For a man who says, "The worst thing in the world for me would be if I were chained to a desk all day and couldn't leave - I like to roam around," becoming a bank regulator seems an odd career choice.
Mark A. Nishan, chief of staff at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, has few open spaces to wander in the OCC's offices on E Street in southwest Washington. So he appeases his restlessness by roaming the building's hallways and offices, talking with employees and generally keeping a finger on the agency's pulse. "I think you find out a lot that way," he says.
Mr. Nishan's 21-year career at the OCC has been an extended ramble through the organization's different sections and departments. He joined the agency in 1978 as an intern fresh out of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management with a master's degree in finance. A little more than two years later he found himself on the OCC payroll as a project manager, responsible for assisting the Inspectors General's office and the General Accounting Office with their examinations of the agency.
In the intervening years, he has been the agency's director of planning and spent 10 years in Illinois, first as director of the Chicago field office and then as director for compliance and bank supervision in the district. Mr. Nishan returned to Washington in 1997 as deputy comptroller for continuing education.
The diversity of his experience within the agency, he says, has given him a strong understanding of its day-to-day functioning. In 1998, when former chief of staff Mark Jacobsen left the agency for Bankers Trust Co., then-acting Comptroller Julie L. Williams saw Mr. Nishan as his natural successor.
Comptroller John D. Hawke Jr. named Mr. Nishan permanent chief of staff three months ago. "Mark brings a variety of skills together with a tremendous depth of experience at the OCC. He has been intimately involved in the formulation of policy in all of the time I have been here, and it was evident to me from very early in the game, when he was acting chief of staff, that he was the perfect choice for the job," Mr. Hawke says.
His job description is a bit uncommon for a chief of staff: Mr. Nishan has a number of line-management responsibilities, including oversight of the agency's information technology department and its public affairs division.
But he dedicates much of his time to bigger-picture pursuits. For example, he is an aggressive advocate of the agency's employee training programs, seeing that they are expanded when the funds are available and insulating them as much as possible from cuts.
"This organization doesn't make concrete things, like chairs or cars," he says. "We're only as good as the people we get out there to do the job, so we need to make sure that they are at the cutting edge."
That means getting up-to-date technology and information about industry trends into the hands of bank examiners faster than the agency does now.
Getting other members of senior management to take the occasional step back from the agency's day-to-day operations and spend more time on strategic planning is one of Mr. Nishan's current priorities. The first step, he says, is getting routine operational issues off the agenda for the OCC's executive committee meetings and looking over the horizon at approaching challenges such as Internet banking.
More ominously, he adds: "We also have to look at how we should position ourselves for a potential economic downturn. It may look like it's never coming, but we know it will."