Aiming to accelerate growth in credit cards, Chase Manhattan Corp. announced the retirement of the head of that business - and the hiring of a former rival from Citibank to take his place.

Chase said Tuesday that Michael Urkowitz, 58, after 25 years at the New York bank and three years in charge of cards, will step aside in February after a short transition to the new leadership of veteran marketing executive Richard J. Srednicki.

Mr. Srednicki, 52, held senior posts in the United States and overseas during 13 years with Citibank, including oversight of its U.S. card division. In late 1996 he was named president of AT&T Universal Card Services Corp. in Jacksonville, Fla., then in need of a turnaround.

He succeeded to the point where AT&T Corp. was able to sell its card unit in April 1998 to Citicorp. Mr. Srednicki moved in June that year to Sears, Roebuck and Co. as president of the home services division.

Mr. Srednicki, who came into banking from Colgate-Palmolive Co. and developed a reputation as a hard-nosed marketing strategist, was not available for comment on Tuesday. He is scheduled to take the job of cardmember services executive in January.

Mr. Urkowitz said in an interview that he is leaving to fulfill "a series of life goals that are unrelated to business."

Mr. Urkowitz's move surprised some analysts who said Chase's card division has been performing respectably, though growing slowly.

"There isn't anything dreadfully wrong with the Chase card business," said Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. research director David S. Berry. "It is an issue of optimization rather than repair."

Chase is the fourth-largest card issuer, with $32.9 billion of receivables as of the third quarter. That figure rose only 2% since the first quarter, leaving Chase half the size of industry leaders Citibank, First USA Bank, and MBNA Corp.

He built his reputation in wholesale banking operations at the old Chase Manhattan Bank, developing its transaction processing business from scratch. He made the jump to credit cards after the bank's merger with Chemical Banking Corp. and had stated a long-term goal of rising to the top of the industry.

Mr. Urkowitz conceded that growth in receivables has not been a priority during his tenure, but "the slow growth will change," he said, after Mr. Srednicki arrives.

Chase has bought a number of card portfolios, including Bank of New York's $4 billion business in 1997, and it has focused on reducing delinquency and chargeoff rates.

"Richard will take over an organization that has a clear direction," Mr. Urkowitz said.

Industry experts agree that Chase does not need an overhaul. The operation is "on solid footing," said Michael Auriemma, president of Auriemma Consulting Group in Westbury, N.Y. "But it does need an infusion of more rapid growth."

The way Mr. Srednicki ran AT&T Universal and its $14 billion portfolio suggests he is capable of boosting growth.

"Srednicki has tremendous experience in the card business and he is coming in again when profitability is tough - for everyone," said David Robertson, president of The Nilson Report, an Oxnard, Calif.-based industry newsletter.

Chase spokesman Ken Herz said the card business has been profitable. Operating earnings were up 36% in the third quarter, he said, largely thanks to fee income.

Analysts have been more concerned with delinquency and chargeoff rates. Chargeoffs are "a little too high [5.53% in the third quarter], and revenue is not strong enough," said Mr. Berry. "There is a mismatch between risk and return."

Mr. Urkowitz's second in command, operations executive Harry F. DeSimone, moved into a new position at the beginning of December: executive vice president, heading marketing and customer advocacy for national consumer services. He reports to Chase vice chairman Donald L. Boudreau.

"I always admired the team at Chase," said Mr. Auriemma. "But I never thought they would be No. 1 or 2 in this market. With Srednicki at the helm, they have a shot."

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