The appointment Monday of James Dimon to the helm of Bank One Corp. may well mean that the company will hold on to WingspanBank.com, its Internet-only bank, instead of selling it.
Just last week Bank One was shopping Wingspan to potential buyers, having hired Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. to handle the deal. But Mr. Dimon is enthusiastic about Wingspan, and some observers are speculating that Bank One could keep the unit or fold it into its own main Internet service, bankone.com.
In an interview yesterday with American Banker, Mr. Dimon had praise for Wingspan, which he said "is a pretty high-quality effort. In its own marketplace it's been quite successful."
Mr. Dimon, the 44-year-old former president of Citigroup Inc., said he had been "actively involved" in Internet projects at Citi, and before that at Travelers Group. He indicated that Wingspan would get close scrutiny.
Mr. Dimon will be determining Wingspan's fate at a rocky time for Internet-only banks. The industry increasingly is rallying around a strategy of distributing products through a combination of branches and the Internet.
This month the nation's first Internet-only bank, Security First Network Bank, announced it would purchase a 150-branch mortgage company mainly so it could augment its Internet presence with physical locations.
The naming of Mr. Dimon "suggests that they are going to take another look at Wingspan," said Scott Appleby, senior e-finance analyst at Roberston Stephens, the investment banking division of FleetBoston Financial Corp. "Just bringing in new blood suggests that there will be a reassessment of the situation."
WingspanBank.com has attracted 107,000 customer accounts as of December 31, while bankone.com has 500,000 customers, according to the companies.
"Wingspan has been a limited success so far," said Bradley S. Vander Ploeg, an analyst with First Union Securities. Given the small number of subscribers the bank has attracted relative to the marketing dollars it has spent, "operationally it would be better for them to fold it into bankone.com and get rid of the separate brand," Mr. Vander Ploeg said.
Bank One also may choose to keep the Wingspan brand but merge the back-office systems and call centers, Mr. Vander Ploeg said. The millions of dollars the bank has spent on mass marketing Wingspan are good reason to favor that approach, he said.
In the case of a sale, many observers put insurance companies at the top of the list of potential buyers. "Most of the big banks have their own online banking that complements their existing franchise," said Chris Bamman, an analyst at Advest Inc. "For an insurance company it could serve as another distribution channel."
Some executives of Internet banks have made comments that suggest that Mr. Dimon might want to reconsider the mass-marketing approach Wingspan has taken in rolling out its service.
T. Stephen Johnson, chairman of Atlanta-based NetBank, criticized the nationwide, multimedia advertising Wingspan has conducted.
"Wingspan set Internet banking back three years," Mr. Johnson said during a panel discussion at the Bank Administration Institute's Internet Banking Conference in Miami last week. "They did it all wrong and it made people want nothing to do with Internet banks."
Stephen Joyce, managing director of Citigroup's Internet-only bank subsidiary, Citi f/i, sought to distance Citi's approach from that of Wingspan's.
"To go out and do a huge marketing campaign is something that we would not do," Mr. Joyce said. "We have not gone out with a splashy ad campaign. We are still testing about 100 different ways to acquire customers."
Analysts agree that Wingspan's marketing budget, said to approach $150 million, ended up hurting Bank One more than it helped. "Wingspan has done a decent job of signing up clients, but given the amount of money they threw at it, it soured many investors' views of Internet banking," Mr. Vander Ploeg said.
Mr. Dimon will be walking a tight rope. With its huge marketing budget, Wingspan no doubt exacerbated problems at First USA, the floundering credit card subsidiary that houses the Internet bank and was responsible for repeated earnings shortfalls in recent months.
Previous Internet evangelists at Bank One have not lasted. Richard W. Vague, the former chairman and chief executive officer of First USA who oversaw the creation of Wingspan, left the company in October.
Reached for comment on Mr. Dimon's appointment, Mr. Vague, who now heads up Dryrock Corp., an Internet payments start-up said: "I think Dimon is a terrific choice, and that among the people I know he has a spectacular reputation."
John B. McCoy, an outspoken advocate of the Internet bank and who Mr. Dimon succeeds, resigned in December under pressure from the board and shareholders.
"This is a high-risk deal," said Brook Newcomb, a senior analyst with Forrester Research of Cambridge Mass. "I think Jamie is looking to make an impact, but I don't see him wanting to be the next crusader behind Wingspan."