His office high above the Hudson River with the Statue of Liberty to the south, George Washington Bridge to the north, and New Jersey in between, don’t blame Jud Linville ’79 for showing off the view.
But it’s not the panorama from his perch at Citigroup’s lower Manhattan headquarters that keeps him in high regard; it’s his job here as chief executive officer of Citi Global Cards.
After arriving here in 2010, Linville and his team took a business reeling from ill effects of the financial crisis and built it into the No. 1 credit card business in the world.
So with the big office and bigger job, you’d think he’d have a big head.
But Linville will have none of that. A soft-spoken fitness buff who at 59 maintains the sleek athletic frame he had when he starred on Lafayette’s lacrosse team (playing under the late legendary coach William Lawson), his pleasant manner belies an intellectual fierceness that helped him navigate the mine-laden field of corporate finance, first at American Express, where he rose to president and chief operations officer in charge of U.S. credit cards, and then at Citigroup.
Since assuming control, Linville streamlined Citi’s credit card business, transformed its portfolio by reducing types of cards offered, improved its loyalty rewards programs, enhanced customer services, accelerated digital offerings, and heightened brand awareness through a heavy dose of advertising. He was also part of a decision-making team that branded rental bikes Citibikes throughout New York City. The bike-share program is among the biggest and most popular in the country. And the Citi Concert Series on TODAY has helped Citi jettison a staid corporate image in favor of one that is progressive, culturally relevant, and a bit fun.
But his greatest feat at Citi may have been when he shocked the industry by acquiring the U.S. Costco co-brand credit card portfolio, which represented $80 billion—or 8 percent—of AMEX’s billed business in 2015.
It was a smart move for the psychology major. So was marrying into Lafayette royalty. Linville’s father-in-law was the legendary late Dr. Wilbur “Billy” Oaks ’51, a devoted supporter of the College, for whom the men’s soccer field is named. On the 60th anniversary of Oaks’ graduation from Lafayette, Linville and his wife, Cindy Oaks Linville ’80, created the Dr. Wilbur W. Oaks ’51 Leadership Development Fund, which supports the Oaks Leadership Academy and other initiatives that help student-athletes become effective leaders in academics.
“The thing that applies most in the business I run, just like any business, is about solving problems and being really clear who your customers are and how you deliver things to meet their needs.”
Linville, who received his doctorate in psychology from Hahnemann University Medical College (now Drexel University College of Medicine) and sits on the boards at Lafayette and Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, sat down in his glass and chrome office with Lafayette magazine a few months ago and discussed his years on College Hill, his current job at Citi, and challenges facing the credit card business.
I played lacrosse in high school and wanted to play in college. But I had absolutely no clue what my career would be or even what my major would be. I planned to make a trip down south where I was getting recruited, and my then girlfriend’s father, who later became my father-in-law and was on the board of Lafayette, suggested I visit the campus. My first question was, ‘What is the lacrosse team like?’ He said, ‘I don’t think that’s why you’re looking at colleges.’ His oldest daughter (Susan Oaks Little ’78) was there, my now wife/girlfriend was there. I ended up going there.
When I think of Lafayette, what comes to mind first and foremost is relationships—the relationships I formed there, starting with being able to play Division 1 lacrosse for a coach as wonderful as Coach Lawson. Second is the faculty and the access we had and relationships I built with them. Burt Cohen (professor of psychology) would have us all over to his house for dinner, or Susan Basow (Dana Professor of Psychology), who just showed general interest in all of her students and in me. Or just the access to work with renowned writers like Don Miller (MacCracken Professor of History). Because he was such a great teacher, I loved going to his classes.
At Lafayette I majored in psychology and had a minor in studio art, and I thought I could combine those two into a perfect career as an art therapist. I loved working with kids and adolescents, and I spent time at a treatment facility working with young adults in college who had psychotic episodes. It was kind of a halfway house where everyone lived in the units 24/7. I loved what I was doing but realized our therapist had no control over treatment plans for these students. It was psychiatrists who were the ones intervening. So I ended up applying to a Ph.D. program in psychology. The program was heavily based on clinical intervention, so I had internships each year, mainly focused on young adults. I did a postdoctoral internship at Swarthmore College in the health center and loved what I was doing but realized I grew up being around teams. So while this was intellectually and emotionally stimulating and challenging, it was also very isolating. My then girlfriend, and now wife, and her best friend were at Wharton studying for their MBAs, and they would come home with these case studies that were more about people issues. I realized that’s the stuff I really love. The thing that applies most in the business I run, just like any business, is about solving problems and being really clear who your customers are and how you deliver things to meet their needs. In my business it’s about bringing buyers and suppliers together while removing friction and creating the right kind of branded experience. But another part of it is the organizational side of things. Citi is a large institution with 230,000 employees and $14 billion in revenue. If you think about what organizations need, it’s to constantly build intellectual curiosity. I’m very fond of the notion that this job is to define reality and deliver hope.
