William F. Aldinger learned the ropes while lending to the blue-bloods, but he's made his mark lately with a decidedly blue-collar clientele.
As the chairman and chief executive of Household International, this former U.S. Trust & Co. and Wells Fargo & Co. executive heads a home equity, personal loan, and credit card lender that deals with borrowers banks won't touch.
How do banking and finance company cultures differ? "Really I don't think they're any different," Mr. Aldinger said. "In the end, it's money."
He noted that when he arrived at Household, he asked the company's management team to rank its nine divisions in order of profitability-and then eliminated all but the most profitable: the credit card and consumer finance divisions.
Banks have been eyeing the high-profit-margin business of lending to the unbanked in recent years. But few have made significant inroads, in part because they're overextending themselves in trying to diversify, Mr. Aldinger said.
"There are very few companies that can serve all different customers and do it well," he said. "It's very hard to have the same customers shop at Kmart, Nordstrom, and Macy's."
Mr. Aldinger said the key to Household's success is focusing his efforts and "sticking to (his) knitting."
"It's hard to be good at all things," he added, noting the lukewarm profitability of Household's now-extinct mutual fund and insurance lines.
Observers said that Mr. Aldinger's banking education has served him well. Under his tutelage, Household has morphed from a sprawling, multidivision personal finance supermarket to a lean, focused lending machine. Profitability has soared, and the company's stock price has nearly tripled.
Mr. Aldinger has "done a lot of things very quickly and taken out all the cost," said Darrell Hendrix, an analyst at Freedman, Billings, Ramsey.
This May, Household made a bold move, buying the commercial finance unit of Transamerica Corp., San Francisco, in a deal valued at more than $4 billion. The move brought Household more than 500 branches and more than 2,300 employees.
Mr. Aldinger said that consolidation is already well under way. So far, Household has closed more than 300 branches and relocated the employees.
One business that is not on a fast track, however, is the company's new affinity credit card business with a group of unions. Trying to reconcile the unions' differing agendas is "like herding cats," he said.
Mr. Aldinger said that he never could have predicted 25 years ago that he'd wind up at the helm of one of the largest finance companies in the United States.
At that time, the Brooklyn native was finishing a degree at Brooklyn Law and working for the white-shoe investment firm U.S. Trust, New York. In the years since, he has moved through Citibank in New York and Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco, where he headed several Wells subsidiaries.