International Business Machines Corp. has undergone cultural upheaval in the last year, but the appointment of Geoff Emerson proves the tradition of promoting from within is alive and well.

Mr. Emerson assumed the top position in IBM's document and check imaging systems unit in early November. He took the reins from Louise D. Nielsen, who advanced to a strategic-direction position within IBM after setting the once-troubled imaging unit straight.

While the 37-year-old Mr. Emerson, an IBM "lifer," has been in leadership positions before with Big Blue, he realizes the unique challenges that come with working in the imaging unit, which has been striving to give bankers a comprehensive system to handle digitized images of checks and documents.

Paramount among his priorities will be meeting the demands of bankers whose exposure to IBM'S early problems in delivering pieces of the imaging system has given rise to a sort of innate skepticism of IBM promises in the area of check imaging.

Assurances of Continuity

To accomplish this goal, Mr. Emerson realizes he will first have to convince bankers that the recent success of the check imaging project will not leave with Ms. Nielsen. And by all accounts, that will be no easy task.

"I've got a hard act to follow, there's no doubting that," said Mr. Emerson. "But we are working hard to make sure that the baton is passed smoothly."

In his new position for less than a month, Mr. Emerson has already introduced himself to more than 40 customers over the phone. Beginning later this week, he plans to visit many of these same banks during a whirlwind tour that will take him to 15 cities in 15 days. The goal of this trip: to hear what customers expect from the IBM unit and to communicate back what IBM intends to deliver to them.

During this trip, questions are bound to arise regarding Mr. Emerson's qualifications for his new job. He has, after all, never worked with bankers before and has limited experience in the area of check processing.

A graduate of the Rutgers College of Engineering in New Jersey and Syracuse University's graduate program in electrical engineering, Mr. Emerson joined IBM in 1978 in a division that designed computer chips.

A series of highly technical jobs at IBM in the early 1980s eventually led to a job as a product manager for a subsystem terminal known as the 3270.

This job, in which he managed everything from market planning to hardware manufacturing, was Mr. Emerson's first real experience in dealing with large business issues.

In 1989, he worked in a development division committed to honing products for IBM's open systems computer architecture, AIX. This led to a position at division headquarters in Charlotte in 1993 and his eventual appointment as head of the imaging unit on Nov. 1.

While acknowledging that his background leaves him with much to learn about the check world, Mr. Emerson noted that being new to the check scene will allow him to approach the business with an unclouded perspective.

"The ability to take a fresh look at things without any assumptions and to ask new questions is healthy in any area," he said.

Several customers of the IBM check and document imaging unit indicated that they were already encouraged by Mr. Emerson's commitment to meeting their needs and demands.

However, none would give an opinion on whether his appointment boded well or poorly for continued improvement of the unit's performance.

"We'll have an opinion soon enough. Let's give him some time to show what he can do," said one customer. who requested anonymity.

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