One Lobbyist, to Go

When SunTrust Banks Inc. needed a lobbyist in Raleigh, N.C., in a hurry on Wednesday, it sent vice chairman James M. Wells 3d on the mission deep into enemy territory.

The Atlanta company learned late Tuesday that it was being out-maneuvered in the North Carolina General Assembly by First Union Corp., its rival in the merger battle for Wachovia Corp. On Wednesday morning a SunTrust spokesman said the company had no lobbyist in Raleigh, "but you can be sure we will before this day is out."

So Mr. Wells hopped a flight from Atlanta to Raleigh not long before the North Carolina House voted on a bill that included two amendments designed to help First Union. He talked to a few lawmakers, but he was one man in an unfriendly crowd.

In a press release, Mr. Wells came out with guns blazing: "This is not about protecting North Carolina companies; it is about disenfranchising Wachovia's shareholders in a backdoor effort to support First Union's takeover of Wachovia."

The House approved the bill with its pro-First Union amendments by a vote of 111-to-1.

Mr. Wells was still in North Carolina Thursday morning as the state Senate prepared to vote on the legislation. But, his efforts were in vain.

On Thursday, the Senate approved the bill 45-to-1, and the Governor signed it into law.

What a Coincidence!

Barely three weeks after denying rumors of a merger between the two companies, David Komansky, Merrill Lynch & Co.'s chairman and chief executive, was photographed last week by The New York Times Style section in New York's Waldorf Astoria hotel hobnobbing with Youssef A. Nasr, president and chief executive of HSBC USA Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of HSBC Holdings PLC.

But if the two were discussing a combination, they were not letting on.

Officially, Mr. Komansky and Mr. Nasr were there to attend the annual YMCA of Greater New York Award Dinner ceremony. Mr. Komansky, a Brooklyn native, was being honored for his personal contributions to the YMCA over the years, as well for Merrill's, said YMCA spokeswoman Lenore Neier.

Merrill has had a 25-year relationship with the YMCA, and a Merrill executive sits on the YMCA board, Ms. Neier said. The New York financial services giant sponsors a youth program that helps high school kids start their own businesses.

Mr. Nasr was chairman of the June 6 dinner and presented the YMCA Teen of the Year award.

Merrill and HSBC have had a joint venture overseas since last year, and comments made by Mr. Komansky at a financial services conference had led some industry observers to believe the two might be about to make the link more formal.

Mr. Komansky later said his comments had been taken out of context.

However, according to Ms. Neier, Mr. Komansky saw the humor in being present at the same function as Mr. Nasr and cracked a joke about it.

Chip on the Shoulder?

Even while promoting smart cards, which are near and dear to its heart, Visa U.S.A. executives can't help taking a swipe at rival American Express Co., which beat Visa to market with smart credit cards.

Patrick Gauthier, senior vice president of smart card applications and market development at the San Francisco-based association, says it will issue more than 20 million payment cards with a chip this year worldwide.

So far, though, U.S. merchants have been cool to the idea of partnerships with issuers to put loyalty programs or payment on the chip itself. All U.S.-issued smart credit cards carry a magnetic stripe that performs the payment function.

Though Mr. Gauthier predicted that a merchant would come on board within 12 to 18 months, he admitted that Visa had not yet made any merchant agreement.

Nevertheless, he couldn't resist pointing out that American Express had not done much better, though it has started a promotion in which customers can use the American Express Blue card at Virgin Entertainment Inc.'s 20 U.S.-based Virgin Megastores.

"It makes a great press release to have 20 terminals across the country," Mr. Gauthier said. "But it doesn't deliver cardholder value."

Fighting Depression

Jamie Dimon, chairman and chief executive officer of Bank One Corp., may have more than leaking profits to worry about at his Chicago banking company.

A recent Wall Street Journal article on mental health in the office highlighted Bank One as a company with a high incidence of workplace depression. And indeed, the rate of Bank One employees treated for depression in 1999 reportedly quadrupled from 1989, to 7.2 per 1,000.

Last year, when Mr. Dimon took the reins with the task of changing Bank One's financial fortunes, about 500 of its 80,000 employees went on short-term disability for depression, according to a study done by the banking company. That is a rate of 6.25 per 1,000.

Bank One is hoping to buck a trend that began in the early 1990s, when employees treated for depressive disorders cost its health plan $931,000 in 1991, compared with the $1.2 million used that year to treat heart disease. "I don't know if we are different from any other company," Bank One spokesman Thomas Kelly said.

To help drive down health costs, the company offers on-site psychological help and toll-free numbers for assistance. "We keep an eye on things. The idea is to reduce costs," Mr. Kelly said.

Cost reduction has been a high priority at Bank One under Mr. Dimon's stewardship.

To help reduce health-care bills over the long term, Bank One has hired a clinical psychologist, Daniel J. Conti, to head its employee assistance program. Employees are welcome to come to the program for treatment of depression, which could result from anxiety over the number of mergers Bank One has done in recent years or over a single incident like a bank robbery.

"As with any health issue, the sooner you recognize and provide help, the better it will turn out for the employee and the corporation's bottom line," he said.

"We have actually tracked this and quantified it," Mr. Kelly said. "They have spent a lot of time looking at it in a scientific way. The sooner we can track it, the better it is."

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