Some business leaders are admired for lofty visions of castles built in the sky, but the chairman of MasterCard International Inc. wins praise for a different kind of insight.

Norman J. Tice, who is also chairman and chief executive officer of Boatmen's Credit Card Bank, is "one of the most knowledgeable and most practical people working in the business today, not to mention one of the nicest" according to Alex W. "Pete" Hart, former CEO at MasterCard.

Tice's peers on the card association's board agree, having re-elected him chairman each year for over a decade.

Working closely with current CEO H. Eugene Lockhart, who is widely regarded as a true visionary, Mr. Tice plays the all-important role of adviser and counselor as the MasterCard staff sets out in new directions.

Since Mr. Lockhart took the reins about nine months ago, he has made a series of well-publicized moves aimed at ensuring that MasterCard will play a vital role in the retail payment system of the future.

Among the initiatives on the plate at MasterCard are home banking, smart cards embedded with computer chips, privacy and security issues, and helping members fight nonbank competition.

At the same time, MasterCard officials must pay attention to the core credit card business, mediate the sometimes conflicting interests of large and small banks, and never forget the association's not-for-profit membership status.

Mr. Lockhart is the association's public face, but Mr. Tice's quiet influence is evident to all who know the way MasterCard works.

Whatever the issue, Mr. Tice can be expected to take an active role in discussing it, shaping it, and, finally, promoting the MasterCard take on it. He is, says Mr. Lockhart, the New York-based association's "No. 1 booster."

"I talk to Norm a lot - at least once a week - and we talk about a whole array of things, ranging from the industry to MasterCard as a company to specific actions I'd like to undertake, and I seek his feedback," said Mr. Lockhart.

"I don't go to him for approval as much as I go to him for logical input," the chief executive added. "And he's there. He's exactly what I want a chairman to be."

Mr. Tice views the chairman of the board's responsibility as helping to define the association's role and securing the bank members' future in the process.

"We have to focus on providing the appropriate corporate governance to make sure that we've got the flexibility in place and the capital to make sure we can expand into what the membership wants," Mr. Tice said.

Asked what the membership wants, Mr. Tice replied, "Historically, in this country, most people would like to have a dual banking system. Most people would like to ensure that there's not the big concentration of economic power in a few financial institutions that you have in other countries.

"With the scale we have at MasterCard, we are able to develop new products and delivery systems that ensure that even smaller institutions are able to at least compete on a relatively even playing field. That's what history tells us."

It's not surprising that Mr. Tice should be a student of history as he helps seek answers to today's urgent questions. In the bank card business since its earliest days, Mr. Tice possesses a rare depth and breadth of knowledge about the card's history. And history, he says, will define the future.

Take, for example, his theory about the need for both national and regional electronic funds transfer networks.

"Back in the days when the credit card started, there were the little regional groups, then they evolved into the larger regional groups, and then into national-type associations," he said. "I think we can learn a lot from history. Because we're going to see that evolution on the debit side.

"I don't know what form exactly it's going to take, but economy of scale will drive it."

Norm Tice was born in St. Louis in 1935 and has lived in Missouri his entire life. He joined Boatmen's National Bank of St. Louis in 1957, after graduating from Washington University.

In the early 1960s, when he was working as a commercial loan officer for the bank, Mr. Tice was approached by his top management and asked to head up an emerging product area: credit cards.

Some bankers in those early days viewed credit cards as a backwater, but the Boatmen's executive had reasons to call on Mr. Tice.

"I think he just figured that credit cards were about lending money and dealing with small businesses to help them become more efficient," said Mr. Tice. "That's where I had my background."

He admits that he had to learn the ropes quickly. Fortunately for him, he said, everybody else was in the same boat.

His success in the credit card business is clear. He is now responsible for all credit card products and their delivery systems for Boatmen's Bancshares, a $32 billion-asset holding company operating in nine states. As of June 30, 1994, The Nilson Report listed Boatmen's within the top 50 issuers in the United States, ranked by outstandings.

A Missourian to his core, Mr. Tice in many ways personifies the "Show Me" state. He is a true lover of politics, ideas, and discussion.

"I think it starts with his very strong curiosity and intense interest in so many different things," said Mr. Hart, when asked to describe Mr. Tice's professional demeanor. "I think he enjoys comparing the issues of large banks versus small banks, association versus corporation, not-for- profit versus for-profit, domestic versus international. He's just a very clever fellow who enjoys an intellectual challenge."

Other friends and colleagues say he has the rare ability to focus, to take complicated matters and translate them into simple language readily understood by all. This is a skill that is well respected by his peers on the MasterCard board.

In all there are 33 MasterCard directors, about half representing banks outside of the United States. His peers praise Mr. Tice for his ability to grasp the complexities of cooperation in a global retail payments system.

"He's effective in doing anything," said Mr. Hart, now executive vice chairman of Advanta Corp. in Horsham, Pa. "From dealing with a small bank in Branson (Missouri) to dealing with the People's Bank of China in Beijing, he's just a man who knows where he stands."

The MasterCard chairmanship requires frequent travel. Mr. Tice estimates he spends four to six weeks out of every year traveling outside the country to meet with MasterCard members and affiliates. New York City is practically a second home, he says, because of his frequent visits. Numerous conferences and other card-related business gain him just enough frequent flier miles to take his whole family on the occasional vacation.

His personal style is unfazed, unrushed, and always cool and collected, say colleagues.

"Norm will let the discussion unfurl; he'll let it flow," said Mr. Lockhart, when asked to describe a typical board meeting. "Then, at key junctures, he'll bring it right back to basics by defining the real issue and focusing on making a decision."

Right now, Mr. Tice is focusing on technology and the changes it is driving.

"Today we have low-cost, effective technology that we can use to deliver products and services," he said. "Our ability to use it to build an effective payment system is really a critical issue for everybody.

"We've got to be building an electronic distribution system to meet what the needs are of the changing demographics of the people in this country," he continued. "Every year, you've got a few more folks who are attuned to the new technology and computers and electronic systems. There's no question in my mind that they're going to want to do their banking that way."

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