Surrounded by stacks of packing cases, a bare desk, and the four bare walls of a Providence, R.I., office, Michael R. Zucchini looks right at home. And indeed he is.
For most of this decade, the Fleet Financial Group vice chairman has lived in transition, guiding the company through the technological upheaval of various mergers and reorganizations.
He made his mark in 1991 while overseeing Fleet's absorption of Bank of New England-an undertaking that would set a baseline for large bank mergers.
More recently, he has guided the technological conversions of two other acquisitions, National Westminster Bancorp and Shawmut National Corp. Completed only last month, the conversions cut Fleet's costs by $600 million and were a crowning achievement for Mr. Zucchini.
Now, with things calm on the acquisitions front, he has a rare opportunity to focus on the bank's long-term technology strategy.
But that does not mean that he thinks merger-related technology integrations have become any less important to the industry or to Fleet.
"The excitement level on these consolidations and integrations has waned, yet to us it's never been more important to do them well," said Mr. Zucchini, who is a few weeks away from his 10th anniversary with Fleet.
He pointed to the Shawmut and Natwest projects for illustrations.
The deals brought 3.6 million customers, 654 branches, 1,236 automated teller machines, and 700 software systems to Fleet, which now has $81.7 billion of assets.
Analysts agree that Mr. Zucchini and Fleet did a better than average job in converting two large acquisitions to common systems in around 19 months.
"I think the research-analytical community didn't understand just how complex a job he was undertaking until we've seen other banks sort of stumble doing the same thing," said Lawrence W. Cohn, director of research at West Orange, N.J.-based Ryan, Beck & Co.
"For the most part," he said, "this stuff has been done without tremendous disruption during a period when the institution was really standing on its costs."
The analyst community was not always happy with the conversions. In fact, Fleet was at times chided for its slow pace.
Mr. Zucchini, who has taken part in more than 50 acquisitions since joining Fleet, understands and accepts such pressure. "One month or two months longer on a consolidation is a lot of money when you're playing at this level," he said.
But he added that the higher level of performance expected by analysts demonstrates that the days have passed when a banking company could be rewarded on Wall Street simply for being a good consolidator and integrator.
"Ten years ago, it was merely, 'Can you get the consolidation done from a technical perspective?'" said Mr. Zucchini. "Now, that's taken for granted, and we're into softer issues, such as how to ease customers through it because they, quite frankly, didn't ask to be involved."
With the Shawmut and Natwest deals salted away, Mr. Zucchini said, he has more time to address longer-term issues.
"A lot of times people want to talk about consolidation, and they leave here thinking that's all we do. The fact is we've got tons of other things going on," he said.
A recent sign of the bank's renewed focus on revenue generation and running the company is the creation of a technology council. Led by Mr. Zucchini, the council includes representatives from a variety of business lines and is focused on how technology strategy intersects with general business issues.
"This is not to talk about the status of individual data processing projects but to examine long-term technology issues and how the bank is going to respond to them," Mr. Zucchini said.
One project getting attention from the council is Fleet's construction of a data warehouse-a centralized repository for customer data.
Begun last year, the project is yielding its first useful information. Mr. Zucchini expects to have a "major first phase" completed by yearend. Eventually the warehouse will contain about a terabyte of data, fed from 34 application systems.
Like the many other banks constructing warehouses, Fleet hopes centralizing its customer information will improve its ability to sell products and to retain choice customers. But it breaks from the pack in its approach to building the monster data base.
Where most institutions are building with an eye toward getting some specific applications off the ground quickly, Fleet said it is more focused on getting the warehouse constructed and letting applications follow.
"One of the key issues with the data warehouse is that you can't fully appreciate its value today," said Mr. Zucchini. "If you only build it to accomplish what you think it can do today, you won't have the extra data necessary to find the opportunities that reside in different kinds of relationships."
Home banking issues also figure prominently in Fleet's long-term plans.
The company is part owner of Meca Software LLC and of the Integrion Financial Network.
Meca is best known for its personal financial management software, Managing Your Money. Fleet uses the software to deliver PC-based home banking services to about 40,000 retail customers. It expects to double that user base by yearend.
Integrion is a consortium of 16 banks and International Business Machines Corp. that many expect to give direction to the home banking movement.
Fleet, like others, is hopeful that its participation will help speed the establishment of technical standards for home banking.
Integrion's standard, called Gold, currently competes with one supported by Microsoft Corp., called OFX. Mr. Zucchini said he thinks the competition is good - at least for the short term.
"I think what's going on right now with standards is very healthy," he said.
But within a year or so, standards issues must be resolved, he said. "It's like the railroad tracks thing-you want some consistency because that gives advantages to everyone."
Other areas of focus for Fleet include its phone banking operations, which are being centralized, and its check imaging systems, which have slowly been growing more productive.
Of course, Mr. Zucchini still gets distracted occasionally from charting Fleet's technological direction.
In the wake of problems in the company's mortgage unit, which he oversaw until January, some speculated he might soon leave Fleet.
In addition, Fleet, having reached a size that some say requires it to continue to acquire or be acquired, continues to top most-likely-to-merge lists.
But Mr. Zucchini said the talk does not ruffle him.
"We've been at the crossroads for as long as I've been here," he said. "I'm not sure I could function any other way."