Early on I spent a lot of time with the board and management team here talking about the nature of this transformation. This is a business that can take years to see change, especially something this big. We laid out a comprehensive long-range plan. The first thing was to fix some basics like fraud systems and others that hadn’t been invested in. The second was we had 40 different markets, which I’d describe as a loose federation of local banks. Each market would do something different. One of the unique and distinctive things about this business is that it’s global. So the next thing was, how do we massively simplify and standardize? Simplify the product number, terms, language and how we communicate, and standardize so product lines can stand for something distinctive. Complexity is not a good thing. It adds cost and control issues. And the third phase was, how do we build products and services that are differentiated, and how do we really digitize the business? The differentiation in digitation is what will cause growth.
Never done. Never done. That was a basic five-year plan, and we’re on the back end of it now. During the first quarter our sales grew 12 percent in the U.S., so we’re definitely picking up share. In the next 12 months we’ll be laying out our next five-year plan.
The relationship with Costco was years in the making. Crafting something that big with 11 million card members and over $10 billion in loans is massive. The fact is there’s a deep relationship with the company in a variety of ways. Costco has a senior management team who I knew well. Second, I spent a lot of time with its warehouse operators and know the way business is done. It has great, great merchandisers. Digging deep into what Costco values, it’s all about quality goods and services at the lowest price possible.
The card conversion in June was one of the single largest portfolio conversions in history, an absolutely massive transition, and the response from consumers was unprecedented. On the first day alone, more than 60,000 applications were processed—more than triple any one day in Costco’s 17-year history with AMEX. Unfortunately, a small percentage of customers experienced issues—which we quickly addressed—but millions of customers enjoyed a seamless transition. With the initial days of launch well behind us, we continue to see extraordinary interest and engagement in the product with over 1 million new cardmembers so far.
It’s fascinating because there are different ways you can look at the card business. If you’re a real data nut, there’s a massive transaction processing business that throws off a lot of data. It’s highly analytically derived so we have a whole bunch of Ph.D. modelers. If you’re an engineer you say, God, there’s this huge transaction processing business that can constantly be reengineered for the better to a digital native. More than 50 percent of new customers in the U.S. come from digital channels. To me it’s ever-changing and always fascinating as it relates to innovation. There are three paths to innovation. One is around data. The amount of artificial and machine-made intelligence that will be thrown into the business will massively change how we go to market, how we engage, and how we service. The second is around digital tools and technology. We’re a technology business wrapped with a banking license. Much of what we deliver depends on technology. That swipe of the card or tap of the phone anywhere in the world has to work the same way instantaneously, and you need a ton of technology behind it to do all the processing, fraud monitoring, prevention, and everything else. The other piece is the customer experience, such as taking the friction out of the payment streams.
First and foremost, be really clear with yourself about what you’re good at and what interests you. It’s amazing how many people can say I’m going to go into this field, but they haven’t thought about what their skills are. That will help you determine where in financial services you will be. It’s a huge category. There are some businesses that have big commercial client relationship sides and others that are highly dynamic with trading businesses resulting in intense days on the floor. Others are highly analytic. So you have to ask yourself, what do I really love, what am I good at, and how that fits. Second, always think about the size of a firm. A small firm versus a big firm is very different. Get some experience while you’re in college.
It doesn’t have to be financial services, but it will give you a sense of what kind of environment you like to work in. Third, make sure it’s an organization where you believe in its values, where it is clear about what it stands for, and is the kind of place where you feel a sense of purpose.
I have tons of mentors. I’m a patchwork quilt of a whole bunch of people who influenced me. Billy Oaks, my father-in-law, was actively involved in Lafayette. The one thing you always want to do is find attributes of different leaders that fit with who you are. There’s no one person who has everything.
I’m a mentor to many on a regular basis. Big organizations like to have structured mentor relationships. I spent 20 years at AMEX, and three dozen members of my senior management teams are here with me at Citi—from people who were babysitters for my kids at Princeton and came for a job at American Express to students. I’m on the boards at Duke Fuqua and Lafayette and spend a lot of time talking to students, grad and undergrad, about business and leadership. There are a lot of Lafayette people here at Citi. My wife says if I could get paid for all the placement I do, I’d have a career in that alone.