Jack Wagner knows how to adapt.

As chief information officer for Dime Bancorp, the former U.S. Air Force computer operations manager and long-time systems consultant has leveraged his experience to help him reshape the inner workings of the country's fourth-largest thrift.

During his tenure, he has almost totally converted the bank to so-called client-server systems, moving technology out of the glass house; most recently, he rode out one of the biggest mergers of the year: Dime's acquisition of Anchor Bancorp.

Perhaps the most startling, and yet the most basic, indicator of Mr. Wagner's staying power is that he has held on for five years as the bank's top technology officer -- a post that tends to turn over every 18 months or so at most banks.

Served well by his military and consulting experience, Mr. Wagner has been one of the key contributors in helping to recast the Dime from a run-of-the-mill thrift to a major Northeast player, in the same league with Chemical Banking Corp., Chase Manhattan Corp., and Citicorp.

His efforts to eliminate inefficiency by reducing his budget, redistributing technology staff to separate business units, outsourcing many back office functions, and generally making information more accessible via PC-based systems have prepared the bank to enter this new phase.

Now, Mr. Wagner has fulfilled most of the objectives of his initial five-year plan and the Dime is finally "bringing power to the people through technology."

But the top tech exec of the new Dime has his work cut out for him in bringing together the disparate operations of the combined thrift and getting it up to speed with its new regional competitors.

"Because we are smaller than the major money centers and because we have evolved more off the mainframe, we can respond more quickly with new products and capabilities," Mr. Wagner said.

"They're not going to be as responsive as we are."

Since becoming information chief in January 1990, Mr. Wagner has been striving to improve the integration of his technology staff and its work with the rest of the bank -- an approach that has been gaining popularity among other financial institutions in recent years.

With what he calls a SWAT-team philosophy in mind, he decentralized his technology team. He also drew together the disjointed islands of information that had formed on the Dime's personal computers and mainframes, creating a new hub-and-spoke data distribution system.

Twenty-five local area networks now connect the bank's various units.

These are, in turn, hooked into a massively parallel processing system -- a loose configuration of microprocessors -- which acts as a data repository in place of the traditional mainframe.

Although the original business plan called for the bank to move all the retail operations completely off the mainframe, the recent merger -- which almost doubled the Dime's size -- has thrown a monkey wrench into those works.

"There is no way to have a client-server system maintain a $20 billion bank," he said, adding that such technology should be available in five years or so.

When he began, the bank had 260 technology employees and a $25 million technology budget.

Since then, Mr. Wagner has sliced the staffing to 80 people and cut the budget to $16.5 million. He erased a level of unnecessary middle managers, and recruited most of his own new troops from other banks and consulting firms.

"If you look at my management team today, 90% of them weren't here then," Mr. Wagner said.

Lacking the economies of scale to run all the operations in-house, Mr. Wagner also set out to move most of its back office functions to third parties. Nationar Inc. processes the Dime's checks and lockbox transactions; Archer Management Systems handles the mailroom operations; and Computer Power Inc. takes care of the bank's mortgage servicing.

Last week, in its largest merger-related technology move, the Dime signed up Systematics Financial Services Inc. to handle its retail deposits systems. Systematics had handled outsourcing for Anchor Bank.

Mr. Wagner's management style and ideas cast him as more of a business manager than a classic technology executive. Unlike the typical chief information officer, Mr. Wagner was not a technology person who had moved up through the ranks.

In fact, the Dime created the post of chief information officer expressly for him, or, rather, he created it himself, when he was offered a job at the bank after handling a consulting project there.

In a project for his previous employer, Coopers & Lybrand, Mr. Wagner had been brought in to map out a technology strategy for the Dime. Shortly after the project was complete, the bank's vice president for information systems -- then the highest ranking technology officer at the bank -- resigned, and executives wooed Mr. Wagner to replace him and to carry out the plan he had recommended as a consultant.

Before Coopers & Lybrand, Mr. Wagner worked for McDonald Douglas Corp., where he alternately headed a financial software firm for two years and also did some consulting work with banks, Chase Manhattan Corp. and Society Corp. among them.

Prior to that, he had handled an assortment of consulting jobs throughout the 1970s and 1980s, primarily for the financial industry.

Mr. Wagner spent his first 10 years out of college in the Air Force, which gave him an early and solid background in technology.

"Just about every mainframe environment was tested by the military," he said.

There, he was exposed to early predecessors of systems produced by a "breadth of various vendors," including International Business Machines Corp., NCR Corp., and Unisys Corp. That early exposure, and the consulting experience that followed, have given Mr. Wagner a strong and resilient springboard from which to leap.

"I brought to the Dime a strategic vision that was ahead of the times in 1990," he said reflectively.

"And it certainly has proven to be the right direction."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.