Longtime banker Charlie Scharf seems like the safe choice to lead Visa (NYSE:V). But for the world's largest payments network, safe is usually smart.
Scharf — a JPMorgan Chase (JPM) executive once considered a favorite to succeed Jamie Dimon as chief executive — was named Wednesday as the replacement for retiring Visa CEO Joseph Saunders. He starts next week.
The business is familiar to Scharf, who spent several years on Visa's board and oversaw JPMorgan's massive consumer payments businesses as head of its retail bank. He lost that role last year and moved to an internal private-equity group in what was seen as a demotion.
Scharf "has a wealth of experience at several different institutions, he has global experience, he's run technology in his jobs at various times, he's been extraordinarily creative and innovative as it comes to retail products, he has a strong banking background," Saunders said in a joint interview with Scharf on Wednesday. "There aren't very many people out there who have that basket of experience, including, I think, knowing the senior management here at Visa."
What Scharf lacks — in contrast to his friend, former Citigroup (NYSE:C) colleague and now rival Ajay Banga — is a strong background specializing in credit cards and innovation.
Since taking over MasterCard (MA) in 2010, Banga has overhauled the second-largest network's culture, turning its focus from competing for banks' traditional card-processing business to cultivating new technology that can help MasterCard grow, especially in emerging markets.
Visa also faces mounting competition from nontraditional rivals, as companies from Google to Wal-Mart edge into the business once dominated by large banks and payments networks. The industry has also faced a steep increase in regulation, cutting into the profits it makes from swipe fees. MasterCard has picked up some of Visa's debit-card processing business in the past year, after the so-called Durbin amendment to the Dodd-Frank Act restricted banks from signing exclusive processing deals with networks.
Scharf, 47, spent most of his career in chief financial officer roles before coming from Bank One to JPMorgan Chase in 2004. Industry veterans say that Scharf's traditional banker experience — and his training with Dimon — might be exactly what Visa needs to weather the increasingly competitive and regulation-strewn environment.
"Scharf is a junior Jamie," says one industry member who worked with him at JPMorgan Chase's retail financial services unit and who would not speak on the record. "He pays attention to every detail, sets high expectations and is as involved in the business as anyone in the business."
Carl Pascarella, who ran Visa from 1993 to 2005 and who overlapped with Scharf's time as a director, says that Saunders left the company in great shape — but that his successor still faces important challenges.
"There's a lot of technology disruption, there are a lot of regulatory and compliance issues that are a lot different. … Charlie's background in banking is going to be very, very important," says Pascarella, now an executive advisor at private-equity firm TPG Capital. "Sustaining success is much more difficult than building success."
Scharf may not have specialized in innovation. But he pointed out Wednesday that when he ran JPMorgan's retail bank, he oversaw an upgrade of the technology available to customers, including online bill payment, instant-issue debit cards, mobile deposits and text alerts.
"We've been very focused historically on technology as a way to add to the customer experience, and certainly the same opportunity exists here," Scharf said in the joint interview. "It's what Visa's been working on, and I'll continue to help accelerate it."
Under Saunders, 66, Visa has also expanded its technology and its focus on emerging markets — but the company still dominates both credit and debit card processing in the United States. Industry veterans point out that Visa, which made $3.65 billion in its 2011 fiscal year, doesn't need a shake-up as much as MasterCard did.
Scharf is "a good solid choice," says industry veteran Eric Grover, who once worked at Visa and now consults at Intrepid Ventures. "There's nothing obviously broken at Visa — it's really hard to find fault with it, has great growth in profits, great growth in operating margin. … What's not to like? He's not an Ajay Banga, but Visa is top dog."