Now it can be told: Dee W. Hock, the hard-charging and visionary creator of the Visa organization, was not terribly interested in the banking or payments business.
He got there, his story goes, by a series of career accidents, won renown for taking Visa to the top of its industry, and in 1984 retired to a life of deep thinking that got him back in touch with his real ambition: to change the world.
The duality of monk-like contemplation and spiritual crusade might take Mr. Hock's old colleagues and competitors aback. They remember a fierce and relentless fighter with an intellect and intensity capable of driving even his allies to distraction.
Today Mr. Hock is on a more philosophical, even humanitarian plane. At least that is how he talks as he puts his past in distant and sometimes critical perspective.
"People never really understood I had no real interest in banking or credit cards," Mr. Hock said recently. For him, in his 69th year, that is about as nostalgic as it gets.
He saw his 15 years at the helm of Visa as "an opportunity to implement ideas I had throughout my life about the nature of organizational structures."
He would hope that by the time he gets through with his current endeavors, Visa-which he considers one of the greatest of post-industrial creations-will seem like small potatoes.
With the calling card of a nonprofit organization he has dubbed the Chaordic Alliance, Mr. Hock aims to "take the idea and concept that underlie Visa and extend it to organizations of all kinds."
They might be as big as the United Nations or as small as micro- enterprises in the developing world. They would all have in common a diffusion of power according to self-organizing, self-sustaining, and self- rejuvenating principles.
Mr. Hock said he is looking beyond 2000 to the world his seven grandchildren will inherit. He believes it is ill-equipped for an explosion of information and social problems that can be addressed only through significant institutional and social change.
Mr. Hock said he wants to devote "whatever time I have left" to at least start things in the right direction. He has attracted foundation support and anonymous gifts and is quick to mention he takes no salary.
"This is not about me," said a man whose ego might once have been described as, well, world-class.
He does not like what he sees in virtually any type of organization, which he blames on individuals' very human but potentially disastrous inability to escape their mechanistic, manipulative, industrial-age mind- sets and accept some complex new realities.
Institutions, according to that view, tend to be built according to hierarchical, militaristic principles that run contrary to our biological and evolutionary natures and to the mores of an information-based, as opposed to manufacturing-based, society.
"When is the last time evolution rang your number and asked your consent?" he asked in one of his recent speeches. "If your organization is not actively involved in reconceiving, you are already in a state of dissolution and decay."
He pulls no punches, yet tends to get mobbed by audiences full of corporate employees, as happened early last month when he addressed a meeting sponsored by HNC Software Inc. in San Diego.
Freed from corporate rigidity, Mr. Hock tends to look askance at conventional wisdom, and he seems to strike a responsive chord among people a generation or more his junior.
"We live in a fool's paradise," he said of the reigning euphoria about economic growth.
He described the vaunted year-2000 computer crisis as a "wake-up call," a mere inkling of bigger systemic and structural faults just beyond the visible horizon.
Mr. Hock does not buy it when bankers talk of the need to get bigger through mergers. When they claim to be committed to investing and reinvesting in local communities, Mr. Hock calls it "just rhetoric."
"People instinctively sense the emptiness in the words," he said in a recent conversation. "Too often, people in corporations get caught up listening to their own propaganda."
"We have governments that can't govern, schools that can't teach, a welfare system in which no one fares well, police that can't enforce the law, farming systems that destroy the soil ... so many institutions that are no longer relevant to the purposes for which they were created," Mr. Hock complained. "But they stay around and eat up resources, and the result is a maldistribution of wealth and power."
Call it revolutionary. Call it New Age. Mr. Hock will have none of such labeling.
His invoking of evolution and biology-two of the many disciplines he boned up on while working his Northern California ranch after he retired from Visa-places him in the camp of complexity theorists. They are an interdisciplinary bunch who seek their wisdom in complex adaptive systems, which may be organisms, the weather, immune responses, ant colonies, or even economies.
But even the complexity label causes some discomfort. Mr. Hock said he made a hopeful pilgrimage to the Santa Fe Institute, the capital of complexity theory, thinking it could be a living laboratory for his organizational ideas. But he became exasperated by academic politics. "They didn't want to do anything," he said. "They just wanted to talk."
So Mr. Hock is making his own way with the Chaordic Alliance of Half Moon Bay, Calif. He has attracted funding from, among others, the Joyce Foundation of Chicago, which scouted him out about four years ago after he began speaking his mind on organizational deficiencies.
The foundation essentially challenged Mr. Hock to put his ideas into practice. One example is a fisheries alliance in the northwest Atlantic Ocean. Mr. Hock is also thinking bigger-in terms of creating an ecumenical religious group from the grass roots, with millions of members. He lectures widely but selectively and hopes to publish a book later this year.
He has attracted favorable attention from Massachusetts Institute of Technology management guru Peter Senge, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, and television producer Norman Lear.
He suspects executives steeped in the "command and control" tradition will not have much patience for his ideas, but he wants to get to a point where "they can't ignore them."
