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After Words

1996: Managing Transactions In The Trillions

"We move $2 trillion a night -- that's a 'T,' not a 'B,'" says Denis O'Leary, executive vice president and chief information officer for Chase Manhattan Corporation.

With $300 billion in assets and relationships with more than 25 million consumers, Chase is now the country's largest commercial bank. The new mega-bank was created through a merger this year between Chemical Bank and Chase Manhattan.

O'Leary was appointed to his present post in August of 1995, when plans for the merger were announced. He's charged with consummating the merger, you might say, directing the integration of all computer systems and the deployment of new technology to support bank operations. To do the job, he oversees more than 10,000 employees and a budget of $1.7 billion. What's more, it's a global undertaking, involving some 52 countries and 39 states. While the overall project will take three years to complete, it's progressing very well, he says. "There are thousands of different key events that have to come together to make it all work -- in the area of ten thousand core events."

Recognizing his powers of organization, Bank Systems + Technology magazine named O'Leary "Banker of the Year" last December. "With the nation's most ambitious merger under his belt (almost), O'Leary will rely on knowledge-based capital and innovative technology to position the new, $300 billion-asset Chase -- Epicenter of Change -- at the forefront of banking in the 21st century," the magazine wrote.

These days, "technology has moved to the front row in terms of the strategic needs of financial-services companies," says O'Leary. At Chase, 14 million checks come in every night and "you can't do those kinds of throughputs without technology." Surprisingly, even though the ways in which banks operate are changing dramatically, he sees their role in the economy as relatively stable. "Most of the core services that are provided today -- the three core umbrellas, allowing people to invest, borrow, and do transactions -- will be provided in the future. And they haven't changed that much for 50 years."

In contrast, O'Leary's career has changed -- and grown -- rapidly since he joined Manufacturers Hanover just after his graduation in 1978. He began as a loan officer in the corporate banking division -- but at the time, he was not interested in a banking career. "Before going into business myself, I wanted to learn how companies run and how they borrow money," he once told Fortune magazine. However, he concluded, "I've been able to have my cake and eat it too."

Seven years later, at the age of 29, he became a senior vice president. That year, Crain's New York Business featured him in "40 Under 40," its annual list of young movers and shakers, describing him as a "creative deal maker" for his employer. In 1989, he was named deputy general manager of Geoserve, a new division of Manufacturers Hanover that relied extensively on the computers that he managed in order to make trillions of dollars of funds transfers and securities transfers. At the time, he shared responsibility for 6,000 employees and more than $400 million in revenues. Also in 1989, Fortune magazine spotlighted him as "on the rise" in the business world. He was then 32 years old.

In 1991, he became chief of staff to the newly appointed president of Chemical Bank, coordinating the merger between Chemical and Manufacturers Hanover -- including operations for the New York regional bank, consumer banking nationally, and operating services and technology. (Back then, a framed cartoon sat on his desk showing O'Leary in an airport control tower directing two jets headed straight for each other, one flown by the chairman and the other by the president of Manufacturers Hanover.) In '93 he became Chemical Bank's technology chief, which put him in the right spot for the job of chief information officer at Chase Manhattan in 1995 when the two banks announced plans to merge.

In the competitive world of banking these days, the merger is designed to reduce operational costs, says Simon School Professor Ravi Kalakota, an expert in electronic commerce. O'Leary's job is to "manage the transformation process, save money, and basically chart a direction for the future."

O'Leary himself takes the long view. "Overall we're going to reduce the expense base by $1.7 billion, so that kind of thing takes a while to roll in."

1978: Cornering the Market on Indian-Print Bedspreads

Back in the 1970s, those brightly colored, bold-patterned Indian bedspreads -- draped over a bed, decorating a wall, or hung from the ceiling -- were big with the college crowd. Never one to miss a business opportunity, O'Leary tried to corner the market on them, remembers his friend and fellow Keidaean Bob Osieski '77, '78S (MBA).

"We ran into this guy at a garage sale who told Denis that he could be his distributor on campus -- so Denis bought a ton of these things," says Osieski. Unfortunately, the University bookstore decided around the same time to mark its bedspread inventory down -- way down, lower than O'Leary's wholesale cost. "So all his relatives wound up with Indian bedspreads!" says Osieski. "I guess those are the pitfalls you go through as you work your way to the top."

Osieski, a University trustee and vice president at Morgan Guaranty Trust in New York City, says he went into banking at his friend's urging. "He had a passion for this business that is reflected in his success today. He was destined for it: Denis was always the most entrepreneurial person in his class."

Denise Bolger Kovnat

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Last updated 9-9-1996      (jc)