Robert Willumstad did not expect to be in this spot when he left Chemical Bank to join a band of "refugees from big institutions."
Eleven years and one megamerger later, Mr. Willumstad is at one of the biggest institutions of them all: Citigroup Inc.
Since Oct. 13, when he became head of global consumer lending, he has been responsible for $100 billion of assets, 150 million customers, and five divisions with products that run the gamut from executive-focused credit cards to low-end personal loans.
He will also patrol three nationwide distribution platforms: Citibank's national credit card business, with $61 billion of assets and over 70 million customers; Travelers' Primerica Financial Services, a sales engine with 100,000-plus agents; and Commercial Credit Inc., which has more than 1,000 branches nationwide.
The refugees, it turns out, were not refugees for long. Their new venture grew into Travelers Group, and Mr. Willumstad directed Commercial Credit, a finance company catering to customers with less-than-perfect credit.
"Here's a company that 12 years ago was a bunch of people sitting in Baltimore," he said. "I never envisioned years ago that Travelers would turn itself into this huge corporation."
But Mr. Willumstad, who is known for his reserve, doesn't seem fazed by the unexpected turn.
After all, he says, "not much has changed in banking" since he left Chemical.
He acknowledges that melding Travelers' entrepreneurial culture with Citi's banking environment is a challenge, but insists the leap is not as great as some think.
"At the end of the day, the cultural differences are really organizational differences," Mr. Willumstad said. Managers at Citibank are more focused on a "long-term horizon," while Travelers managers are focused on the short term, he said.
A big part of inculcating the Travelers mentality throughout Citigroup will be tying employees' compensation to the performance of their divisions, Mr. Willumstad said. To that end, Citigroup announced Nov. 9 that it would repurchase $2 billion of stock, making it possible to give stock options to lower-level employees.
That is just the first step, Mr. Willumstad said. He is hoping that divisions refocus on profitability, whether by "spending $2 less on staples" or improving customer service.
"We're saying to tens of thousands of employees, 'Listen, if the shareholders do well, we all do well,'" he said.
His next mission is to take advantage of the cross-selling opportunities in the consumer division. The new Citigroup will offer loans and credit lines for a full spectrum of products, to borrowers from the most affluent to the least.
At Commercial Credit, Mr. Willumstad proved that cross-selling could work.
Working closely with Joseph Plumeri, chief executive of Travelers subsidiary Primerica Financial Services, he beefed up loan volume using Primerica's door to door agents to sell Commercial Credit products.
Cross-selling products will be just as important at Citigroup, he said. His goal is to "make it seem seamless to the customer, without undoing the infrastructure."
Competition is stiff, he acknowledges, and for banks to be effective, they're going to have to beat out specialists. "We're going to have to be as good at credit cards as MBNA, and as good at insurance as Geico," he said.
Citigroup is also going to expand its overseas consumer finance business, Mr. Willumstad said, citing Latin America and Eastern Europe as likely targets. Travelers' mantra of growing through acquisition is likely to manifest itself overseas too, he said.
"We're going to stay focused. We're not going to sell everything to everyone through all distribution systems."
Mr. Willumstad's track record suggests to some that he is likely to succeed on this ambitious mission.
"He was very successful running Commercial Credit," said Mark Girolamo, analyst with Deutsche Bank Securities, citing Mr. Willumstad's focus on asset quality that "never wavered."
Nonetheless, "the size of the Citi operation is a big step up," Mr. Girolamo said.
There may be a few things that don't immediately mesh between Mr. Willumstad and Citibank's executives, some say.
"He gets no thrill out of having a hotshot working for him," said a former Chemical co-worker. The Long Island native, who made it to top management without the Ivy League education and graduate degree of most Citicorp executives, is more impressed by "people who work hard and perform."
Mr. Willumstad thrives on "the bright idea, the creative approach," the former colleague said, noting that one of Mr. Willumstad's strengths is finding a simple and direct answer-something Citibank isn't always known for.
Citibank is often inclined to making a complicated task out of marketing car loans, the former colleague said.
"They like to sell this line with that line and then mine the data," he said. "Bob says something like, 'Hey, why don't you just go to the guys that own cars?'"