Jack Stack's life has become a nonstop whir of news.
The Chase Manhattan Corp. executive vice president scans headlines on the way to work and throughout the day flips on the radio to hear the latest. After his family goes to sleep, he logs on to the Internet for a final fix. When traveling, he carries a laptop computer, a cellular telephone, and a pager that can display news and stock quotations.
"You can start to pick up on being able to work, read, and at the same time listen in on what's going on on the radio," says Mr. Stack, who heads Chase's national consumer marketing. "The other trick is to listen to financial channels on television-not watch them, but listen to the sound about what's going on."
Throughout financial services, executives are trying to come to terms with information overload. Their industry, always heavily dependent on good information, is changing at breakneck speed just as the media themselves- printed word, fax, phone, computer, television-are proliferating.
In the daily struggle to stay current without getting swamped, many executives are fundamentally rethinking not only how they get their information but how they structure their schedules and communicate with colleagues.
Many have lost patience with long-windedness.
"If you have managers who fill up your time with junk information, then they're not very good managers," said Vernon W. Hill, chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Commerce Bancorp, Cherry Hill, N.J. "If my people can't explain an issue by the second sentence, I throw them out and say, 'Let's start over again.'"
Added Sam Eichenfield, chief executive officer of Finova Group: "One has to develop a management style that says to subordinates or equals, 'Don't tell me everything, just tell me what I need to know.' If you try to know everything, you can't cope with it-it's too much."
Mr. Eichenfield, who usually gets to the office at 5:15 a.m., travels with two small computers and a personal digital assistant. He is as likely to return e-mail at midnight as at noon. "Technology helps and it hurts," he said. "The hurt is that you're never alone any more."
With the office never more than a beep away, "pure vacation has disappeared," said Robert J. Meuleman, chairman and chief executive officer of Amcore Financial Inc. of Rockford, Ill., a $4 billion company.
Executives describe information overload as the stressful underside of a thriving economy and an industry in transition. As mergers, alliances, and other deals are announced in rapid fire, nobody risks blinking.
If bankers are feeling it more than others, it may be because their industry "always revolved around information and number-crunching, it is happening faster with computers, and there is more of it all the time," said David Shenk of Brooklyn, N.Y., author of the 1997 book "Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut."
Said Mr. Stack of Chase: "You're constantly trying to update during the day, so that you don't end up talking to folks who say, 'What do you think about (the merger deal of) Norwest and Wells Fargo?' and you haven't heard about it."
At the same time, the risk of getting buried by information has never been greater, bankers and observers say.
"The problem has gone from something interesting to admire, to something that is of strategic importance to their ability to create economic value," said James Greene, a partner in Andersen Consulting's financial services practice.
Mr. Greene recently polled a dozen senior managers at large financial services companies about the information explosion. The executives said they wanted information that would make them "clairvoyant" and would "provide insight on competitors, customers, products, technology."
"It's information that says, 'I see that our competitors have introduced a new pricing proposition on mortgages in the Northeast-we need to know about that now so we can make an immediate response,'" Mr. Greene said.
A '90s-Style Nightcap
In search of the best intelligence on an increasingly global industry, many bankers find themselves tuning in to news right until bedtime. Travelers Corp. chairman Sanford I. Weill often flicks on his Bloomberg terminal for a final look before turning in.
For many senior managers, the wake-up ritual is no different.
"You get up in the morning watching CNBC," said Mr. Hill of Commerce.
Increasingly, the role of newspapers and magazines on big stories is to flesh out news developments that executives have learned in bare-bones form previously. But many daily newspapers, including American Banker, also post breaking news on their Web sites and alert subscribers by e-mail. On-line services like Pointcast and Yahoo! provide continuous news feeds.
Manuel J. Mehos, chairman and chief executive officer of Coastal Bancorp of Houston, relies on a news feed that scrolls constantly across the computer screen at his desk. His bank also has direct Internet access, so he will surf the Web to delve into items of interest.
Coastal Bank also has a "war room" to amass and filter information. Mr. Mehos said the "portfolio control center" features a movie screen and a horseshoe-shaped table where lending officers sit. Officers use video hook- ups to discuss loans face-to-face with remote employees and customers; at other times, cable business news channels are playing.
Mr. Mehos, whose office abuts the info center, likens it to "mission control at NASA." He spends about half the day there, with the news "on the wall right in my face."
"You take this stuff for granted, but the fact of the matter is that if it shut down one day, I'd all of a sudden feel like I was blind, deaf, and dumb," said Mr. Mehos.
Wired for Action
At Banc One Corp., chairman John B. McCoy requires all senior managers to learn to use the Internet and communicate by e-mail. All official communications are transmitted electronically, said John Russell, a bank spokesman.
"We have a senior management team here that is totally immersed in electronic communications, and none of us goes anywhere without a PC," Mr. Russell said.
But the sheer proliferation and multiplicity of data can cause frustrations.
"It's like being in an emergency room-you have to practice triage," said Allen Cohen, senior vice president of First Union Corp.'s market segmentation group in Summit, N.J. "There are certain days when you really want to pull your hair out."
At the same time, some parts of life in the Information Age could use some speeding up.
"The Internet drives me crazy-it's too slow," said William T. McConnell, president of the American Bankers Association and chairman and chief executive officer of Park National Corp. of Newark, Ohio. Mr. McConnell said faster Internet connections might compel him to rely on the network more heavily, but its value would never supplant old-fashioned word of mouth, he said.
Joy of Flying
For all the challenges, perhaps none looms as large as finding time for old-fashioned contemplation. It's one thing to get information; it's quite another to actually think about it.
Mr. Shenk, the writer, warned that the information obsession can become addictive-"you'll never be satisfied"-and counterproductive.
"To make decisions, to be at all creative, one has to step back and see what it all looks like," he said. "The more wisdom or knowledge you need, the further you have to step back" to put the deluge in perspective.
"Sometimes the airplane is the only place you have a chance to really read something in depth," said Mr. Meuleman of Amcore. "The sad thing is that, day to day, the headlines have become even more important, because they're part of your screening process.'
Some executives, meanwhile, are able to find quietude in the comfortable confines of their limousines, says Charles Wendel, president of Financial Institutions Consulting, New York. Top bankers are "operating in a fairly rarefied environment," where fellow CEOs are often the best source of information.
Mortimer R. Feinberg, a psychologist who heads a New York consulting firm called BFS Psychological Associates, says executives should relax. The glut is turning people into "control freaks" who look urgently at developments they could easily ignore, he said.
"The immediate excess of information is creating too much anxiety unnecessarily, and giving people the feeling that they don't control their environment," Mr. Feinberg said.
"We obviously have the physical and technological power to be always connected," Mr. Shenk said. "There is a time for that, but also a time to pause, slow down, and say, 'There are other things I need to do, both with my life and in my work.'"
Mr. Stack, the Chase consumer executive, tries to carve out time for himself early in the morning-to write speeches, scrutinize reports, and tend to other tasks requiring concentration. But even this strategy has its shortcomings; colleagues who know his habits try to reach him at daybreak in the office.
"I don't think we have enough solitude," Mr. Stack said.