Peter S.P. Dimsey has been with MasterCard International Inc. for more than five years and dent of its U.S. unit for two president of its U.S. unit for two, but only next week will he receive his public initiation.

For the first time, Mr. Dimsey gets to deliver "the Speech" at the American Bankers Association's national bank card conference in Washington.

It is not that Mr. Dimsey is a stranger to public speaking, or to the group attending the card industry's premier annual event. It is a symbolic message to the industry from his boss, MasterCard International chief executive Alex W. "Pete" Hart, who is yielding the podium to his No. 2 man for the traditional "state of the association" address.

Mr. Dimsey, Mr. Hart is saying, is running the domestic show. Or as Mr. Hart put it in a recent conversation, "I am spending only about 15% of my time on U.S. matters, the rest on international. Peter is the guy" for MasterCard's U.S. region.

Card bankers, many of whom have regarded Mr. Dimsey as a somewhat enigmatic, though astute, marketing strategist, will be eager to see how he takes to the limelight. He faces inevitable comparisons with the charismatic Mr. Hart and with his opposite number at Visa, who will not be the man Mr. Dimsey expected to face as recently as half a month ago.

Surprise Resignation

H. Robert Heller, the former Federal Reserve governor who was president of Visa U.S.A. for about the length of time Mr. Dimsey has had his current title, resigned abruptly on Aug. 30 amid speculation about his leadership style and philosophical differences. Mr. Heller was similarly anointed by his boss, chief executive Charles T. Russell, to give the Speech for Visa in 1991 and 1992.

"We're both rookies this year," Mr. Dimsey noted, referring to the fact that Carl Pascarella, who was whisked from his regional post in Tokyo to take Mr. Heller's job, will be speaking for Visa on the closing morning of the ABA meeting.

In an interview last week at MasterCard headquarters in New York, Mr. Dimsey showed no sign of being superstitious about any continuing parallels between himself and Mr. Heller.

The Idea of Partnership

Mr. Dimsey was focused on the message he wants to send next week, which revolves around the idea of partnership.

"Historically, the industry was dominated by lots of smaller players and there was a tinge of directiveness by the associations," he said, referring almost euphemistically to the accusations that both MasterCard and Visa took too much power away from their member banks.

"With the consolidation of the industry, we now have fewer, more sophisticated, larger players. They look to the association as more of a partner, a consultative type of relationship.

"We've been talking partnership for a while now, and the members like it," Mr. Dimsey continued. "That's the way they want to be treated."

Then came the pot-shot at his California-based rival. He said MasterCard's approach "contrasts with the way Visa has treated their membership."

The debate over memberfriendliness won't be settled next week or any time soon. Visa can still claim a sizable advantage where it counts most, in key measures of card activity and consumer loyalty.

Two Big Influences

But MasterCard has acquired a strong reputation for its brand identity and marketing strategy -- widely seen as Mr. Dimsey's contribution -- and for a general dynamism credited to Mr. Hart and his management style.

Mr. Hart has been in his job since late 1988, several months after Mr. Dimsey was hired by Mr. Hart's predecessor, Russell E. Hogg.

Mr. Dimsey has come to regard Mr. Hart as "a great visionary," and one of the two big influences on his business life. The other was Edgar M. Bronfman Jr., for whom Mr. Dimsey worked at Joseph E. Seagram & Sons.

People at the card conference will want to know if Mr. Dimsey can transfer his marketing skills to the general management of MasterCard U.S., which accounted for a majority of the 188 million cards and $113 billion in worldwide sales racked up by MasterCard last year.

More to the point, many just don't know him all that well.

He is a rare holdover from the Hogg administration, and his emphasis on reaching the middle class displaced the more aspirational advertising messages sent by the former American Express executives -- including Mr. Hogg himself -- who set MasterCard's marketing tone in the 1980s.

People who know and have dealt with Mr. Dimsey said he can use the higher profile to beat two raps against him: that he is, by personality, aloof, and that he has never overcome the disadvantages of being an outsider.

He came to MasterCard with skills in brand management, consumer-trend research, advertising strategy, pricing and promotion. He acknowledges he lacks the branch banking or operations backgrounds shared by most of his current "clients."

"And I don't have the incredible, computerized Rolodex that Pete [Hart] has," said Mr. Dimsey, resigned to the fact that he couldn't accumulate in five years the contacts Mr. Hart built over his career as a banker.

Mr. Dimsey said he makes up for that by traveling about 25% of the time, much of it to call on bankers, and spending one-third of his office time "on the phone."

But he does have marketing in his blood, which Mr. Heller was criticized for not having at Visa.

