On a spring day in 1995, retired Bank One Corp. executive John Fisher got a telephone call from John B. McCoy announcing a dramatic shift in strategic direction for the Columbus, Ohio-based banking company.
"You're not going to believe this, John, but we're going to change the uncommon partnership," Mr. McCoy told Mr. Fisher. "You may not understand it."
The "uncommon partnership" - Mr. Fisher coined the phrase - began in 1968 as a program by Mr. McCoy's father, John G., to build the company as a confederation of relatively autonomous local or regional banks. The strategy was widely copied.
Mr. Fisher, who worked with Mr. McCoy and his father for 33 years until retiring as senior marketing officer in 1993, said in an interview Wednesday from his home in Arizona that the change was all but inevitable.
By the mid-1990s, Bank One had grown into a nationwide network, an unwieldy proposition for decentralized management. For John B. McCoy, the reversal of his father's strategy marked a turning point. "It was time to modernize," Mr. Fisher said Wednesday. "We knew the day would come."
Other career landmarks quickly followed. In 1997, Mr. McCoy made a deal for First USA Inc., which vaulted Bank One to the top ranks of the credit card world. In 1998, he led the acquisition of First Chicago NBD Corp. to create the nation's fourth-largest bank with $260 billion of assets. This year he launched WingspanBank.com, a much-watched Internet-only operation.
Until the middle of this year, Mr. McCoy, the chief executive officer of this colossus, was a darling of Wall Street. Observers said the executive's willingness to experiment made him stand out. As a young, rising executive, he pushed for new technology. Bank One's predecessor, City National Bank and Trust Co., was the first bank outside California to issue a Visa card. It was also the first to install an automated teller machine.
"He wasn't afraid," said Arthur Loomis, an Albany, N.Y. investment banker who worked with Mr. McCoy in the early 1980s.
But Wall Street's opinion quickly changed.
First USA experienced a rash of customer defections in the spring because of marketing and operational glitches. The problems were so severe that they forced a number of high-ranking executives out and Bank One to issue two successive profit warnings.
Mr. McCoy resigned Tuesday, ending his family's 64-year reign at Bank One. Verne G. Istock, president and former chairman of First Chicago, stepped in as interim CEO until a permanent replacement is named. "We've made some mistakes," Mr. Istock said in a telephone interview. "Our challenge is to fix those mistakes. But the same strategies and objectives are in place."
Observers said the younger McCoy stumbled by taking chances his more conservative father would not have. For example: the First USA acquisition. "I don't know if John G. would have done that," said Diogo Teixeira, a Boston-based technology consultant who worked for Bank One in the early 1980s. "It was not the old Bank One."
Others believe Mr. McCoy was a scapegoat. "CEOs get more credit than they deserve when things are going well and more blame than they deserve when things are going wrong," Mr. Loomis said.
Mr. Istock said Mr. McCoy and his family had left an indelible mark on the company, particularly with the formation of WingspanBank. The new company, however, "has changed significantly," Mr. Istock said. "It is a far different organization." And despite speculation about the future independence of the company, Mr. Istock said the bank and First USA were not for sale.
"I want you to look forward and continue to build on all our strengths," Mr. McCoy said in a memorandum to employees that circulated by e-mail Tuesday. "You should have every reason to believe that Bank One will continue to be a major and successful player in the financial services business far into the future."
Still, that the McCoy family is no longer a part of Bank One has given some people pause. "It leaves a hole for me," Mr. Fisher said. "It's been a great long run that they've had."