Roberta J. Arena's 22-year career at Citibank seems to be at a crossroads.
The head of Citicorp's credit card business could find herself rising to new heights in the global organization; but then again, she may end up reassigned and reporting to a new boss.
Ms. Arena, an executive vice president, heads credit cards - Citicorp's most consistent profit producer - for the United States, Canada, and Europe.
Her profile rose a bit - as did the pressure on her - in January when chairman John S. Reed included her in a number of high-level executive changes. She now reports to Mr. Reed, having previously answered to vice chairman Pei-yuan Chia, who retired.
One of Mr. Reed's priorities, said spokeswoman Maria Mendler, is to develop a global strategy for credit cards. They are the New York banking company's only retail product that doesn't have a single executive overseeing all regions worldwide.
Ruvan Cohen, formerly in charge of marketing in the United States, heads the Latin American card business, and other people are responsible for North Asia; Southeast Asia; Central Europe, the Middle East, and Africa; and Australia and New Zealand.
In the January shake-up, Mr. Reed assigned Shaukat Aziz to "temporarily" assist Ms. Arena in developing a global strategy. He also reports to Mr. Reed.
A 27-year Citicorp veteran who spent much of his career in Asia, Mr. Aziz was named corporate planning officer and brought to New York. Word is out that Mr. Reed expects to see some results from the Arena-Aziz partnership within about seven months.
Some analysts were puzzled about what the new arrangement meant for Ms. Arena. She is regarded as one of the most able bank credit card executives, and Mr. Aziz has no experience in that business.
"I thought it was a reduction in her authority," said Richard X. Bove, an analyst with Raymond James & Associates. "But John Reed explained that Aziz would enhance the strengths of Roberta Arena."
Ms. Arena declined to be interviewed for this article.
Mr. Aziz most likely was brought to the United States in keeping with Citicorp's tradition of exposing its most valued executives to different regions and cultures, said Ms. Mendler.
In his new post, Mr. Aziz also will work on other consumer and corporate banking projects, but whether he is being considered for a top card spot is unclear.
Many Citicorp watchers believe Ms. Arena would be the most logical choice for a consolidated international role. But no one knows for sure how or whether the decision will be made, and the bank is leaving no hints.
Ms. Arena has a stellar reputation and following outside the bank.
Bear Stearns & Co. analyst, Susan Roth pointed to the fact that card accounts are up.
"It looks like Citibank is back in fighting shape," she said, "so I have no reason to believe that Roberta wouldn't get the job."
Ms. Arena has already surpassed her predecessors in terms of the span of her control.
She assumed responsibility for the U.S. market in January 1994, having just completed a four-year stint in Belgium as regional manager for credit cards in Europe.
Three months later, she added Western Europe and Canada. No previous Citicorp executive had been given combined responsibility for multiple card markets.
In a 1994 interview, Ms. Arena said her new role was "a bit of an experiment."
During her two-year tenure as executive vice president, Ms. Arena launched a cobranded credit card in Germany with the Deutsche Bahn, the state-run railway system. The Deutsche Bahn card has the potential to catapult Citibank to the leading card position in Germany, where it is currently the fourth-largest issuer. Citibank also issues credit cards in Belgium, Greece, and Spain.
Ms. Arena also is implementing a plan to consolidate 15 card processing and customer service operations in the United States, Canada, and Europe into one operation in the United States.
Whether or not Ms. Arena's star is truly rising, Mr. Aziz is seen as on his way to a higher position.
In the past 10 years only a few Citicorp executives have held the position of corporate planning officer. The last was Victor Menezes in 1989, who was recently named chief financial officer.
Citibank's history of promoting executives who have broad experience seems to indicate that Mr. Aziz has been given a chance to prove himself.
Promotions are meted out, said Ms. Mendler, by "having this well-rounded experience."