Tough Fights

Mr. Dimsey has been in the middle of battles for consumer allegiance far more intense than what bankers are accustomed to.

He managed the Post Cereals line for General Foods Corp. in the 1970s; oversaw the worldwide marketing of Avis Rent-a-Car, a famous "No. 2" like MasterCard; managed the Chrysler account for the Kenyon & Eckhardt agency during the automaker's turnaround a decade ago; and supervised Seagram's marketing of spirits ranging from Chivas Regal to innovative wine coolers in the 1980s.

"He is not your typical glad-handing banker," said a friend of Mr. Dimsey's, who contends he brought a necessary strategic perspective to balance MasterCard's bankerly traditions.

But another observer criticized Mr. Dimsey for "not doing as much as he might have," when he first joined MasterCard, to forge the personal ties that could overcome his "outsider" liabilities. "At best he gets acceptance, not enthusiastic admiration," this source said.

Looking Ahead

For the Speech, he has firm beliefs to communicate about management and about where the card industry, and hence MasterCard, is going.

"It's too easy sometimes to go back to your roots," Mr. Dimsey said. Soon after he came to MasterCard, he delegated marketing responsibilities and concentrated on broadening his horizons and setting strategy, which he views as an "important aspect of leadership" -- a top-management function that should not be set off in a separate department.

He said that from the likes of General Foods and Seagram, he learned the importance of "marketing discipline" and "customer focus." He said he continues to pay close attention to focus groups, the interview sessions that researchers use to get at the pulse of their markets.

"I'm still learning all the time," Mr. Dimsey said. "If you think about and can understand the consumer, it is amazing the things you learn."

"When the cobranding question came up," he said, "we asked: |Is it better for the customer?' If the answer is yes, then we had better do it before somebody else does."

MasterCard answered "yes" and got a leg up on the competition -- and a big boost in its numbers -- by allowing AT&T, General Motors, and other nonbanks to market MasterCards in conjunction with member banks.

Asked about the big issues he faces, Mr. Dimsey reeled off several: preparing for new technologies and delivery systems; finding a way for banks to retrieve some of the merchant-processing business that they have ceded to nonbanks in recent years; and dealing with a "more pragmatic" and "less credit-oriented" consumer.

"The credit card market has reached what I call card saturation -- not saturation in usage, which still has a long way to go -- that has caused a tremendous change in the search for market share," Mr. Dimsey said.

Help in Coping with Change

MasterCard's aim is to give members the tools to deal with the rapid pace of change.

One example, he said, is MasterBanking, the system for home banking via computer that MasterCard believes can achieve economics of scale if its members get together and use it. Visa has criticized MasterCard for imposing its name and approach in a way that competes with some banks and limits users' choices.

Mr. Dimsey vehemently disagrees: For large institutions that use MasterBanking, our brand won't be prominent. Smaller banks may want it, and if they do, it's there.

"The same is true in credit cards," Mr. Dimsey added. While some banks deemphasize the MasterCard name in promotions, others "rely on MasterCard or Visa as the brand" -- a more generic approach.

Flexibility and adaptability to change are hallmarks of the consumer-goods marketing mind and can only help MasterCard, said Sandra Meyer, a former American Express Co. and Citicorp executive who is a senior partner in the New York consulting firm of Clark & Weinstock.

High Praise

Ms. Meyer, who worked with Mr. Dimsey at General Foods and closely followed his career, described Mr. Dimsey as "analytical, sharp, aggressive, competitive, and effective. . . . He was the kind of guy who always exceeded expectations."

He couples quantitative and analytical abilities with insight into the consumer, and is "a clear thinker," Ms. Meyer said. "I have no doubt he can run that organization."

Mr. Dimsey has seven key executives reporting to him, including Daniel Murray, the general manager for credit products; Arthur Kranzley, general manager for debit products; and Glenn Santmire, senior vice president, remote banking.

His job has been complicated a bit by the departure of Charles Wardell, senior vice president of member relations, who just joined Citicorp's Diners Club International in Chicago.

But Mr. Dimsey said MasterCard's senior management as a whole has more cohesion and continuity than before the Hart-Dimsey era, which improves effectiveness and increases his own comfort level.

|An Exciting Place to Be'

At age 56, after bouncing among several industries, Mr. Dimsey said, "I never saw myself staying in one place very long. Otherwise I'd still be in England," where he was raised.

"But I can't imagine an industry that would be more exciting to be in. I've talked to people about other positions and this would be tough to duplicate."

Unlike the bankers he serves, MasterCard isn't saddled with branch operations and other burdens, he said. "We can look forward and do our part to keep the members ahead of change," he said. "Let's make this the generation when banking truly gets ahead of the curve."

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