CHICAGO - Jamie Dimon offered a window onto a few attitudes he has picked up during his seven months as Bank One Corp.'s chairman and chief executive officer Thursday: the Internet still stinks, electronic bill payment and presentment is the killer app, and banks are not dinosaurs, as Bill Gates famously said, but elephants - not so dumb as they look.
Mr. Dimon's healthy skepticism toward the Internet and technology in general was readily apparent during his keynote speech at American Banker's sixth annual Financial Services in Cyberspace conference.
He called wireless devices important, but also a gimmick that would appeal only to small portions of the population. Smart cards are not so great, he said - they're just an enhancement to the current way of conducting card transactions.
The Internet, while "clearly a six-sigma event," is no more important than the invention of electricity or cars - and, in its current state, it is abysmal, he said. "It's like going to a library where all the books are thrown on the floor."
Some aspects of how the Internet will evolve are totally predictable, he said. Everyone's home computer will be on all the time and will feature Web pages that have been personally designed to display local news, restaurant information, bank balances, and so on.
More unpredictable is how financial services firms will benefit from the Internet, he said. Banks risk being thrown into obsolescence by it as electronic services eat away at traditional bank businesses such as cash management and even cash.
To keep Bank One relevant in an Internet world, Mr. Dimon has set up an Internet "skunk works" project - something that in a political campaign would be called opposition research - headed by his former Citigroup colleague William Campbell. Its goal is to root out information on what Bank One's competitors are doing and spread that knowledge around the organization.
The operation is staffed by a few young, hand-picked employees, known as One Scholars, fresh from college, most of them with liberal arts degrees.
"Eventually we're going to develop very specific strategies in these areas, but we can't do that until we know something," Mr. Dimon said.
The skunk works project reflects a deeply-rooted drive to one-up the competition, in the same manner that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has done in retailing, Charles Schwab & Co. in investing, and Home Depot in home improvement.
Mr. Dimon invoked the names of these powerhouses several times as examples of companies that dominate their markets so completely they can afford to give some products away.
He is also veering Bank One away from spending on experimental technology projects, including the cancellation of a $20 million effort with no bearing on financial services that had the bank competing with a Silicon Valley-type company, he said. That money is now being funneled into a cash management project that had previously garnered only $4 million.
He exhorted bank managers to fight boredom and bureaucracy, the biggest risks to falling behind on the Internet. "If you run a company where people are bored, you'll drive out all your good people," he said.
One of the ways in which Bank One is shaking things up is by keeping WingspanBank.com, its Internet bank, as a separate unit within the company. Mr. Dimon inherited Wingspan when its future was in doubt, and he has decided to hang onto it. He called it the best Internet-only bank out there, but he makes no bones about its failings.
"Calling it Internet-only was the biggest mistake," and that is being rectified with a plan to test physical locations in Bank One branches, Mr. Dimon said.
Keeping Wingspan invites "some jostling" between Bank One units that may be working on competing products, but mostly a lot of learning goes on, he said. "It's fine to compete against each other, as long as you are building good products and services for your customers."
Meanwhile, the Internet needs to become part of the fabric of the company, woven into management discussions, strategies, and everyday execution, he said.
Electronic bill payment and presentment is one of the few innovations to have broken through Mr. Dimon's wall of skepticism, and much of his regard for the technology seems to come from observing habits in Europe, where paper bills are practically nonexistent.
He accepts that electronic billing will take hold very slowly in the United States, given the embedded infrastructure and ingrained consumer habits, but "because of the cost, it's a no-brainer."
Mr. Dimon also has high hopes for the potential of using the Internet to aid small businesses, which get slammed with an enormous amount of administrative work that has nothing to do with actually managing their companies. "Our challenge is to make it easier for them."
Among Mr. Dimon's predictions: Internet companies will experience massive failures, and privacy issues will be of extreme importance. On a matter close to home, he said that capturing eyeballs through banner advertising on the Internet is "essentially worthless," a likely signal that the multimillion-dollar banner ad contracts Bank One and its credit card subsidiary, First USA, have signed will not be renewed.
Expanding on his elephant reference, Mr. Dimon said that banks may be big, but they are nimbler than they appear. They have developed thousands of specialized software packages and ways of doing things that would be difficult for any newcomer to emulate, he said.
Like elephants, "banks can travel fast, and kill you in the meantime."