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Hard Charger

When friends and business associates warned Carl Pascarella off taking on the stewardship of Visa U.S.A. back in August of …

When friends and business associates warned Carl Pascarella off taking on the stewardship of Visa U.S.A. back in August of 1993, he didn’t listen. Buoyed by an 11-year run opening markets as president of Visa International’s Asia-Pacific division and successfully steering the card from a distant fourth place to a leading market perch in the region, Pascarella was primed for a new challenge. And, with the domestic U.S. card market oversaturated and the Visa brand in a slump, he got one.

“When I came back to the U.S., we had been losing market share,” Visa’s softspoken president and CEO recounts. “And once you start down a slope, it’s easy to lose your focus, to get downtrodden. We were totally ensconced in our own internal issues, rather than focusing on the needs of our major clients, banks.”

To reinvigorate Visa on the homefront, Pascarella tapped a new management team, transferred central office power to those in the trenches, and charged the entire organization to hone in on boosting volume and brand presence. “We had 125 account executives across the U.S., and basically we infused in them a feeling that we all worked for them,” he says. “If they wanted any of my executive vps, we were on an airplane to their bank.”

A push toward co branding arrangements with powerhouses like American Airlines, Marriott, and Toys ‘R’ Us gave Visa a badly needed image boost. And, as brand image began to rebound, Pascarella launched an ad campaign to “mainstream” debit cards-an effort credited with putting the “Visa Check” debit card into the wallets of some 58 million cardholders and making it Visa’s fastest growing card base.

The strategies paid off. Under Pascarella’s watch, Visa surged to an annual compound growth rate of 18.5 percent and 1997 annual revenue topped $1 billion. Last year also marked the company’s sixth consecutive year-to-year increase in market share, which brought Visa’s hold to 52.3 percent of the credit and debit card market. This hefty lead leaves MasterCard and American Express-with 25 percent and 18 percent respectively-vying for a distant second.

But Pascarella doesn’t plan to stop there. Electing event marketing as Visa’s latest brand-boosting tool, he wrested the National Football League rights away from American Express and then added sponsorship of the Triple Crown and Nascar racing.

Also under way is a drive to lure corporate business, a market cornered long ago by American Express. “The walls have been broken down between the credit and the commercial banking area,” says Pascarella. “We’re now going after that-and we’re moving significant market share.”

And share is all-important in the card wars, he adds, pointing out that Visa, which essentially franchises use of its brand and transaction system to banks, derives its volume essentially “on a royalty basis for the use of the card.”

To hold Visa’s lead, Pascarella is also staking out a claim on fresh turf. “This business has moved from just credit cards to much more-debit cards, electronic commerce, corporate and commercial cards, and electronic payment,” he says.

Technological advances that will load computer chips onto cards top Pascarella’s expansion gameplan. The chips’ potential goes beyond enabling consumers to store value on cards for instant purchasing, he explains. “The chip in and of itself is a technology, not a product or a service. But the capability that that technology offers us is exponential compared with what we have today. And somebody has to supply the overall operating system and infrastructure.”

The trick, he adds, will be to find practical applications that individuals or industries will be willing to pay for. “We’re looking at an array of services we can put on this chip card that will add value-data such as airline miles, medical and bank records. Getting a revenue stream for this is the real challenge.”

Health care is one area where Pascarella sees potential. “If that chip could hold your medical records, HMO information, and so forth, would you pay for that?” he asks. “Would the medical industry? I think so.”

Bringing such services to market will be the next hurdle. “Visa can’t do that alone,” admits Pascarella. “Because IT in the convenience arena is moving so rapidly, we don’t have the technological wherewithal to address everything. We need alliances with people like Microsoft, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, and Broad Vision for the multi-application capability we need.”

And getting it will require a careful blend of tradition and innovation. “Because of the speed with which we are moving, the winners are going to be people who are fast to market, who are flexible in terms of their thinking, and who, when they have a product or service, don’t get tied up in any way, shape, or form with bureaucracy,” says Pascarella. “The thing I keep focusing our people on is ‘Don’t take your eye off the ball. Our fundamental business is still to win the business everyday at the banks, with the merchants, and with the consumer.”


President and Chief Executive

Visa U.S.A.

Age: 55

Birthplace: Salamanca, NY

Family: Wife, Yurie. Two horses, three cats.

Education: Graduate of University of Buffalo; MS, management, Stamford Sloan Program, Stamford University. First Job: Bank teller, Buffalo Savings Bank.

Hobbies. Running, Riding.

Track of Choice: Golden Gate Bridge Favorite Spectator Sport: Hockey Favorite Team: The Sharks

Motto: His Dad’s track team etiquette advice: “If you’re going to do something, do it right or turn in the uniform and we’ll go home.”

About Jennifer Pellet

As editor-at-large at Chief Executive magazine, Jennifer Pellet writes feature stories and CEO roundtable coverage and also edits various sections of the publication.