A stream of departures by senior-level managers at First USA, the credit card unit that is largely responsible for Bank One Corp.'s recent woes, shows that investors and Wall Street analysts are not the only ones looking to distance themselves from the shaken super-regional.
Most recent among the resignations was that of William Nutting, executive vice president in charge of First USA's partnership programs with universities and nonprofit organizations. Mr. Nutting, 46, is one of at least four senior-level First USA executives who have left the Wilmington, Del., company over the past several months. Those do not include the high-profile resignations of First USA's co-founder and chairman and chief executive officer, Richard W. Vague, in October and John B. McCoy's resignation in December. Mr. McCoy, who was chief executive officer and chairman of Chicago-based Bank One, stepped aside after Bank One delivered its second profit warning in November because of the troubles at First USA.
The domino effect began in May, when First USA's president, Randy L. Christofferson resigned. Mr. Christofferson, 42, surfaced last fall as president and CEO of Walker Digital, a Stamford, Conn., company that owns a portion of Priceline.com and says it is in the invention and development business. First USA never named a successor to Mr. Christofferson, whose responsibilities were picked up by Mr. Vague.
"Clearly there is a drain of talented people running First USA," said Anita Boomstein, a partner in the New York law firm of Hughes, Hubbard & Reed who specializes in the credit card business.
The activity has given rise to a perception outside the company that senior First USA executives can't find the door fast enough. "Anytime there is uncertainty in an organization, good people look for more-secure positions," said David Robertson, president of The Nilson Report, an industry newsletter published out of Oxnard, Calif.
Some industry watchers say these executives are simply young, talented, and ambitious. They seized opportunities that had been knocking on their doors for a while, not wanting to ride out the period of retrenchment and reorganization necessary to right First USA.
James L. Accomando, president of Accomando Consulting Inc., a Fairfield, Conn., firm that works closely with First USA, disagreed with the notion that First USA is riddled with management holes. First USA, he said, "has redistributed the work. It is probably quicker and more able to respond to the issues than it has ever been."
For its part, First USA expressed confidence that it is not suffering from a management void.
"While the very top tier has moved on," First USA spokesman Jeff Unkle said, "there is still a strong tier of management in place."
The Internet is a common theme among the executives who have left. Mr. Nutting is now chief executive officer of Maingate Corp., a Jacksonville, Fla.-based start-up company that is marketing an Internet portal service for members of the military.
Other executives no longer with the card unit include Kurt Campisano, senior vice president of business development at First USA and WingspanBank.com, a venture started in May and for which Mr. Vague had responsibility. Mr. Campisano's direct report, Vince Talbert, a senior vice president of business development, also resigned. James B. Stewart, who was executive vice president of First USA's partnership marketing and later became CEO of WingspanBank.com, resigned at yearend after announcing plans to do so in November. All of the executives left to join Internet companies.
First USA's Mr. Unkle said Mr. Campisano and Mr. Talbert were responsible for "one segment of the business, unlike Mr. Stewart, who had responsibility for a large piece of the business. Every company has turnover within its ranks," he said.
Mr. Unkle pointed to Gary Marino, a five-year First USA veteran whose responsibilities have increased. Mr. Marino, executive vice president, is in charge of all First USA marketing. He reports to William P. Boardman, Mr. Vague's successor. Mr. Marino already had been a key executive, responsible for direct mail and media marketing. His added duties include marketing related to the company's partnership programs, Mr. Unkle said.
Mr. Marino had worked for 14 years at Citicorp, where his last position was chief credit officer in charge of the U.S. card division. Mr. Marino was unavailable to comment.
"He has been around the longest and has the most experience," Mr. Accomando said.
In the meantime, First USA has followed through on some promises it made to Wall Street in a meeting last week with investors. A number of employees in its 11 locations, including six call centers and the Wilmington headquarters, have already been laid off. Mr. Unkle said the reductions represent a small number of the 15,000 First USA employees and that none of those let go had direct contact with customers.
"Continuing to provide quality service is extremely important to us, and that is an area where we need to have the people," Mr. Unkle said.
The cutbacks are occurring within the human resources, risk, marketing, and credit systems departments. The company expects to lose many employees through natural attrition, Mr. Unkle said.