On the surface, Carlos Palomares' most recent career move appears ordinary compared with the posts he has held in exotic locales in 27 years with Citicorp.
But the president of Citibank FSB in Miami has taken on what he describes as an important challenge with a scope far greater than the Miami-based thrift operation.
As regional president for the Middle Atlantic, Mr. Palomares will play a key role in a renewed effort by Citicorp to revamp its U.S. consumer bank. His broader territory-Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, as well as Florida-makes up one-third of Citicorp's domestic consumer empire outside New York.
The strategy, as Mr. Palomares described it recently, is to expand into selected, upscale markets through de novo branch openings over the next three years.
"The vision is to be a significant provider of consumer banking products to a large segment of U.S. households," said Mr. Palomares, 52.
If his efforts succeed, some say, Mr. Palomares could vault into the highest offices of the nation's second-largest banking company.
Born in Cuba, Mr. Palomares came to the United States with his family in the early 1960s. He is described by colleagues and Citicorp-watchers as well liked and respected.
He is one of several middle- to senior-level executives of Latin background to have been promoted recently, a reflection of what Mr. Palomares describes as a "culture of diversity."
He spends most of his time in Miami but, in his new role, travels for a week every month to his Washington office, a block from the White House.
The setting fits the mold of Citicorp's evolving U.S. consumer banking strategy: a large metropolitan area with a sizable international clientele.
In Florida, 25% of consumer banking is done with non-U.S. citizens who bank with Citi because it has branches overseas, Mr. Palomares said. In Washington, where he was interviewed this week, the proportion of international customers is 7% to 10% and said to be growing.
Mr. Palomares arrived in Florida in 1992 to take on what he described as one of the biggest challenges of his career: a faltering thrift in need of operational improvements.
Citicorp's 36-branch Florida unit was not alone. From the date they were bought, the company's thrift subsidiaries in Florida, Illinois, and California had been run as separate fiefs, with different strategies and market focuses.
"They were difficult years for the bank," Mr. Palomares said of the Florida institution. "They were not able to build a profitable operation.
"My mandate was a singular strategy based on our competitive advantages but recognizing the limits of a small branch network."
Mr. Palomares set out to change the culture to one driven by sales. He also shuffled management.
"From 1993 to 1995, we transformed the bank from one that acted like an S&L to one that was more of a consumer bank," the executive said.
He said he will apply that experience to Citicorp's 26-branch network in Washington, Maryland, and Virginia.
Like the Florida operation, the Middle Atlantic region was hobbled by inefficiency, Mr. Palomares said. "We were handicapped by a management infrastructure that was too big.".
Citicorp combined the region with Florida and eliminated 25 of 850 jobs- most of them in management.
"Now we are trying to focus on improving the quality of the customer relationships we already have," Mr. Palomares said.
Citicorp has been making strides to improve the efficiency of its domestic branches. In April, chairman John S. Reed announced a senior management realignment, in the process naming Alvaro A.C. de Souza head of U.S. retail operations.
Jean-Paul Votron, division executive, reports to Mr. de Souza. Mr. Votron is in charge of the federal savings banks and oversees Mr. Palomares in addition to three other regional presidents.
It was the first time in almost a decade that Citicorp had a single senior executive in charge of its sprawling domestic enterprise, and the move signaled a new focus on U.S. consumers beyond credit cards.
"There is clearly an effort to improve the profit of the U.S business, market by market," said Diane Glossman, an analyst at Salomon Brothers Inc.
In addition to having responsibility for geographical territories, three of the regional presidents split oversight for certain market segments to coordinate marketing strategy, Mr. Palomares said.
He watches over Citigold, the upscale retail product line; Citicorp Investment Services; and deposit products. Fritz Seegers in California oversees business and professional banking services. And C. Mack in Illinois manages consumer assets.
Mr. Palomares said his experience overseas with Citicorp-and the international experience of the three other regional presidents-will help transform domestic business.
Mr. Palomares began at Citicorp in 1970 as a management trainee in operations. He later joined the international division and won his first overseas assignment in 1980 as a corporate banking executive in Greece. He later worked in Saudi Arabia.
By 1984, Mr. Palomares was regional consumer business manager in the Philippines. After a stint in New York as chief of staff to the vice chairman of global consumer banking, Mr. Palomares went to Italy in 1990 to head the consumer bank there. He returned to the United States in 1991 after the Italian bank was sold.
Over the years, Wall Street has criticized Citicorp for not paying enough attention to its domestic base, citing the focus of senior management on foreign and emerging markets.
Market analysts said Citicorp has carefully and successfully crafted an upscale brand image overseas but added that the consumer branding effort- other than for credit cards-has been less than effective here.
"We recognized that in order to succeed we needed to leverage on that brand," Mr. Palomares said.
Mr. Palomares said he plans to target wealthy people who have a technological bent.
New branches will be designed as a series of staffed, full-service "hubs" ringed by self-service "spokes."
On the East Coast, Mr. Palomares has pinpointed two markets with "great potential": Florida and Virginia. In Florida, two full-service and six self-service offices are scheduled to open in Orlando.
For northern Virginia-a trove of wealthy suburbs-Mr. Palomares has loftier goals: He plans to open as many as five banking hubs and 15 self- service offices.
"We see hub-and-spoke and electronic banking as the future of the bank," Mr. Palomares said.
Electronic banking is a far cry from what he thought he was getting into in the early 1980s. The turning point in his career came in 1982 while he was Citicorp's chief financial officer of corporate banking for the Middle East and Africa, based in Saudi Arabia.
"I was asked to join an emerging unit called the consumer bank," he recalled. "It was not clear that it would be the right move. But I haven't looked back once."