David J. Cariseo took charge of Citibank's $20 billion mutual fund portfolio nearly a year ago, but he still hesitates when asked to describe his job.

"I just can't bring myself to say I'm a banker," Mr. Cariseo said. "So I just say, mutual fund manager.'"

Banking may seem prosaic to someone whose resume, like Mr. Cariseo's, includes stints as a cowboy and a crime reporter. And though he has spent 26 years in financial services, nearly all of them have been in the go-go world of brokerage.

Big Jobs in His Background

Mr. Cariseo, 51, was president of Fidelity Investments' brokerage services unit from 1987 to 1990, overseeing its national network of investor centers. From 1982 to 1987 he was president of American Express' Balcor Securities unit.

He also had tours as managing director of marketing for Dean Witter Reynolds, where he worked for 12 years - starting as a broker in Florida for Reynolds Securities, a predecessor of the Sears, Roebuck and Co. unit.

Before joining Citibank last December, Mr. Cariseo ran Mutual Funds of America, a consulting business he had started a year earlier.

Mr. Cariseo, who had been a consultant to Citibank before signing on full-time, said his mission is to impose a strategic vision on the banking giant's scattered mutual fund empire.

With 247 mutual funds in 99 countries - including $6 billion of assets in the United States and $14 billion abroad - the bank needs someone to take responsibility for the whole business, Mr. Cariseo said.

"There was nobody else here who did what I do,- he said.

Defining the Challenge

The immediate challenge, he said, is to improve profitability while offering superior products - a challenge given to all managers at the struggling bank these days.

Mr. Cariseo is starting by eliminating redundant portfolios and leveraging resources.

He also is putting more marketing muscle into the Landmark family of proprietary mutual funds sold through Citibank's U.S. branches.

The biggest potential for the bank's mutual fund growth, however, lies abroad, according to Mr. Cariseo. One reason: retirement savings plans modeled on 40 1(k) pension plans are sprouting up around the world - and banks are playing a major role in delivery.

A Frequent Flier

Mr. Cariseo spends roughly three weeks a month on the road. His travels abroad are so frequent that he recently filled up all the pages on his passport and had to apply for an expanded version.

The unbankerly funds man clearly revels in the frantic pace. He yanks out the passport to show off newly acquired visas for Brazil and Singapore. And he allows himself an enthusiasm rarely seen by Citicorp managers these days.

The funds industry is in for a wave of consolidation, he said, and he wants to be part of it.

Looking Ahead to Expansion

"Prices are still too high," he said. But he believes they will come down and hopes that Citibank - which earlier this week said that its capital problems have forced it to refrain from significant acquisitions" - can be a buyer.

A native of Syracuse, N.Y., Mr. Cariseo worked his way through Syracuse University as a crime reporter for the local daily newspaper. He graduated in 1963 with a degree in journalism.

He then spent four months roping steers in Granby, Colo. - an experience that he cites as good preparation for riding herd over a sales force. "You've got to know how to handle a renegade," Mr. Cariseo said.

He and his wife, Peggy, live in Darien, Conn., with their two children.

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