Visa International chief executive officer Malcolm Williamson is pushing his organization in directions that might have seemed contradictory a few years ago.
Mr. Williamson, refusing to "rest on laurels," is planning moves "that will change our structure significantly in the coming months," he said in an interview last week.
That type of shake-up would be no surprise, given other signals sent by Mr. Williamson in the 10 months since he became president of the biggest bank card and consumer payment association. He said he will not be ready to talk publicly about details for at least a month, though he suggested that personnel reductions and other steps are likely to result in lower operating costs -- and ultimately lower fees to member banks.
But there may be something more radical in the way he described the coming look of his headquarters organization: "smaller and stronger."
Wrestling with questions of governance and power-sharing that vexed his predecessors and sparked many an internal philosophical debate, Mr. Williamson is straddling two sides. He wants to have a strong "center," as Visa's San Francisco headquarters operation is called, but one that is leaner, more flexible, and less inclined to impose its will on regional subsidiaries -- as it has been accused of doing in the past.
To traditionalists, that may sound like having one's cake and eating it too. To Mr. Williamson, it is essential preparation for a more complicated world with new competitive rules, for "staying close to members and markets" and providing banks "a substantial return on their investment in Visa."
He said Visa has achieved its successes in large part through a "global yet local philosophy" that mixed a strong central vision with regional autonomy.
He has also concluded that "the regional structure had some problems attached to it." Visa's six regional bodies devolved into "silos (that) did not interact well with themselves and the center, were not particularly effective at identifying best practices, and engaged in too much reinvention of the wheel."
A "smaller and more powerful center," he contended, would be in a better position to find and coordinate best practices and avoid "disjointed action."
Tension between the center and regions -- creative or otherwise -- has been a constant for a quarter century or more, and it has not been confined to Visa.
MasterCard International this year shrunk its board of directors and restructured top management to streamline decision-making at headquarters in Purchase, N.Y. MasterCard kept regional boards in place and denied that it was reversing its decentralization thrust, though many industry observers saw it that way. Mr. Williamson criticized MasterCard for "reducing the effectiveness" of its regional structure, something he vowed Visa will not do.
Mr. Williamson, Visa International's fourth CEO, has essentially inherited the legacy of the first, Dee W. Hock. Mr. Hock and his center ruled with an iron hand in the 1970s, as was said to be necessary to invent and implement an entirely new payment system.
Before he retired in 1984, Mr. Hock tried to turn the original hierarchy upside-down by making the center subservient to five self-contained regional companies: Visa U.S.A. was and is the largest, alongside similar organizations for Canada, Latin America, Asia-Pacific, and Europe-Middle East-Africa. The last was split a few years ago into two -- one for the European Union, the other for Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
Mr. Hock's notion of a "reverse holding company" never fully came to fruition, though there were several swings of the power pendulum while his successors, Charles Russell and Edmund Jensen, were in charge.
Mr. Williamson is trying for a new balance. Besides doing what he sees as the right thing organizationally "we don't want six silos," he said, "but rather a well-oiled global machine" -- he wants to please a restive membership.
"Some members have said that being in Visa is like paying a tax," Mr. Williamson said.
That may help explain Citigroup Inc.'s disenchantment with Visa and its announcement this year that it would begin to issue most cards under the MasterCard banner. MasterCard CEO Robert Selander has said that his company was faster than Visa in offering members service options -- the menu-like approach that Mr. Williamson has been talking up.
For a year Mr. Williamson has talked about "commercializing" some aspects of Visa's business, so that all 21,000 member institutions are not footing all the bills through an assessment system based on size or transaction activity. He wants to offer more options, more ability for members to pick and choose what they want -- and not pay for what they don't want.
Mr. Williamson said that dream will begin to come true with a "shared services organization," a central operational group that will be "run by commercial principles," and from which customers will "know what they are buying and what it costs."
The shared-services organization would include networking and infrastructure assets that have been aggregated in global support services under group president Daniel R. Eitingon. He announced in July that he would retire Sept. 30, assuming a successor is appointed by then, and Mr. Eitingon is helping in the search.
The departure is apparently unrelated to the commercialization plan. Mr. Eitingon, a former First Interstate Bancorp executive who was brought in by Mr. Jensen in 1997, said he wants to pursue his own business interests. Mr. Williamson said he was told about Mr. Eitingon's desire "a while ago." Mr. Williamson said he is pleased to have Mr. Eitingon "staying through this process."
Mr. Williamson said the shared-services organization's "commercial principles" will include competitive prices, volume discounts, and "benchmarking against the commercial world," meaning that it will have to best the competition to succeed.
"Some of our regions have greater infrastructure needs than others," the chief executive said, "and some may turn to the shared-services organization more than others." Those that do should have a clear sense of their costs and returns on investment.
Mr. Williamson said the center cannot presume to know every market's needs and "cannot provide universal service to everybody, because that doesn't work."
"My objective is to run Visa as efficiently as the members run their own businesses in a highly competitive environment," he said. "We are working with regions that value a certain amount of independence, but which rely on the center for guidance and help when appropriate."
He described Visa's regional structure as a "huge advantage," but one that requires "links to the center so it knows what is going on. This is not a bureaucracy, but a well-coordinated business."