The resignation of First USA’s president and chief operating officer may represent a final step in the management turnover that has been taking place at the nation’s third-largest bank card issuer over the past two years.

The Bank One subsidiary told employees in an internal memo last week that Anthony F. Vuoto, who had been in his post for only a year, would leave the company at the end of March for undisclosed reasons. The terse memo from Philip Heasley, First USA’s new chairman and chief executive officer, said the company will “move quickly to identify a successor.”

Mr. Vuoto’s departure may be linked to his having been recruited to Bank One from Citigroup by Richard W. Vague, the former head of First USA, who left after the division started faltering. Or Mr. Vuoto may have taken some heat for First USA’s lackluster performance in the fourth quarter, when net income fell 35% from the year-earlier period, to $134 million, and the number of cards in force fell to 51.7 million, from 64 million.

The change may also relate to management shifts at the bank’s highest echelons. Mr. Vuoto, 49, was a 15-year Citigroup veteran who joined Bank One in August 1999, as president of consumer lending. His boss, Mr. Vague, left two months later.

In February 2000, Mr. Vuoto moved over to the First USA operation as president and COO, filling a vacancy that had existed since the previous May, when Randy Christofferson — who had been a loyalist to Mr. Vague — resigned.

A month later, in March 2000, Bank One Corp. got a new president, James Dimon, who also hailed from Citigroup. He in turn hired Mr. Heasley, who most recently had been president and chief operating officer at U.S. Bancorp. Mr. Heasley took over in mid-January from William Boardman, who retired March 1.

Jennifer Thompson, an analyst with Putnam Lovell Securities in New York who follows the bank, said Mr. Vuoto’s decision to leave was most likely related to housekeeping moves by Mr. Heasley. “You often see with new management teams it is easier to work with people you hire yourself,” she said. “Outsiders sometimes feel pressured, whether it is directed at them or not. I wouldn’t be surprised if Phil felt he could fulfill the duties that a president would do.”

Ms. Thompson said she did not “read too much into” Mr. Vuoto’s resignation, since he preceded Mr. Dimon’s regime.

Mr. Heasley, in a memo to staff dated March 15, wrote: “Tony joined First USA during a time of tremendous change and was instrumental in helping to stabilize the company and position it for future growth and success. Through his leadership, we have significantly improved customer satisfaction levels, operating efficiencies, and employee communications.”

Mr. Vuoto could not be reached for comment, and the bank said neither he nor Mr. Heasley was available for comment. “I think 18 to 24 months ago, when First USA ran into its initial difficulty, there was probably some feeling of unsettlement on our employees’ parts,” said First USA spokesman Jeff Unkle. “We have taken tremendous strides, and morale has improved quite a bit.”

Spokesmen for First USA and Bank One said Mr. Vuoto’s resignation did not represent a return to the days of frequent high-profile resignations. Those began in 1999, when the card company came under fire on several fronts, mostly because of consumer complaints about late fees and payment grace periods.

One analyst said the resignation would not affect the issuer drastically. “The resignation was not met with a lot of surprise,” said Christopher W. Marinac, an analyst with Atlanta-based Robinson-Humphrey Co. “I thought it was a nonevent. Philip Heasley is the quarterback of this team.”

Mr. Marinac said he could not predict who might succeed Mr. Vuoto, but said an internal promotion might be likely. “What Jamie Dimon has done with past hires is a combination of promoting insiders and bringing in outsiders.”

Whoever takes the job, Mr. Marinac said, investors will be looking for an improvement in First USA’s profitability, which he said lagged behind other big issuers. “Part of what I think Wall Street is looking for is revenue growth from this unit,” he said. “My hope is by fourth quarter we will see some.”

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