When he arrived in this country 20 years ago from Pakistan, Yawar Shah seemed an unlikely future champion of the U.S. banking industry.
He came to obtain an education, intending to return to his homeland and establish a career. But after acquiring an affection for the American economic system during his years at Harvard, Mr. Shah, now 38, decided to pursue a career here.
He has become a rising star in payment systems-the businesses related to money transfers, clearing, and settlement that many bankers view as a key source of fee income and their last bastion in the battle against nonbanks.
As senior vice president at Chase and a holder of influential positions within both New York Clearing House and Swift international bank messaging system, Mr. Shah is dutifully going about the business of helping banks retain their control of the payment systems.
"My counterparts and competitors are not just banks, they are financial institutions and, in many cases, some nonbank financial institutions," he said.
"Wholesale payments have been the domain of banks, and invoicing and information the domain of (value-added networks)," he added. "That is converging. ... I would call it the reintermediation of banking."
Mr. Shah's career in payment systems began in earnest about 10 years ago when he took a job with Chemical Banking Corp. that eventually led to his appointment as head of the bank's corporate services subsidiary, Geoserve.
He played important roles in Chemical's 1992 merger with Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co.-"Yawar was the key person in putting together the funds transfer worlds," said Richard Matteis, group executive of Chase's global services group-and in Chemical's merger with Chase last year.
"I like to talk about Yawar as having the entire package," said Mr. Matteis.
In addition to the senior vice president title, Mr. Shah now is Chase's institutional payments business executive, which means he is responsible for 200 relationship managers around the world and thousands of institutional customers.
At the New York Clearing House, he is chairman of a steering committee looking into ways to reduce members' exposure to risk.
Clearing house executives said Mr. Shah played a major role in helping it to meet so-called Lamfalussy standards, which address the ability to settle payment transactions even if some of a clearing house's largest members failed simultaneously.
"We were Lamfalussy compliant before it ever came out," said George Thomas, senior vice president at the clearing house. He noted that Mr. Shah, among others, was "instrumental in making those changes."
Mr. Shah rose another notch in prominence when he was named one of two U.S. representatives to the board of directors at Swift, the Brussels-based network.
Formally known as the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, Swift is a bank-owned cooperative that provides financial communication services and software to more than 5,500 financial institutions in 147 countries.
More than 687 million transactions were processed through the network in 1996. Swift officials said about $2 trillion worth of transactions are sent daily.
Swift is working to set standards for financial electronic data interchange, which involves the automated exchange of business documents and payments in standard computer formats.
Swift also plans to announce details for the funding of Bolero, a proposed electronic depository of international trade documents and letters of credit information.
In its own way, each of these efforts is aimed at helping banks better manage and control the payments systems-something Mr. Shah said is becoming an increasingly complex job.
"The rate of change in all aspects of our business is very high; I would view it as being an unprecedented level of change going on," he said.
"What that means is that if you have strategic clarity in the business you are in and you have a sense of where the market is going, you can actually win."
If such a view sounds typically American, it is because Mr. Shah is in many ways that. "I really respect the ... meritocracy in the U.S. If you work hard, and you add value, you are rewarded as a person," he said.
But, observers said his respect for the United States does not translate into parochialism, and such understanding helps him in his work with Swift.
Swift chairman Jean-Marie Weydert (who also is head of international banking at Societe Generale Group, Paris) lauded Mr. Shah for his diplomacy in dealing with the system's notoriously cantankerous board of directors.
"He is always looking for consensus, which is very important in a corporate institution like Swift," Mr. Weydert said. "He's a bridge- builder."
The groundwork for Mr. Shah's banking career was laid in the late 1970s, when he returned to Pakistan with his undergraduate's degree. Walking into a Citicorp branch that "looked American," he quickly landed a job as a multinational lending officer.
The job eventually led him back to America, where he got his MBA in 1984, and later took a job with Chemical.
"After I joined Chemical and really enjoyed working there, I decided it was my future," Mr. Shah recalled.
He now lives in a suburb of New York, but he maintains several strong connections to his past. One of them: his wife, Farnaz. Though she and Mr. Shah met in the United States while both were attending school, they grew up only a mile or so from one another in Pakistan.
"I had always thought that I was going to end up in Pakistan," Mr. Shah said.