"I get calls by the hundreds from all over the world," Mr. Hock said. If anyone gives him half a chance they learn what a chaord is. It is pronounced KAY-ord, an amalgam of chaos and order. Mr. Hock defines it as "a complex, auto-catalytic, nonlinear, self-governing, adaptive system." A human being is one. So is Visa International.
"Chaordic we are, chaordic we will remain, chaordic the world is, and chaordic our institutions must become," Mr. Hock said in a speech.
The word did not exist when Mr. Hock rose from humble beginnings in Utah. In 1950, at age 20, he found work in a finance company branch office, soon was named manager, and spent the next decade and a half, he said, in "guerrilla warfare against linear, hierarchical systems" and the people who ran them.
"Bruised and bleeding," he said, from several corporate affiliations, he landed in 1966 at National Bank of Commerce in Seattle with low expectations about the job but a growing intellectual curiosity about organizational failings, the alienation of employees, and the "increasing disarray" of commerce and society.
According to Joseph Nocera's 1994 financial history book, "A Piece of the Action," Mr. Hock got turned on by a highly intelligent bank president and by the chance to put his consumer lending expertise to work in innovative ways.
Mr. Hock became National Bank of Commerce's representative to the committee of BankAmericard licensees that in 1968 had to grapple with a booming young credit card business that had run amok. Mr. Hock stepped into a leadership vacuum, brought order to the chaos, and when Bank of America spun out National BankAmericard Inc.-later to be Visa-in 1970, Mr. Hock was its president.
Mr. Hock has gotten credit for conceiving the bank card infrastructure. There was no precedent for what he called "value exchange," something much bigger than credit cards. He ingeniously defined it and gave it life in much the way he is going about the Chaordic Alliance.
But the Hock years at Visa were hardly New Age. "His tendency to dominate came naturally," said Mr. Nocera's "A Piece of the Action." It was "a byproduct of the fierce and, at times, quixotic pride that burned within him" and "a large chip on his shoulder" from a hardscrabble Depression upbringing.
"You needed a Dee Hock then, you really did," said Charles Russell, the longtime No. 2 executive who succeeded Mr. Hock as Visa International president. Mr. Russell added that MasterCard may have been more literally democratic, but it was also slower afoot. Once BankAmericard changed its name to Visa in the mid-1970s and gained marketing momentum, MasterCard, which began with a bigger market share, never came close again.
Mr. Hock certainly raised hackles. In 1979, impatient with banks' inability to get major retailers to accept Visa cards, Mr. Hock negotiated a contract directly with J.C. Penney Co. The bypassed banks responded with a rule that essentially said, "Never again."
Mr. Hock and a few of his members also devised a program to issue cards on behalf of nonbanks like Merrill Lynch. A rebellion forced a moratorium, and Visa was still grappling with cobranding issues almost a decade after Mr. Hock left the scene.
Visa and, by extension, MasterCard were so mistrusted that banks independently formed automated teller machine networks, called Plus and Cirrus, rather than latch on to the Visa and MasterCard ATM brands. The networks were later absorbed into Visa and MasterCard-after the member banks had sent a message about their desire for control.
Over time, most of the controversies were resolved according to Mr. Hock's original visions, even if he was at times stymied in exercising fiat.
"I tried to get them to understand 30 years ago that with electronics, their oligopoly was inevitably broken," Mr. Hock said.
He openly regrets the outcome of the debate over duality-the policy that allowed a bank to issue both MasterCard and Visa cards, which is now believed to have blurred competitive distinctions. Mr. Hock gave up his resistance to duality in 1975 when a court battle seemed imminent, and wishes he had not.
"Centralization of power will never last," he said.
Some anonymous critics grumble that his autocratic tendencies don't wash with the chaordic ideals now being expressed. But by the time he retired, Mr. Hock had put in place an organization with enough decentralization and autonomy-the regional companies like Visa U.S.A., Visa Canada, and Visa Asia-Pacific-to be held up as an example of what he deems possible. He called it an "inside-out" or "reverse" holding company controlled by, not controlling, its constituents, while transcending languages, nationalities, and other potential boundaries.
"No bank, no hierarchical organization, no nation-state" was in a position to create Visa's brand of value exchange system, he said. "We had an institutional problem, not an operational problem. It was beyond the power of the mind to think about engineering that type of organization."
Those kinds of ideas and ideals attract support for his goal of "creating dozens of Visas in areas far removed from banking and credit."
But Mr. Hock is not so far removed as to be neutral on matters relating to that "decentralized, nonstock, for-profit membership corporation" that he invented and left behind. He can sound just as hard on himself as he was on the Visa organization back when.
"There were a lot of flaws," Mr. Hock said. "I didn't think enough about the immune systems that would be necessary" to prevent the creeping recentralization of power.
"I don't think we got Visa 30% right, and we've regressed substantially since," he confessed.
"But it went from near collapse to being the largest commercial enterprise in the world in a little over 20 years. I believed then and believe today that it was the archetype of an organization for the 21st century."