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Feature

Telling It Like It Is

MasterCard's Jerry McElhatton pulled off a $160 million tech overhaul with a leadership style that's direct and incisive, yet encourages team input.
While employed at Cleveland Trust and Republic National Bank in the 1970s and '80s, McElhatton was called upon to develop cash-management applications to speed up account transactions and foster customer loyalty. He then was recruited in the late 1980s by the United Kingdom's struggling Midland Bank and headed a project that involved moving over all account operations from Midland's 1,800-branch system into a more centralized network of eight regional service centers at a cost of about $350 million.

McElhatton convinced the bank's board to back the massive project despite the company's financial woes, says Brendan Cook, who was a senior member of Midland's IT staff at the time and now serves as managing director of HSBC Group's global credit-card business. The board's faith was rewarded when Midland returned to health. "He's got a combination of an understanding of the technology with excellent project-management capabilities, but also--and this is the key thing--knows how to sell that into an organization," Cook says.

Former MasterCard CEO Eugene Lockhart, who worked with McElhatton at Midland, tapped him for the CIO job in 1994. Under McElhatton's leadership, MasterCard's IT organization has updated every one of its major systems to improve flexibility, migrating legacy apps to a Unix environment backed by Oracle and IBM databases. McElhatton's team redesigned existing applications, including MasterCard's core system for authorizing, clearing, and settling credit-card transactions. It then established links between those apps and an updated security and risk-management system and a new data warehouse built to supply better visibility into transactional data.

McElhatton expects his team to deliver projects on time and on budget and is an expert at encouraging accountability without blame, says Lowell Mattox, VP of internal technology at MasterCard since 1997. "When you're working with Jerry, it's never about who's fault something was," Mattox says. "It's about what went wrong and how we avoid it again."

Because so much of the business revolves around customer satisfaction, McElhatton admits he's hesitant about taking risks with unproven technologies. "When you go to use your credit card, if it doesn't work, then your card goes to what we call the 'back of the wallet,'" he says. "We never want that to happen." Yet he still sees the value of adopting leading-edge technologies in some cases. MasterCard is preparing to go live with credit cards equipped with radio-frequency identification chips that can be waved in front of registers equipped with readers to speed up the checkout process.

McElhatton's technology expertise spills into his personal life. A model-train buff, he goes to trade shows to learn about software for automating model-train operations and managing his collection inventory. He uses computer-aided design tools for building complex displays. And he plans to devote a room to his model trains in the Dallas-area home he and his wife, Jane, are building to live in after his expected retirement next year.

His staff is already bracing for the retirement. Says Mattox: "He's going to be a hard act to follow." A cliché, for sure, but as true as a Jerryism.

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