Facing a possible crisis of confidence early this year, Visa International president Edmund P. Jensen pulled Daniel R. Eitingon out of his hat.

Mr. Eitingon has since done nothing but make his hiring look like a master-stroke.

With a calm demeanor and steady hand, the former First Interstate Bancorp technology chief flew into turbulence at what was then called the strategic initiatives and processing services group.

Visa people say Mr. Eitingon averted disaster and righted the course. Now he says he is finding ways to push Visa's technology and product development machinery faster and higher.

"We get so much done, but we have a tremendous opportunity to make our people more productive," Mr. Eitingon said recently.

Visa officials have never publicly aired exactly what was wrong, but the words Mr. Eitingon likes to use-customer-focus and flexibility, benchmarking and accountability-may serve as clues to the kinds of problems he encountered.

"We have such great staff, products, and systems, that if we can do it better, the whole organization will be that much better," he said.

He obviously hasn't lost the touch or the lingo of a bank operations and technology executive-his role until March 31, 1996, when First Interstate, where he had spent a decade, was acquired by Wells Fargo & Co.

That helps explain why he was recruited by, and can feel comfortable with, Mr. Jensen, a former U.S. Bancorp vice chairman who by necessity became a technology strategist when he joined Visa in 1994.

Mr. Eitingon, as executive vice president at First Interstate, was close personally and professionally to chairman William E.B. Siart, whom he considers as technologically visionary as any bank chief executive officer.

"He didn't overstate the importance of technology ... but he understood it," Mr. Eitingon said of his former boss. Together they created a technology unit devoted not only to systems deployment but also to moving customers into more efficient delivery methods.

"The rank and file was aware of where we wanted to go, and we would have gotten a lot more done if we had more time," he said.

In the 1970s Mr. Eitingon joined Bank of America but had little exposure to credit cards while at the bank that gave birth to Visa. Ironically, his First Interstate tenure brought him closer to MasterCard. Mr. Siart served on its board.

Having crossed over to Visa, which like MasterCard is an association that lacks "a perfect measure like return on equity in the banking world," Mr. Eitingon said he has to push the expense control and performance measurement levers a little differently than he did at First Interstate. But he vowed that "we can run this like a business."

"A lot of what I do is still a learning curve," he said. "Getting to know our products, our people, the organizational strengths-and weaknesses.

"Now we have structures and accountabilities in place that give me the foundation I need to make a difference."

When his group was created last summer, it was touted as the product- focused reorganization that would carry Visa International into the 21st century. Of Visa's 4,000-plus employees, about 2,200 worked within the structure.

But it threatened to unravel in January with the shocking retirement of its architect, Wesley Tallman.

After arriving Feb. 10, Mr. Eitingon kept most of his key managers in place but changed the group's title, flattened the organization, and cleared the air.

Five months later, the renamed global support services group exudes Visa's trademark confidence and bravado, which had seemed to flag during the behind-the-scenes upheaval. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in smart cards, part of the emerging products area overseen by group executive vice president Francois Dutray. Its heated philosophical disagreements with MasterCard International's Mondex subsidiary are reminiscent of credit cards' no-holds-barred early years.

Meanwhile, the support services group seems much more in harmony with Visa U.S.A., Visa Canada, and the four other Visa regions that are in a constant, creatively tense battle for autonomy and resources with "central"-represented by Mr. Jensen and Mr. Eitingon.

Mr. Eitingon, who plays a key role in the setting of priorities for what central can deliver to the regions, sits with the regional CEOs on Mr. Jensen's management executive committee. Visa U.S.A. president Carl Pascarella has led a chorus of approval of the collegiality and cooperation Mr. Jensen has instilled of late.

While Mr. Eitingon is considered a newcomer, his colleagues have praised him for "saying all the right things."

One of them is Mr. Eitingon's creation of a regional relations group "to link the regions with support teams, manage two-way communications, provide rapid answers to questions," Mr. Eitingon said June 2 at Visa's annual international directors' gathering in Hawaii.

It will serve as a "forum to share best practices" and advocate for the regions in priority-setting.

The events of early this year were a test of leadership, Mr. Jensen conceded in an interview soon after Mr. Eitingon came on board.

Mr. Jensen said he redoubled his determination to stay focused on the needs to manage growth, manage change, and take reasonable entrepreneurial risks. An effective global support leader was essential to realizing the vision; Mr. Jensen's strategic strengths needed tactical balance, not to mention an eagle eye on the business and technology units.

He ensured continuity by naming Mr. Eitingon president of the global support unit, essentially the No. 2 Visa International job, on the day Mr. Tallman's departure was announced.

Mr. Eitingon, 51, brought a "combination marketing-technology background" from First Interstate and "experience with a large bank that had both growth problems and structural problems he participated in solving," Mr. Jensen said.

He also viewed Mr. Eitingon as a skilled navigator of the treacherous technology talent pool around Visa's northern California base. Mr. Eitingon is looking for help from the programming community in India, and is offering telecommuting options.

"We are going to lose people, and we have to have people in the company who can rise up," Mr. Jensen said. "All this has to do with my decision to bring Dan Eitingon in."

Though Mr. Eitingon was low-key about it, the Hawaii meeting was a debut of sorts. Several support services executives gave status reports and laid out growth prospects-gentle reminders that despite the bumps in Visa's internal road, the association leads in virtually all its market-share categories by a whopping and widening margin.

Mr. Eitingon himself pledged his group would be "flexible, responsive, and focused;" its "flattened organization (will have) fewer administrators pushing down decision-making closer to customers;" staff will be empowered with the "accountability of owners."

His bottom line: "to improve product quality at ever-decreasing cost."

In a subsequent interview, Mr. Eitingon explained where he is going by pointing to an organization chart far simpler than the one Mr. Tallman left behind. He draws on what he calls "a deep talent base"-better even than his high expectations coming in.

Including the regional relations chief, who is not yet appointed, four executive vice presidents and three group executive vice presidents report to Mr. Eitingon. Francois Dutray has emerging products, Una Somerville current products and services.

Thomas Kappock, another ex-western banker, oversees corporate strategy, Richard Lonergan special projects like payment system planning and data security.

Ronald Olive and William Chenevich run processing services and systems, respectively. If technology is the hub around which everything else revolves, these men are on hot seats, particularly Mr. Chenevich, the group executive vice president assigned to develop the next-generation telecommunications infrastructure, VisaNet II.

The project is emblematic of a series of sea changes that Mr. Eitingon said Visa is charting throughout the enterprise: from a single product (credit) to multiple products, physical products to on-line or virtual products, centralized control to "enabling" of the members and regions, and closed to open systems.

For the first time, Visa is opening itself to strategic alliances that it views as crucial to creating the type of flexible, client/server computer architecture that others have already moved to.

"What we did with the Partner Program," said Mr. Chenevich, referring to the flexible options Visa offers in smart cards, "we will do with VisaNet. We are heading toward a significant change in who operates it. The members will have choices ... all as part of the enabling strategy."

The task is daunting. Visa's aging but powerful mainframe-centered systems handle 21 billion transactions a year without a hitch. VisaNet II prototypes would be out next year and conversions would take place over four years, but the process is so complex that some elements of today's VisaNet will still be operating in 2002.

"When I get frustrated, I look at how much we've accomplished," Mr. Eitingon said. "If we are doing great things today, we can do spectacular things tomorrow."

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