Last year Kenneth T. Stevens and some colleagues at Taco Bell sprang a big April Fool's joke:
Ads they had put in newspapers around the country claimed the Pepsico unit had bought the Liberty Bell and was renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell.
Though a lot of people didn't think the joke was very funny, it was picked up by the media nationwide, bringing a windfall of free advertising.
And on April 2, 1996, Banc One Corp. hired Mr. Stevens as head of retail banking.
"About a month after I got here," Mr. Stevens said in an interview, "people asked me, 'Why did you do that?' And I said, 'Because retail is all about creating news.' And then they said, 'Why do you want to do that?'
"I don't think they would ask that question today."
A year after leaving his job as president of Taco Bell, Mr. Stevens represents a new breed of bank executives: market savvy, innovative, and definitely not buttoned-down, pin-striped, or conservative.
Mr. Stevens, who holds a degree in philosophy and once had ambitions to become a rock guitarist, is responsible for all aspects of consumer banking at Banc One. His charge, in addition to creating a national brand, is to improve the bank's service and sales culture.
It's definitely been a learning experience. Mr. Stevens said he was stunned to find out that banks can upset a customer six or seven times on average before that person takes his business to a competitor. "Bankers have intuitively known this, and because of it they haven't been particularly good at customer service," he said.
Though restaurants usually are allowed no more than one screwup before a customer storms off, he said, the culture at banks has been to blame the customer for the bank's mistake. "Banks' ability to turn victims into perpetrators is legendary," he said.
Another eye-opener for Mr. Stevens: "This is an industry that has been fairly collegial, where competitors are sitting down and talking about their business," he said. "I don't see that in other retail industries."
At 45-although he looks much younger-Mr. Stevens is trying to blaze a new trail at Banc One, creating a friendlier and more inviting environment. His previous experience includes five years at Pepsico and eight years at McKinsey & Co. His background in retailing was what Banc One chairman John B. McCoy was looking for when he launched a national search in 1995.
Mr. McCoy had asked recruiters to find someone outside banking to give Banc One a new perspective as it retools its national retail strategy.
"He has classic marketing skills," said Cornelia Bodine McCann, the executive recruiter from Spencer Stuart who found Mr. Stevens for Banc One. "What Ken brought from his Taco Bell experience is he knew how to manage geographically far-flung retail operations."
Banc One was looking for someone who had run a national operation, she said.
Analysts have generally received Mr. Stevens favorably, but they said it still isn't clear whether he can be effective.
"I think he has some creative ideas," said analyst Michael Mayo of Credit Suisse First Boston. "But we're still in the early stages. So far, so good, but we'll wait and see."
"I don't claim to be an expert in our business at this point, but I'm beginning to understand it," Mr. Stevens responded.
Still, Mr. Stevens' marketing efforts are starting to take shape. The company has plastered its name on sporting events, sports arenas, and even a Hollywood movie. Banc One paid $100,000 for product placement during the recently released movie "Selena." In a couple of scenes, Banc One banners are featured during a Selena concert and a fashion show. Banc One even plans to market Selena checking accounts and credit cards. Although he doesn't take credit for the idea, Mr. Stevens pushed it, and he said there will be similar promotions in the future.
Within the company, he has made his presence known as well. At a convention in San Antonio for Banc One retail employees, Mr. Stevens subjected his underlings to more than an hour of his guitar playing with a band he formed with co-workers. Among the hits: "Jumping Jack Flash," "Chain of Fools," and "Respect."
Not bad for a banker.