H. Robert Heller has returned to Visa - in nothing resembling the storm of controversy that accompanied his departure in August 1993.

Mr. Heller, then president of Visa U.S.A. and presumed in line for the Visa International top job, resigned abruptly. Rumors spread about worse than the usual "philosophical differences" in the top ranks.

As stability returned under new management (see page 12) so did Mr. Heller. He has been quietly toiling away for the past several months as a consultant to Visa International.

The global association's president, Edmund P. Jensen, called on Mr. Heller to focus on Visa's relationships with central banks, particularly on policies relating to risk management.

As regulatory bodies around the world turn their attention to retail payment systems, "I will help Visa in the process of establishing the proper relationships and making sure that the messages go both ways," Mr. Heller said in an interview.

Mr. Heller, 55, seems ideally suited to the task, given his credentials as an international economist and the three years he spent as a Federal Reserve Board governor before joining Visa in 1989.

The fact that he is back - in an office on the executive floor at the suburban San Francisco headquarters - suggests that whatever happened between him and Visa officialdom in 1993 left no lasting damage.

He clearly has a good relationship with Mr. Jensen, who was a Visa director before succeeding Mr. Heller's former boss, Charles T. Russell, as Visa International president early in 1994.

Mr. Jensen's concern about international strategy fit well with Mr. Heller's interests.

In his time away from Visa, the former Fed governor and BankAmerica Corp. economist set up Heller International, a consulting firm serving major banks and central banks. He assisted in some credit card and other start-up ventures. Other corporate involvements include a directorship at Fair, Isaac & Co. and the vice chairmanship of the Commission on Financial Services of the International Chamber of Commerce in Paris.

In 1994 he formed International Payments Institute to do the current work for Visa.

Mr. Heller said the attention to central bank policies and risk management stems from work done over the past several years at the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland, a coordinating body for industrialized countries' central banks. Filtering down to the United States, the effort resulted in a Federal Reserve Board paper last December spelling out risk guidelines in large-dollar payment systems like Fed Wire and Chips.

Those guidelines explicitly exempted credit card, debit card, and automated teller machine networks, and systems like the automated clearing house that use batch processing methods. But the central bankers have these in their longer-term sights.

"Sooner or later they'll get there," Mr. Heller said, and Visa wants to be prepared.

Risk management is an increasingly prominent theme industrywide, and the bank card field is no exception. Mr. Jensen recently hired Raymond Barnes as Visa International's first senior executive to concentrate full time on risk issues.

As executive vice president and chief risk and administrative officer, Mr. Barnes has broad experience in financial, regulatory, member-level, product, and systemic risks. Mr. Heller said he consults closely with Mr. Barnes, who until March was chief financial officer for Visa's Europe- Middle East-Africa region, based in London.

Mr. Heller said much of the risk management action currently revolves around Europe and its move toward a single currency. The center of that activity is the European Community's European Monetary Institute, overlaid by the Bank for International Settlements' risk concerns.

"As Europe gets ready for a common currency, (policymakers) will start to look more closely at linking the retail payment systems," Mr. Heller said. "The linkages will have to work for all countries. Payments between Frankfurt and Paris will have to be done as easily as between Frankfurt and Hamburg."

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