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Using vision to build an industry

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The story of Dee Ward Hock is proof that you can use a life lesson to fuel your rise.

As a 25-year-old married father of two with a third on the way in the 1960s, Hock had fallen deep into credit card debt. To dig himself out, he took any job he could and swore off debt. A decade later, he quit trying to climb the corporate ladder and decided to “join the crowd and take up what may be the most common career in modern organizations: ‘retirement on the job.’ My victim would be one of the local banks where a modest living could be had at a cost of a pleasant demeanor, conformity and fractional ability or effort.”

Hock’s “victim,” the National Bank of Commerce, recognized his ability, however, and asked him to help launch a credit card program.

In an “Office Space” kind of moment, Hock said he didn’t want the assignment, telling the bank president he had “no use for credit cards.”

His boss listened but gave Hock the job anyway. With a high tolerance for chaos, Hock launched a credit card system on time and on budget, even without resources to do the job “right.” Nobody in the mid-1960s knew how to do credit cards “right.”

In his new role, Hock attended a 1968 meeting for BankAmericard licensees. The Bank of America was making out handsomely from the program, but its licensees—after issuing credit cards willy-nilly to children, felons and even pets—were losing buckets of money to fraud. They also had no mechanisms for sharing information.

Hock agreed to chair a task force as long as its scope was expanded to a full review of the program. He wanted a clean slate—and got it.

The results:

  • Hock envisioned a paperless, 24/7 system of transferring and reconciling credit card transactions from anywhere in the world.
  • His committee developed a system to be run by a self-governing partnership of banks.
  • Bank of America would cede control of its licensing program to member banks, joining them as a partner. 

Next, Hock needed to bring onboard two-thirds of BankAmericard’s licensees, who also happened to be fierce competitors. He undertook a political-style tour, using enticements to persuade several key banks. Within 90 days, he convinced all 2,700 licensees to join.

Bottom line: Hock saw clearly the power of credit cards. He used that vision to build an industry.

— Adapted from In Their Time: The Greatest Business Leaders of the Twentieth Century, Anthony Mayo and Nitin Nohria, Harvard Business School Press.

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