Buskas Contemplates Life After American National

Robert J. Buskas, the former chief information officer of American National Bank, is broadening his horizons - literally.

The recently retired Mr. Buskas is booking reservations on a four-month freighter trip around the world that will take him to Australian and New Zealand and through the Suez Canal.

The 59-year-old executive is planning his long-awaited trip after announcing his retirement last month from the bank where he has worked as a technologist for 23 years.

The technology division that he built up fell victim to cost cutting at First Chicago Corp., American National's parent. The banking company decided this year to fold all of its corporate banking operations into its large data center at First National Bank of Chicago.

Looking Ahead

Already, Mr. Buskas says, he has been contacted by several banks in New York City and by consulting firms in Boston eager for his expertise in making technology more responsive to business needs.

"There's an opportunity to help people go to a profitable, well-constructed operation," Mr. Buskas said.

Soft-spoken but a tough-minded stickler for details, Mr. Buskas said that the biggest challenge throughout his career has been getting technology and business units to work in tandem.

"The era of the CIO [chief information officer] is coming to an end," Mr. Buskas said. "Operations people will have to find ways to bring in fee income to the bottom line.

"The major challenge is not to become so myopic that you concentrate only on technology," Mr. Buskas said. "I've had to prove myself as a business partner, and it's still a major stumbling block for technical people. Technicians are not good businessmen."

To counter the stereotype, he worked diligently over the past five years to make American National's technicians work hand in glove with marketers and product managers in the business units.

"We'd always had a strategic automation committee, but it worked in a vacuum," Mr. Buskas said. By getting managers from different areas to sit down and hammer out their priorities on a continual basis, the operations divisions were able to take over the responsibility for developing cash management products.

Two years ago, Mr. Buskas spearheaded a move to make the data center a profit center, a move that he said probably would have been completed next year.

"He was highly focused on the quality of operations before it became in vogue," said Robert M. Fitzgerald, president of the Chicago Clearing House Association.

Long a fixture on the regulatory scene, Mr. Buskas was chairman in 1990 of the American Bankers Association's operations and automation committee. He has also been active in the Chicago Clearing House and the Midwest Automated Clearing House Associations.

In the mid-1980s, he led a team of bankers from many institutions that helped resolve the chronic outages that plagued the Federal Reserve's Fed Wire funds transfer system.

"Bob mustered the forces to work with the Fed," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "He had the knack of gathering people with very different points of view to work together."

Up Through the Ranks

A farm boy who grew up in a German-speaking household in Alberta, Canada, Mr. Buskas emigrated in the early 1960s to the United States, where he was soon drafted into the Army.

He became a U.S. citizen and was graduated from Northwestern University. Upon taking a job at a small community bank, he was told that he had an aptitude for computer programming.

"I'd never even though about programming as a possibility; but in 1968, it was a new industry and I was fascinated by the idea," Mr. Buskas said.

After being hired as a programmer trainee at American in 1968, Mr. Buskas moved up the ranks, managing trust-systems development. In 1982, he became responsible for all operations areas. In January 1990, he was named chief information officer of the bank.

Mr. Buskas said he views the dismantling of the operation he built up as "bittersweet" but that, "in looking at the industry you realize that, if it is going to be successful, there must be reconstruction.

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