MILAN - Visa International has named Anne-L. Cobb, a 24-year veteran of the bank card and payments industry, president of its newly created region covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
Ms. Cobb, the first woman chief executive of an international bank card association, faces one of the industry's most daunting tasks: establishing Visa and its services in some of the world's least developed economies.
"I'm not saying it's going to be easy, but this is a wonderful opportunity," Ms. Cobb said in an interview this week during the joint meeting of Visa's international and regional boards, where her appointment was ratified.
"It's a great mission to be developing a business in parts of the world where it needs to be developed, backed by the resources of an organization like Visa," Ms. Cobb said.
Though not well known to most U.S. bankers, Ms. Cobb, 48, has long been prominent on the international bank card scene. Before going to work for Visa in London in 1992, she spent nine years with Eurocard, MasterCard's affiliate. She rose to general manager of Eurocard International and its operating arm, European Payment Systems Services, which have been reorganized as parts of Europay International, Waterloo, Belgium.
From 1971 to 1983, Ms. Cobb worked at Credit Agricole of Paris, helping to launch its Eurocard, automated teller machine, and travelers check programs, and later taking responsibility for European and North American corporate and correspondent banking.
After initially serving Visa as executive vice president of strategy, reporting to Europe, Middle East, and Africa chief executive Jean-Jacques Desbons, Ms. Cobb last June was named general manager of the European product office in London.
In that role, she represented the European perspective in developing product innovations like smart cards. She called this good preparation for her new assignment, saying she spent a lot of the last two years in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe.
But she has no road maps to fall back on as she begins to clear a path for Visa payment services across a vast territory that currently accounts for less than 1% of annual Visa payment volume of $643 billion.
"We are talking about 92 countries in 14 time zones with 1.3 billion inhabitants - 25% of the world population - and 11% of world gross domestic product," Ms. Cobb said. "The fact that (the region) has only 1% of Visa volume tells you this is a huge opportunity for our industry."
The region, known within Visa by the acronym CEMEA, was carved out of the larger Europe, Middle East, Africa entity, or EMEA. The industrialized countries - including the 12 European Union states and such other advanced economies as Israel and Turkey - comprise another new region called Visa EU.
Jean-Jacques Desbons remains president of Visa EU. He has said he will retire as soon as a successor is found.
Mr. Desbons has handed over to Ms. Cobb the other part of the former EMEA, which when intact generated 33.5% of Visa global volume in 1994, second to Visa U.S.A.'s 45.6%. The other three regions are Asia/Pacific (12%), Canada (5.4%), and Latin America (3.5%).
Unlike the five established regions, CEMEA has little business or revenue base and "won't be self-supporting for a while," Ms. Cobb said. Therefore, she will draw on Visa International and Visa EU for funding and staff support, and will continue sharing Visa EU's London headquarters until deciding where to move within CEMEA.
One staffing priority is essentially met - Ms. Cobb has business development teams organized according to sub-regions such as Russia, the Baltic States, and the Middle East.
As for administrative, legal, and other support, "we want to be fully autonomous as soon as possible, but we don't have a specific time in mind yet," Ms. Cobb said.
Edmund P. Jensen, president of Visa International, said he is "confident that she will build a team which will help our members extend their Visa business significantly in the CEMEA countries." Ms. Cobb and the banker who heads the CEMEA board - Peter Thompson, senior general manager, First National Bank of Southern Africa - "will form a powerful, tenacious team," Mr. Jensen said.
Ms. Cobb has already had to douse some of the inevitable political flames of a body such as CEMEA. Fueled by her former colleagues at Europay, they centered on criticism of Visa's decision to separate Eastern Europe and Western Europe. Europay prefers a "one-Europe."
The countries of the former Soviet bloc aspire to be part of the European Union; when they join, their Visa companies will have the option of moving into Visa EU.
"These are legitimate concerns," Ms. Cobb said. "We are sensitive to them, but we had to take a business approach. The reality is that we are still talking about emerging markets, and we want to have a staff and board that are completely focused on the needs of emerging markets."
Ms. Cobb and Mr. Thompson both reported no flare-ups during meetings in Milan, indicating acceptance of the strategy.
Ms. Cobb was born in Germany to an American father and Belgian mother, she was educated in Paris, considers French her first language, currently lives in London, and has children living in London and in San Francisco.
Surveying the CEMEA roster, from Albania to Zimbabwe, she said, "Some countries are absolutely nowhere" with credit or debit cards. But a majority are at early stages of market development, with a limited amount of card acceptance and issuing.
South Africa is its continent's most developed market, but its newly empowered majority represents "an entirely new market with the same level of development as in East Europe," Ms. Cobb said. And she expects some Middle Eastern countries to develop quickly because they have strong banking systems and telecommunications infrastructures.