Visa International and Visa U.S.A. were once indistinguishable. The men at the top of those organizations are putting an end to that.

Each in office less than two years, Edmund P. Jensen at the international company and Carl Pascarella in the U.S. unit have applied different personalities and styles to what have become clearly differentiated assignments.

Whether due to organizational design or personal chemistry, their accomplishments are reverberating worldwide, with special resonance in the United States: Visa U.S.A., still by far No. 1 in card sales volume, reversed a recent trend and surpassed archrival MasterCard in domestic growth last year, by 28% to 24%.

What the two executives say, and how they say it, illustrates what makes them, and hence their organizations, tick.

While the intensely competitive Mr. Pascarella relishes getting into the trenches to fight tactical battles, a more deliberative Mr. Jensen stands above the fray, pondering strategies for the long run. And the system seems to work.

In recent interviews, Mr. Jensen talked of the "international perspective" and "commercial mentality" he has tried to instill, the longer-term implications of technological changes, the need to consider nontraditional alliances and address "emerging markets."

In service to its member banks, Visa aims to "proactively pursue change to ensure banks' preeminence in the financial information services sector," Mr. Jensen said.

Separately, Mr. Pascarella crowed about the "best growth rate in 10 years," a decline in operating expenses, and a new management team that has "refocused our people and rekindled a spark."

Ticking off the progress of various projects, ranging from debit and business card growth to remote banking and electronic commerce on the Internet, Mr. Pascarella said, "All are tactical applications of where we have to go strategically."

While Mr. Pascarella was pointing with obvious pride to impressive 1994 numbers that included a one-point gain in Visa's share of personal consumption expenditures, to 6%, Mr. Jensen mused about "how Visa will be positioned for the future.

"In five years, a lot of what Visa will be doing will look the same as it does today - the cards, authorizations, etc. But after 10 years, it will be entirely different. To prepare ourselves and our members for that future, we have to begin now."

Neither plays an exclusive role. Mr. Pascarella has been as vocal as Mr. Jensen and others in the hierarchy about the strategic commitments to chip cards and interactive services. Mr. Jensen has been as intent as anyone on controlling expenses and improving returns on the members' investments.

But the fact that they speak with separate voices for distinct parts of the organization brings to fruition a plan devised more than 10 years ago.

The United States became one of five regions - the others are Asia- Pacific, Latin America, Europe-Middle East-Africa (EMEA), and Canada - each with its own board and staff under the Visa International umbrella.

But Visa's roots reached deep into U.S. soil, and Visa U.S.A. Inc. in 1994 accounted for 46% of total worldwide volume - a share that surprisingly rose last year. It is enough ahead of EMEA's 34% and Asia-Pacific's 12% that the U.S. company still may invite "more equal than others" treatment.

The structure accommodates, even encourages, regional and local action. It also requires Mr. Pascarella and his peers to sit with Mr. Jensen on the management executive committee to share ideas and find common strategic ground.

But it took years to get those lines of demarcation straight between Visa International and Visa U.S.A., global thinking and local acting, strategies and tactics. It took the new faces of Mr. Jensen and Mr. Pascarella to finish - or at least sufficiently accelerate - the process.

Mr. Jensen's only predecessors as president and chief executive officer of Visa International, Dee W. Hock and Charles T. Russell, reigned over both the international and domestic bodies for most of the years dating back to the association's origin as National BankAmericard Inc. in 1970.

Well into the 1980s, the Visa U.S.A. and Visa International staffs were essentially the same, the former serving the latter under a management contract.

"It became necessary to begin splitting those functions away from the U.S. group and operate more like a multinational company," said Mr. Jensen, 57, who before joining Visa International in early 1994 was a vice chairman of U.S. Bancorp, Portland, Ore., and a Visa director.

"Now our structure looks and acts like that of a multinational, with decentralized authority," he added. "Even when I got here, there was still some (international-domestic) overlap."

Mr. Jensen apologizes if that sounds like a pot-shot at past management. "What we had in the past was right for that time," he said, but preparing for the next century requires "a very diverse group."

