Competitors and other observers who found Citicorp's billion-customer target fanciful surely did not hear executive vice president Edward Horowitz talk about it.
Getting a billion consumers worldwide by 2010 has been widely viewed as a stretch target, an extremely high hurdle that need not be completely cleared for victory to be declared.
But Mr. Horowitz sounded dead serious in a speech last week to an Online Banking Association conference in Burlingame, Calif. A billion people are emerging into the middle classes, he said, and "we want them."
Citicorp and its flagship subsidiary, Citibank, will have to hustle, adding almost 100 million customers per year. This can be accomplished only by radically rethinking the business, said Mr. Horowitz, who has taken charge of technology and delivery-system strategies since joining the organization early last year from the entertainment conglomerate Viacom Inc.
"It will not be with branches," he said. In fact, he considers it an advantage that Citibank "doesn't have too many branches." That puts Citi in a position to compete against new financial industry entrants like technology companies that are not saddled with a brick-and-mortar legacy.
For major retail banks that may still try to make hay with extensive branch systems, "we will be their worst nightmare," Mr. Horowitz vowed.
With technology, he said, Citicorp will step up the pace of product development and create "touch points" that make customers as comfortable doing their banking remotely as they were in traditional branches.
"We have to become more of an educator/adviser than an order-taker," Mr. Horowitz said. As the population ages, "we have to capture people as they go through life-stage transitions," he said. "If our content is compelling and educational, we will succeed."
One of several executives reporting to Citicorp chairman John Reed, Mr. Horowitz has gained the reputation of a change agent. He said Mr. Reed "has issued a wake-up call" and put the requisite management team in place. Mr. Horowitz conceded that some of the new prescriptions were not entirely well received internally, but he said they ultimately had to be swallowed.
He spoke of successful high-tech companies like Microsoft Corp. as actual or potential competitors that "have had to reinvent themselves every five Web years to survive. (A Web year, measuring the pace of change in Internet time, is about three months.) They are used to it. We have to get used to it."
As in past presentations, Mr. Horowitz drew parallels between banking today and the television industry 25 years ago, when the three major networks had an almost 100% market share and did not see threats like cable coming. Their share is down to 45%.
His sense of possibility stems from the fact that the television industry worldwide has added a billion viewers over those 25 years.
"The banking industry is feeling pretty good about itself," said Mr. Horowitz, who has an interactive media and pay television background-he worked for Home Box Office as well as Viacom. "It has been around a long time. It just had its best year ever."
"The vacuum tube industry had its best year ever the year the transistor was developed," he added. "Not a single company that was in the vacuum tube business exists today."
He suggested that bankers learn from Rupert Murdoch's changing of the rules of television. He used satellite distribution, content formats like 24-hour news, and "gatekeeper" control of set-top boxes to prove that "you don't have to control technology. You just have to know what to buy."
As the rules of banking and electronic commerce similarly change, Mr. Horowitz said a bank must "be our own worst nightmare and eat our own lunch before someone else does." He said the industry must build on its reputation for security, trust, and risk management while adopting the TV- like mind-set that "it's a new season every Web year."
"You are on the air all the time, the lights never go out," he said. "That is a new shift for banking institutions. And their content has to be compelling. You can no longer take three years to develop something. It has to take 90 days."
Mr. Horowitz said the industry will have to invent some technologies and harness others, particularly in the area of data security and privacy.
"The Internet is unsafe," he said. "We have to work as an industry to make the Internet 'the place' to do business." The "trusted third party" role in assigning and verifying digital certificates for on-line commerce is a natural extension of what banks have historically done, said Mr. Horowitz. He urged bankers to "take a stake" in that emerging business and support a highly secure level of data encryption.
He said it remains to be seen if the certification role is more of a utility than a profit opportunity. He suspected it is the latter, at least initially, for banks that support and promote business-to-business commerce.
Mr. Horowitz seemed less sure whether electronic bill payment and presentment-the hot topic that was the subject of the Online Banking Association seminar-would fall into the business or utility category. Because so much has to be sorted out, Citi is testing multiple concepts.
BancAmerica Robertson Stephens electronic commerce analyst Gary Craft had no such doubt.
"We have a real business opportunity that home banking was not," he said after Mr. Horowitz finished speaking. Mr. Craft said bill presentment and payment systems add a spark that basic home banking could not generate on its own. Billing companies' willingness to pay for the processing, along with potential advertising revenue on the World Wide Web, amounts to a subsidy that can push home banking to new levels of activity and acceptance.
Jane Wallace, a Bank of America senior vice president, was one of several speakers who were optimistic about bill presentment but called for open standards and interoperability to ensure access by all financial institutions and their customers.
Ms. Wallace also called for a "clear definition" of roles, responsibilities, and liabilities of banks and billers in dealing with unauthorized or fraudulent transactions.
"We need a level playing field between regulated financial institutions and unregulated technology providers," she added. "I don't see the same rules (such as reserve requirements and privacy regulations) applied to the technology providers."