Malcolm Williamson sounds awestruck about the job he starts today, the presidency of Visa International. Words like "amazing" and "exciting" cross his lips as he contemplates "the world's leading consumer payments system" and "one of the top 15 brand names in the world."

But soon it may be his members and employees who are struck-by the organizational windstorm that Mr. Williamson seems intent on kicking up.

After three months of preparing part-time for the Visa job while he finished a five-year stint as group chief executive of Standard Chartered Bank of London, Mr. Williamson suggested last week that easy continuity was not at the top of his agenda.

"I have a list" of issues "and want to tackle them all," he told a group of journalists during Visa meetings in New York last week.

He declined to provide or prioritize the list, but he promised a fresh look at almost everything, including Visa's vaunted and virtually sacrosanct approach to decentralization.

Mr. Williamson, at age 59 the oldest executive to take Visa's helm and the first who did not serve in its management or on its board, may be in a position to bring the most radical changes in the three decades since card industry pioneer Dee W. Hock began building the association's foundations.

Mr. Williamson insists Visa will not rest on its market-leading laurels and says he is inclined to consider new and far-reaching ideas and proposals. Globalization and the advent through consolidation of a few powerful megabanks must change the outlook of a "trade association," as he put it. The time may come to consider some form of privatization or commercialization of Visa or its business lines, though Mr. Williamson did not draw out that scenario because "I haven't got that far."

"If members want that, they'll tell me and we would do something about it," Mr. Williamson told the international press gathering. "If not, and they have not, then we are a trade association."

Mr. Hock, who ran Visa from its inception in 1970 until his retirement in 1984, would normally be in tune with radicalism. He might flinch at "trade association"-the Visa he created is a "non stock, member-owned, for- profit" enterprise. He might worry more about any further tinkering with the distribution of power, which seems to be Mr. Williamson's bias.

Mr. Hock's Visa was supposed to resist any centralization of power, relying instead on grass-roots organizations confederated in what are now six autonomous regional companies, one each for the United States, Canada, Latin America-Caribbean, European Union, Asia-Pacific, and Central Europe- Middle East-Africa.

Today, Mr. Hock concedes "we didn't get it 30% right" and "Visa has regressed since." But he still views the upside-down hierarchy as necessary for corporate and institutional success in the next century.

Though there is nothing new about tension between headquarters in San Francisco and regional bases in London, Singapore, and elsewhere, decentralization is still etched in Visa consciousness. Visa's outgoing chief executive officer, Edmund P. Jensen, has been widely praised for getting his regional leaders and boards of directors on to the same strategic pages without violating their sense of independence.

Mr. Williamson is saying openly what the Visa establishment has danced around for years-that it is time to deal with "the balance."

"Matrix management is common now," he said, referring to large companies' dual reporting lines according to both business activities and geographies. "You need some degree of geographical management," but in this case, he added, "maybe more balance."

Mr. Williamson said he confronted a "hugely regionalized and not very functionalized" management legacy at Standard Chartered Bank, where he spent nine years in senior positions. "We went more functional.

"I suspect we haven't the balance now. At least that is my private view." Which suggests he is apt to repeat the Standard Chartered pattern at Visa.

He considers Visa International "heavily run geographically, with different rules and regulations" that can make it difficult to standardize products and pricing for a global market.

Despite these assertions, Mr. Williamson said he was reserving judgment and waiting to get his feet on the ground in California.

"There seem to be some glaring issues that need fixing," given that much has changed in banking and market structures since the 1970s, he said. "I'm not sure I have the answers."

Mr. Hock still likes the idea of a "reverse holding company," with the center beholden to the constituents more than vice versa. The concept underlies the 'chaordic" philosophy that he is currently lecturing on and trying to put into practice.

But Mr. Hock also said in a recent conversation that uncontrollable market events, such as the emergence of bigger and bigger banks with dominant shares of the card market, might force a different response.

Mr. Williamson spoke of a "polarization" between big and small card- issuing banks far more pronounced than his predecessors had to confront. He said just four banks will soon be controlling one-fourth of Visa's payment volume, currently totaling $1.3 trillion a year.

(He would not reveal those banks' names, saying the numbers are hard to come by and his calculations are still a little rough. Citicorp, Barclays Bank of London, and Sumitomo Bank of Tokyo may be among them. Mr. Williamson said, "If you tried to guess all four, you'd probably be wrong.")

Visa has to deliver on the promise of a trade association, he said, allowing banks to "reap a benefit they would not be able to match with their own spending."

A multinational powerhouse like Citicorp, or the new Citigroup it is forming with Travelers Group, might do significant research and development and product innovation that it does not want to share with the wider Visa community.

Citicorp chairman John Reed "is interested in building a banking brand name that rivals Coca-Cola," Mr. Williamson said. "The question is whether cobranding with Visa mitigates against it. I don't think so. I think there is room for two brands to work together congenially."

There will surely have to be attempts at congenial conversations with potential power-wielders like Mr. Reed.

Another sensitivity Mr. Williamson will have to face is the fact that many if not all members of Visa's management executive committee-the regional chief executives and a few other functional managers who reported to Mr. Jensen-were in the running for his job. None have left yet and they have been openly supportive of the new boss, as Mr. Jensen predicted in June that they would be.

When stating basic goals, Mr. Williamson does talk continuity. The idea is still to maximize the 21,000 member institutions' profits, which means Visa has to "run as leanly and tightly as most banks do today."

Befitting a British banker who spent much of his Standard Chartered time in fast-growing and emerging Asian markets, Mr. Williamson said he is a strong believer in smart cards and expressed faith in their "inevitability," even in the United States.

Citing a personal interest in technology since he worked early in his career as a computer programmer and systems analyst at Barclays Bank, he said, "All this is fine, but you have to find ways to make money at it."

He attributed the United States' and some other western countries' slow adoption of smart cards to the fact that these are demographically older and historically successful societies. In younger emerging markets like Asia, "most banks just accept they'll have to develop these areas, or they will not succeed."

He said he is confident that the recent economic setbacks in the Far East are temporary, pending government and economic reforms, and will not derail long-term growth or technological dynamism.

Mr. Williamson said he has "done every job in banking" and because he "has always been interested in the cards business," the Visa opportunity was especially intriguing.

"I could have retired and gone gardening," he said. "But I have never been comfortable with the status quo-ever. I just like managing change."

* * *

SEOUL, South Korea-Citibank, Korea Exchange Bank, and Boram Bank said they would be the first to introduce Visa platinum cards in Korea.

Among the benefits with the cards, to be on the market later this year, will be discounts and upgrades at companies that belong to Visa's Platinum Club. These include Ritz-Carlton Hotels and Resorts, Hertz Rent a Car, Hilton International, and Hyatt International.

Korea will be the second market in Visa's Asia-Pacific region seeing a platinum card launch. The first was last March in Hong Kong, where more than 5,000 cards were issued in four months. Visa expects other countries will follow over the next six months.

Target customers for platinum "are highly sophisticated individuals who subscribe to a particular lifestyle and are more interested in services that money cannot buy," said Change Lu-lyn, director of premium products for Visa International Asia-Pacific.

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