If Visa members in other parts of the world feared they were in the hands of a stereotypically America-centric regional banker, they were quickly proved wrong.

"I felt strongly the need for more of an international perspective at headquarters," Mr. Jensen said. "It's becoming a very international team."

He moved Raymond Barnes, a United Kingdom native who was chief financial officer of the EMEA region, to San Francisco as executive vice president overseeing risk management. And he installed Francois Dutray, formerly deputy managing director of the French card processor Sligos, as group executive vice president for product development, reporting to Wesley Tallman, president of products and information services.

Mr. Jensen also set in motion a splitting up of EMEA into two parts - Visa EU, primarily for the industrialized nations of the European Union, and Visa CEMEA, covering the less developed economies of Central Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

In yet another departure, Visa has embarked on a multiyear project to move from its traditional, mainframe computer architecture toward the fashionable client/server approach, under group executive vice president William Chenevich.

"Getting the organization set was an important part of my first-year plan," Mr. Jensen said. "We have lots and lots of organizational change, from Asia-Pacific to Europe to the U.S., in products and systems, all at a time of redeployment of resources. ... But I was fortunate to have a strong team in place on which to build. I feel the cadence of an organization that is really working together and doing the things it had to do."

Mr. Pascarella professes to be very much part of that chorus. On the product level, he crusades for debit cards and stored value cards, bill- paying and remote banking services. And when the subject turns to organization and strategy, he clearly takes Mr. Jensen's messages to heart, saying, "The idea of 'association' is anathema to me."

"We are bottom-line and expense-control oriented and proactive in the marketplace," Mr. Pascarella said.

"It's an issue of resource allocation and strategic direction. As long as we understand where the banks in general want to go, and provide the products and services they'll support, we'll succeed."

Nearing the 20-month mark as president of Visa U.S.A., where he succeeded H. Robert Heller (see story on page 13), Mr. Pascarella, 51, also asserted himself through personnel moves.

He brought in executive vice presidents David Brooks, a former Citicorp executive for whom Mr. Pascarella worked earlier in his career at Crocker National Bank; and William Stewart, who was head of systems and operations under Mr. Pascarella in the Asia-Pacific region prior to 1994.

Mr. Pascarella praised them for a "seamless transition" that reinvigorated a veteran staff. Among their more visible internal initiatives has been the opening of representative offices, including one in New York, to "get much closer to the members (while) empowering account executives to be more proactive."

Mr. Pascarella has not filled a top marketing position, open since he arrived. It may be an inconsequential deficiency - Visa's $100 million advertising budget and related performance and acceptance levels haven't suffered.

Visa is increasingly proving its "brand strength and differentiation" through cobranding, Mr. Pascarella said, winning deals that before 1994 were automatically conceded to MasterCard.

Advertising will be up worldwide with the approach of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, for which Visa has renewed its corporate sponsorship. And Mr. Jensen said investments in "strategic initiatives" like smart cards and the Visa Interactive home banking program will triple this year, to $76 million.

Expense controls are helping to pay the way. Visa International's growth in operating expenses, 20% in 1992 and 11% in 1993, fell to 7% in 1994. The 1995 budget called for 3.6% and it held at 2.5% early in the year, Mr. Jensen said.

Not to be outdone, Mr. Pascarella reported that Visa U.S.A. kept "discretionary expenses" for the five months through February below prior- fiscal-year levels.

Being under budget "will create surpluses," Mr. Jensen said, "and the board will get to decide how to allocate them, whether as fee reductions or investments. It will be a combination, because it is imperative that we do both."

This is where the "commercial mentality" comes in, he said. "It allows us to separate investments in the future from what is purely operational. The latter expenses we absolutely have to drive down. From investments, there must be returns, and we have established the accountability for that."

Mr. Jensen learned a tough accountability lesson after announcing an alliance last year with much-feared Microsoft Corp. to develop security for personal-computer transactions. "We didn't communicate well," he conceded. "When we explained what we needed to do, we put those problems behind us. In the end, this will be right for the industry."

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