Tony Vuoto: Helping keep credit cards desirable, profitable

Just out of college, Tony Vuoto landed a job with Citibank. John Reed, chairman and CEO at the time, had just begun credit card marketing campaigns.

To Vuoto, it seemed like a good idea to get involved with a large company whose CEO was vested in the outcome.

Today, Vuoto is president of Washington Mutual Card Services and is seeing more than 20 percent annual growth — three times the national average for comparable companies.

Vuoto said the high growth rates are the benefit of marketing to Washington Mutual (WM) customers, who haven’t traditionally had a credit card to speak of.

WaMu has sustained this growth rate for the last two years and Vuoto suspects it is sustainable for another two — or even longer. Based on market research, WaMu credit cards have less than 20 percent market penetration.

These days, Vuoto pays a lot of attention to market research. While still working for Citibank, Vuoto was put in charge of Citibank Visa cards in Germany.

At the time, there were high unemployment rates — which usually means large profits for credit card companies when people can’t pay off their debt.

In Germany, it was the opposite. When people were afraid of losing their jobs, they paid off their debt. Ultimately, Vuoto ended up paying more in interest than he was collecting and shortly returned to the States.

“It was like trying to run an American business in a foreign country with a different culture, different incentive systems, and different responses with a second-grade vocabulary,” Vuoto said.

Vuoto’s American English vocabulary is strong. In the past five years, market research has shown a big shift toward customers expecting to be rewarded for their behavior. Customers are telling companies that if they give them business, they expect something in return.

“As the consumers got more educated they realized there were choices out there,” Vuoto said.

Vuoto uses risk-based pricing models and lets customers choose how they want to be rewarded: cash back or rewards points that can be used for air travel, merchandise, or lowering their APR. Vuoto also offers customers free access to their FICO credit score.

“We want to continue to grow the business and maintain responsible lending practices,” Vuoto said.

Vuoto supervises 3,000 people, half in San Francisco, half in Texas. Before coming to WaMu, he was vice chairman and CFO of Providian.

Business

New project: We’re always working on new things, such as secure cards, contactless cards etc.

Last project: Merging Providian Financial with WaMu in 2005

Number of e-mails a day: 50 to 100

Number of voice mails a day: 10 to 20

Best perk: Salary (Washington Mutual took all perks away)

Gadgets: BlackBerry

Education: M.B.A., Wharton School of Business; B.A. in economics, Princeton University

First job: Store operations trainee, Bloomingdales

Original aspiration: Professional sports

Career objective: Continue the success we started by turning around Providian Financial

Personal

Age: 56

Likes: Enjoys a good meal

Dislikes: Lyrics in rap music

Defining quirks: Perfectionist, borderline OCD

Hometown: Lynbrook, N.Y.

Sports/hobbies: Golf and gardening

Transportation: Five years of commuting on BART

Favorite restaurant: One Market

Vacation spot: Lake Tahoe

Role Model: I adopt the best practices of a number of people — my family, my dad, professors, bosses — treat people with respect and maintain a high level of integrity in all you do

Reading: “Conspiracy of Fools”

Motivation: To be the best at what we do

businessBusiness & Real Estate

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