Richard W. Vague, the chief executive officer of Bank One Corp.'s fast-rising First USA subsidiary, is consolidating his consumer banking responsibilities -- and his own rising-star status within the parent company.
In the latest indication of Mr. Vague's elevated prestige, which outsiders view as tantamount to the No. 2 job under chairman John B. McCoy, Bank One has recruited a new general manager of consumer lending, who was chosen by Mr. Vague and reports to him.
The new arrival, Anthony F. Vuoto, was formerly director of distribution and sales in Germany for Citigroup Inc. The 15-year financial services industry veteran will oversee a $30 billion portfolio of mortgage, home equity, student, and other consumer loans, Bank One said last week.
As chairman and CEO of First USA, Mr. Vague has presided over one of Chicago-based Bank One's most important growth businesses. With about $70 billion of receivables, First USA is in a virtual dead heat with Citigroup Inc. for leadership among U.S. bank card issuers. Bank One acquired the Wilmington, Del.-based credit card monoline in 1997 for $7.9 billion.
Wingspanbank.com, Bank One's aggressively advertised Internet bank and a pet project of Mr. McCoy's, was placed under the First USA management umbrella, increasing Mr. Vague's clout. He has boasted in recent speeches and interviews that First USA has a $1 billion marketing budget, which is matched by few if any companies in the financial services industry.
Given Mr. Vague's power over funding of that magnitude, and with such key businesses now reporting to him, analysts said it appears Bank One is grooming the 43-year-old to succeed Mr. McCoy, 56.
"Clearly, the focus of the company is the consumer side, and that shines the spotlight" on Mr. Vague, said Michael J. Ancell, a bank analyst at Edward Jones in St. Louis. "He may have been a dark horse six months ago, but now he's leading by a nose."
The $256 billion-asset Bank One has high hopes that retail businesses will be the main sources of growth. On the consumer lending side, Bank One wants to take advantage of a fragmented national market and become a large-scale lender and service provider, as First USA is in credit cards. The company has also invested heavily in Internet ventures, which Mr. McCoy has predicted will become the most effective way to pick up new retail customers.
The company's consumer emphasis may be influencing some top- management changes.
Last month vice chairman David J. Vitale, unexpectedly announced that he would retire Nov. 1 as head of commercial and international banking. Analysts speculated then that he was leaving because Bank One was de-emphasizing and downsizing its large-corporate businesses, though Mr. Vitale said his reasons were personal.
Since Mr. Vitale's departure was announced, vice chairman Richard J. Lehmann has taken over the commercial banking businesses. The consumer lines that Mr. Lehmann had supervised -- retail banking, the Finance One lending unit, and, through Mr. Vague, credit cards -- now report to Mr. McCoy.
Some analysts say the recent shuffles have set the stage for Mr. Vague to be promoted to vice chairman and oversee all consumer businesses.
"In my line of thinking, he is already vice chairman," said Nancy A. Bush, a bank analyst at Ryan, Beck & Co. in Livingston, N.J. "I have always taken it as a given that he is headed to the upper pantheon of leadership."
Regardless of Mr. Vague's ultimate or formal title, analysts said they are pleased with his elevated role because First USA has consistently delivered on revenue goals.
"The market has an awful lot of faith" in Mr. Vague, said Katrina Blecher, an analyst at Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. in New York. "In that regard, I think it's a good move by McCoy."
Mr. Vuoto, the ex-Citibanker, "brings an outstanding record of achievement and talent to this newly created position," Mr. Vague said in a statement last week. "Consumer lending is an area of focus for us, and under Tony's leadership we look forward to continued expansion of this line of business."