Most everything about Visa International and its workings was new to Malcolm Williamson when he took the top job there-but with one top- management truism he was reassuringly, if a bit painfully, familiar.
That was the difficulty of balancing management concerns with technical priorities, of getting businesspeople on the same page with operations and technology. These are issues that can drive the most competent chief executive officer to distraction, and Mr. Williamson finds them to be universal.
"It has been no different in any organization I have worked for, and I have worked for several," said Mr. Williamson, who was group chief executive of London-based Standard Chartered Bank before moving to the San Francisco area and Visa last fall.
He said he seeks resolution through structure and process.
"Sometimes people get impatient with dialogue, but you don't get anywhere without talking, understanding, and educating on both sides," he said.
His insights on this subject got Mr. Williamson on the agenda of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he is to discuss them today on a panel that includes Bloomberg News founder Michael Bloomberg and Sara Lee Corp. chief operating officer Steve C. McMillan.
"One can't ignore what is happening on the technology scene," Mr. Williamson said a few days ago while looking ahead to Davos, where the previous Visa International CEO, Edmund P. Jensen, spoke two years ago.
A banker for more than 20 years, Mr. Williamson has hands-on operations and payment-services experience and talks like a technologist. He goes so far as to describe Visa as "increasingly a high-technology organization," fortunate to be located within Silicon Valley's sprawl.
But a CEO job is a CEO job. Whether at Standard Chartered or Visa, Mr. Williamson said, he had to build and motivate a management team and keep his board in the loop. Since arriving at Visa, he has been trying to focus on "essential things" while being deliberate about personnel and structural moves.
"I will get to the point of making some changes. I want to get it right and not change for the sake of change," he said.
He has left in place a priority-setting system overseen by the management executive committee that Mr. Jensen put in place. Mr. Williamson said "MEC" meetings take place "less frequently and last longer" than before.
The difference from his bank post, Mr. Williamson said, is in "allocation of time." Instead of talking to investment analysts and public shareholders, at Visa he must stay in touch with the membership of 21,000 financial institutions, represented by high-level bankers on the international and regional boards of directors.
He seems to be taking the politics of that in stride, even as more power is wielded by a handful of Visa banks that have grown larger through mergers. In one visible instance, Citigroup co-chairman John Reed has proposed removing the Visa logo from the fronts of cards, where it might distract from the new Citi brand imagery.
Mr. Williamson is exploring new service formulas and options that would provide more flexibility, with banks paying for services they want and not financially supporting what they don't use.
"The bankers who meet at the Visa board won't tell each other about their competitive strategies," he said. "We have to be aware of that and manage it. It doesn't have to be a massive problem."
His conversation runs from visionary descriptions of the forces of change to the specifics of smart cards, an aspect of Visa strategy that Mr. Williamson inherited and seems to have accepted and embraced without a hitch.
Another aspect is a "technology advance guard," alliances with and investments in high-tech companies such as Valley neighbors Yahoo Inc. and Verisign Inc. These have provided glimpses into the future and, incidentally, some handsome returns from initial public stock offerings.
"We have to be more technology-smart across a wider sphere," the card association's president and CEO said. "Our members wouldn't be happy if we had a massive research and development budget to do all these kinds of things in-house."
"We have to make sure to invest in core competencies," he added. "It just isn't sound for Visa to be in the smart card operating system business" - a contrast with MasterCard International, its Mondex chip card subsidiary, and the underlying Multos operating system it created.
"Twenty companies already do that. We focus instead on global operating standards and interoperability between machines. We have to have standards so we don't end up with a sort of Betamax," the ill-fated videocassette format that Sony Corp. failed to persuade the entertainment industry to adopt.
Technology "will change the face of banking and change the face of Visa's business over the next couple of decades," Mr. Williamson said. "We have to realize that a lot of banking services don't require brick and mortar. Branch banking has changed a large amount in the last 10 to 20 years, and it will change more in the next 10 to 20 years." Visa, he said, has to face up to that on behalf of its members.
He said maintaining that long view is one of his responsibilities as CEO. He said he envisions a future in which every home has a personal computer with a chip card reader that allows for all sorts of remote and cashless, secure and authenticated transactions.
"The technology exists to do these things today," Mr. Williamson said. But a one- or two-year installation timetable is "quite unrealistic given the sheer scale of investments required.
"I was at Barclays Bank when they started Barclaycard," originally part of the BankAmericard system that predated Visa. "Barclays had a 10-year vision. It was laughed at, but it was there before all the others."
Mr. Williamson, who at Standard Chartered presided over the first launch of Visa Open Platform smart cards, sees them as a similar leading-edge phenomenon, but "doing dozens and dozens of closed-loop experiments won't satisfy anybody."
Those pilots have shown that "customers generally don't want smart cards for cash-only transactions." That explains the rationale for Visa Smart, a strategy that also puts credit and debit services, and potentially nonbanking applications, on single chip cards.
"If you have a vision for smart cards, you have to assert it and convince the banks of the business case," Mr. Williamson said. "They have to feel in an exercise like this that it is a global vision with numbers that work. That is the new reality we are working under."