Conceding that Bank One Corp. erred in offering overly optimistic guidance to analysts on its earnings outlook, chairman John B. McCoy acknowledged what many analysts already believed: The job of forecasting results had become far more difficult after an aggressive round of acquisitions.
Mr. McCoy laid much of the blame on subordinates, saying they had provided him with earnings estimates that were greatly exaggerated. "Our people say, 'This is what we think we can do,' " Mr. McCoy said, adding that the banking company thought reaching its goals for its troubled credit card unit was "doable."
Analysts were stunned in August, when Bank One announced that it would fail to meet third-quarter earnings projections, and again in mid-October, when it reported that profits fell 12%. And they were further unpleasantly surprised this month when the banking company said its fourth-quarter earnings would be as much as 15% lower than had been expected.
Bank One has been attributing the lower-than-expected earnings primarily to its First USA credit card unit, which had been run by Richard Vague. When the banking company announced that it would miss its third-quarter numbers, it also announced that Mr. Vague, who headed First USA before it was acquired by Bank One last year, was leaving.
In an interview on Tuesday, Mr. McCoy indicated that he was partly to blame. "Those of us who do numerous acquisitions have more of an opportunity to err because we're doing everything so fast," he said. "There's little leeway for error. There's a lot of pressure on anybody running a public company to make the numbers."
When asked if he were responsible for the pressure to achieve earnings that may be excessively high, Mr. McCoy said, "I am a competitive person, so I'm looking for performance from all of our people. I'm also a very logical person, so there were plans in place of how these people could do what they had to do. Based on where they had been, we had every expectation and they had every expectation" that the goals could be met. He also said competition was extremely tough, citing MBNA, the monoline credit card company.
American Banker asked Mr. McCoy questions based on issues that were raised at the paper's third-quarter Analyst Roundtable. (See story on page 12.)
The analysts said they thought Mr. McCoy was in a management struggle for greater control of the Chicago-based banking company with Verne Istock, the former chief executive of First Chicago NBD Corp., which merged with Bank One in October 1998. Mr. Istock is No. 2 at Bank One.
The analysts pointed out that former First Chicago directors hold a substantial number of seats on Bank One's board and that these directors are likely to back Mr. Istock. They also said they thought Mr. Istock would bring a more "disciplined" culture to the bank. Mr. Istock was given responsibility for three of the bank companies' operating units when the third-quarter earnings were announced; Mr. McCoy, who remains chief executive, was assigned to focus on First USA.
"Verne and I love each other," answered Mr. McCoy. "The board has done everything unanimously. It's just rumor and I don't comment on rumor."
The roundtable participants also predicted that First USA - or even the entire company - would be sold.
Mr. McCoy said that is always an option, but not at this point. He said his first objective is to fix First USA.
Mr. McCoy said he was not prepared to talk about whether the bank might cut back its spending on WingspanBank.com, its stand-alone Internet venture.
He said he does not want to give too much information to its competitors, but he said he will describe his plans for Wingspan when he speaks with investors.