With the cash management business consolidating, and profit margins accordingly harder to sustain, regional banks find it as competitive as any of their business lines. They view customer relationships as stepping- stones to credit and underwriting opportunities.
But to industry observers, only a handful of truly global treasury management banks seem to have emerged: BankAmerica Corp., Chase Manhattan Corp., Citicorp, and Hongkong & Shanghai Bank.
And then there are the niche players.
Nicholas Viner, vice president at Boston Consulting Group, pointed out that ABN Amro has noticeably targeted large and middle-market corporations in Europe with an aggressive promotion of its global banking network, although he did not think it is as advanced as some might believe.
However, ABN Amro has been "stealing business from some of the national players in the European market," he said. "It is clearly taking this marketplace very seriously."
Mr. Tempest said the North American unit's transaction processing business - which ranges from mundane checking services to sophisticated cash management reporting and on-line foreign exchange trading - represents about 10% of revenue.
"That may sound like a low number," he said. "But today, many of our corporate customers would not even bother borrowing money from us if we did not have the ability to support them in some of these other services."
Corporations "won't pay you very much for just being a lender," Mr. Tempest said. "We have to be important to them as an information provider through our cash management services."
Mr. Tempest does not sound the typical chief executive in touting the company's transaction processing capabilities and heavy focus on technology. But he explained: "You simply can't earn an appropriate return on equity just by participating on somebody else's loan."