Edmund P. Jensen, president of Visa International for the past four years, has decided to retire.

Mr. Jensen, who turns 61 in April, told the Visa International board at a meeting Wednesday in Tokyo that he intends to step down at the end of the year.

He said he wants to pursue public service and entrepreneurial interests and spend more time with his family. Despite his immersion in Visa matters, he concluded, "there is no better time to do this than now. Waiting until 65 may be too long."

He set the stage for what is likely to be one of the financial services industry's higher-profile executive searches. A committee led by Mr. Jensen and the chairman of Visa's board, British banker Peter B. Ellwood, will work with the San Francisco recruitment firm Secura/Burnett to fill one of the biggest and most influential jobs in the payments business.

Mr. Jensen is only the third chief executive officer in the 28-year history of the No. 1 bank card association, dating back to its days as BankAmerica Corp.'s BankAmericard spinoff.

The first, Dee W. Hock, ran the San Francisco-based company until the mid-1980s. He was succeeded by Charles T. Russell, the longtime No. 2 executive who also came on board during the early days of National BankAmericard Inc.

Card industry observers said they do not expect Mr. Jensen to leave the type of "visionary" legacy that Mr. Hock was noted for. Though Mr. Jensen was associated with Visa for 10 years as CEO or as a director-he represented U.S. Bancorp of Portland, Ore., where he was vice chairman-he was not as rooted as his predecessors in the origins of the bank credit card business.

But Mr. Jensen was right for a time of upheaval in the financial industry and will leave behind an organization very different from the one he came into in early 1994, said Arthur Clark Jr., partner of Business Dynamics Consulting, Nyack, N.Y.

"He has done an excellent job," Mr. Clark said of Mr. Jensen.

Given the advent of new competitors, technologies like smart cards and the Internet, and changing consumer preferences, "it's a bold new world out there," Mr. Clark said. "The roles of banks and the role of an organization like Visa have changed radically in four years, and I give Ed a lot of credit for grappling with the changes, bringing the right people into the organization, and creating a vision for the future."

Among the Jensen-era accomplishments cited by Visa were its surpassing the $1 trillion annual volume milestone last year; a five-point rise in market share since 1993, to 58%; the launching of 70 smart card programs, many under the Visa Cash brand name, in 29 countries; and growth in emerging markets such as China.

Addressing the special needs of developing countries, Mr. Jensen presided over the splitting off of Central Europe, the Middle East, and Africa from the old Europe-Middle East-Africa region. The new "CEMEA" got its own chief executive officer, Anne Cobb, in 1995.

Mr. Jensen has been emphasizing the need for focus at the headquarters level on a few well-defined strategic goals that set a proper tone for the global constituencies.

He said Wednesday he expects to apply "more intensity than ever before" to those goals "because of the limited time left." These include what he called "basics" such as addressing the year-2000 computer problem and progressing toward the VisaNet II infrastructure upgrade.

He also wants to see wider agreement on an industrywide smart card standard, a sensitive issue with the competing MasterCard association and its Mondex subsidiary, and a nurturing of what he considers Visa's greatest marketing asset-its brand.

"As strong as the brand and this company are, I think it is still underleveraged in what we are delivering to members," Mr. Jensen said.

Mr. Jensen said he initially thought about retiring when he turned 60 last April. Mr. Ellwood prevailed upon him to reconsider and Mr. Jensen relented-for a time.

"I talk to a lot of people who keep adding another year to their careers, and I can see why-it's very hard to go," Mr. Jensen said. "It's very hard to leave Visa."

After he gave his notice, he said, several directors came up to congratulate him. "They said, 'It's great. You're doing something you want to do and not waiting too long.'"

Mr. Jensen, who has maintained residences in both Portland in San Francisco, wants to become active in civic affairs, returning to one of his great joys as a banker. He wants to do his part to break the "cycle of poverty" that afflicts inner cities. "We have a low unemployment rate overall, but it isn't low" in those areas, he said.

"I also have some entrepreneurial interests," he said, "not as a manager but as a dealmaker" in areas relating to technology and trade.

For the job search, Mr. Jensen and Mr. Ellwood, group CEO of Lloyds TSB, London, said they expect to screen both internal and external candidates.

Mr. Ellwood said there are "some strong ones" within the organization. Mr. Jensen, undoubtedly referring to the same people, said he was especially proud of the management team he will leave behind.

People familiar with the workings of his inner circle-the management executive committee-said it became much more effective as Mr. Jensen's collegial style took hold. Visa U.S.A. president Carl Pascarella recently marveled at the strength of teamwork and the absence of negative politics.

"That was a major contribution of Ed," Hans van der Velde, head of Visa EU, covering the European Union region, said in an interview last year. "Balancing interests is not easy. The cooperation I have seen in two years is very good."

"These quasi-autonomous business units have been brought closer together," said Dennis Goggin, a former Chase Manhattan banker who became Asia-Pacific CEO in 1996. "There is a great deal more sharing of best practices."

Mr. Goggin, Mr. van der Velde, and two others of the six Visa regional chiefs came in on Mr. Jensen's watch. They, Mr. Pascarella, and Daniel Eitingon, the former First Interstate Bancorp executive Mr. Jensen installed last year as president of the global support group, all have strong leadership credentials.

They also share a traditional requirement for bank card association CEOs-banking experience, often at high management levels. But Mr. Jensen and Mr. Ellwood listed far more expansive criteria and sounded willing to break the all-American pattern.

"Multicultural and multinational skills" were the first Mr. Jensen reeled off. "It should be a person of stature" with expertise "not just in financial services but in the telecommunications and/or high-tech industry. We are also a brand and systems company, so an added dimension would be expertise in either or both.

"It is probably a person who has been around for a while," he added. "It will be the best person, no matter if he or she is from France, the United States, or anywhere else."

"This is a world-class, huge, complex organization, and we need another world-class player," said Mr. Ellwood.

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