Peter Ellwood, the British banker who heads Visa International's board and spearheaded its just-completed search for a chief executive officer, brushes off talk of the new man's nationality.
"I didn't attach any significance," Mr. Ellwood said, to the fact that Malcolm Williamson, the group chief executive of London-based Standard Chartered PLC, who won the Visa board's nod in a unanimous vote Wednesday night, is not an American.
Be that as it may, in the 29th year of its existence, after having been led by three American-born CEOs, the Visa organization has taken a step fraught with at least symbolic significance for U.S. and non-U.S. bank card executives alike.
When Mr. Williamson, 59, takes the Visa helm Oct. 1 from Edmund P. Jensen, who will have held the post almost five years, he will be the first president of either of the American-born card associations to come from another country.
The United States remains the largest credit card and consumer payment market, but it has comprised less than half of world card sales volume for years.
Mr. Williamson fills the traditional bill of Visa (and MasterCard) CEOs in that he has many years of banking experience. He began his career low on the Barclays Bank totem pole in London, advanced in several steps to regional general manager, and in the mid-1980s moved to the British Post Office's Girobank subsidiary.
His run as Girobank CEO ended with the announcement of its sale to Alliance & Leicester Building Society in 1989-an outcome that has been attributed to Mr. Williamson's leadership in shaping up what had been a ragtag operation.
He then left for Standard Chartered, a bank historically strong in the Asian reaches of the former British empire, as executive director, banking. He rose to managing director in 1991 and group chief executive in 1993, exposed along the way to all aspects of the business-including credit cards and technology-and significantly strengthening the retail side of the bank.
"He is great, his c.v. is perfect, I think he will pass all tests," said Anne Cobb, Visa's regional president for Central Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
Missing from the resume is another detail setting Mr. Williamson apart from his predecessors: a lack of Visa connection, except as a bank member.
He did not participate in the founding or growing-up stages with Visa's first two presidents, Dee Hock and Charles Russell. Nor did Mr. Williamson sit on the board of directors, which is how Mr. Jensen got close to the management in the years he was a senior executive at U.S. Bancorp of Portland, Ore.
In interviews following the board meetings in London this week, Mr. Ellwood and Mr. Jensen-who led a search committee that also included the chairmen of Visa's six regional boards-emphasized the refreshing nature of the change but said Mr. Williamson's nationality was incidental.
"We had one (goal)-to find the best person in the world," said Mr. Ellwood, group chief executive of Lloyds TSB in London. "We began with a completely blank sheet of paper."
Mr. Williamson "happens to be European," Mr. Ellwood said, "but he will take a truly international approach."
Mr. Williamson also played down where he comes from, played up the international nature of the payments business and his background, and said he is sensitive to how his coming in will play in the ranks.
"It is always difficult for someone to come from outside and bind the team together, but I told the group that is what I am here to do," Mr. Williamson said.
One particularly sensitive aspect of what is by definition a politically challenging job, answering to thousands of owner-bosses, is the fact that several of Mr. Williamson's prospective direct reports were candidates for his job.
Mr. Ellwood said an initial screening list of 100 names, gathered with the assistance of the Secura Burnett search firm after Mr. Jensen made his retirement announcement in February, was whittled down to seven finalists interviewed at the end of May. Mr. Ellwood said five of them were "internal," and according to industry scuttlebutt, two were Carl Pascarella, president of Visa U.S.A., and Daniel Eitingon, president of global support services and, in effect, Mr. Jensen's chief operating officer.
The regional presidents, including Mr. Pascarella, Ms. Cobb, and Hans van der Velde of Visa European Union, are crucial to the organization's decentralized balance of power. Mr. Williamson said he is intent on keeping the team together.
Except for Ms. Cobb, those officials, members of the Visa management executive committee, were not available to comment. But Mr. Jensen said the appointment went over well. Other Visa people said it was also favorably received among the workers at headquarters near San Francisco, where Mr. Williamson plans a get-acquainted visit next week.
The biggest of the card organizations "could not have had the success it has had without those multiple talents," Mr. Jensen said. "Each person's success in the regions has been integrated in the success of the whole. I believe (the presidents) will support Malcolm to the same extent they supported me and Visa and the members in the past."
Mr. Ellwood said he has "no worry" about the internal reaction because all candidates had their say in a process that was "genuine and not cosmetic .... Everyone is keen on working together."
Mr. Williamson indicated that the Visa staff is in for a somewhat gradual transition over the next 14 weeks, as he has a lot of unfinished business to attend to. That includes "ensuring a seamless transition" to his anointed successor at Standard Chartered, the former Citicorp executive Rana Talwar.
"He is absolutely the best person to run Standard Chartered-it just so happens he is Indian," Mr. Williamson said in a rejoinder to those who might attach significance to his own British heritage.
Mr. Williamson included cards on a long list of personal competencies across corporate, institutional, and retail banking services. He also accumulated considerable technology expertise and had a hand in Visa's smart card program, which surely increased his attractiveness to a search committee focused on internationalism and "change management."
"The technology is wonderful," Mr. Williamson said of the smart card powered by the Java operating system, which Standard Chartered was the first to demonstrate a few weeks ago. "The challenge will be in harnessing it to make a profit."
He said a window on Asia can contribute mightily to ascertaining the chip card's business case, because that region has been "particularly receptive to it." He also does not expect Asia's economic troubles to debase its long-term potential.
"The fundamentals of Asia have not gone away," Mr. Williamson said. "It has a young demographic, high savings rate, strong work ethic. It will be an incredibly important part of the world over the next 20 years."
He said Visa's core businesses and markets remain concentrated in industrialized countries, but there is also the "new world" that Asia and other emerging markets represent. "This can be an amazing balancing act and is one of the challenges I look forward to," Mr. Williamson said.
Noting he is a year short of the United Kingdom retirement age of 60-he called it an "ageist tradition"-Mr. Williamson said, "Everyone is as old as they feel. I am in this for the long haul." He has run marathons and recently climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. He has two grown children from a previous marriage, and a 6-year-old and a 10-year-old with his current wife.
Tim Jones, head of U.K. retail banking at Natwest Group of London and co-inventor of the competing Mondex electronic cash technology, said he knows Mr. Williamson only by reputation. He said Visa would be best served if its new chief were fully steeped in the new technologies of electronic commerce.
Roger Alexander, managing director of a research and development unit at Barclays Bank known as the emerging markets group, also does not know Mr. Williamson personally. He said Mr. Williamson, because of his past work at that large Visa bank and other experience, "is well respected in the London financial community."