William S. (Bill) Wallace is currently the president of the Mass Affluent Business Division of Chase Card Services, based in Wilmington, Delaware. But before he began climbing the corporate ladder, Bill received his BS in Mathematics from UVM's College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences (CEMS) in 1984. CEMS Assistant Dean Dan Harvey (a fellow member of the UVM Class of '84 and editor of Spire) recently had an opportunity to catch up with Bill who has recently reconnected with CEMS as a member of the College Board of Advisors.
DH: Bill, tell Spire readers a little bit about where you're originally from.
BW: Glad to. I grew up in Wilmington, Massachusetts, a small town about 20 miles northwest of Boston. I loved to read Encyclopedia Brown books when I was young. My mom was a teacher so she was always encouraging us to read at a young age. We lived in a neighborhood with a lot of other kids so we were always playing something from hockey in the winter to baseball in the summer.
DH: In addition to reading and playing sports, what were some of the things you were interested in as a youngster?
BW: In high school I loved math, but I also was intellectually curious about a lot of different things. I remember reading cover-to-cover an old book of my father's on auto repair because I was just interested in how the engine worked. I was also involved in a statewide student government program where delegates from each community worked on providing input to the state department of education. I also worked for a small company that wave-soldered printed circuit boards, which was my early introduction to the inner workings of computers.
DH: What led you to apply to, and then attend the University of Vermont?
BW: I was interested in an engineering-based curriculum, but I didn't really know if I wanted to be an engineer. I knew I wanted to go to school in the New York/New England area and I was sure I wanted a more rural campus setting than a major metro urban setting.
I visited a number of schools in my junior year across New England and upstate New York with my mom. I remember getting off the highway and coming up through campus to the top of the hill and then looking down to see Lake Champlain and the mountains behind it and thinking "Now, this place is awesome!"
I then did the intro session and the campus tour and the vibe was just right for me. I liked the students I interacted with and I felt like the range of options in the curriculum along with the city of Burlington and the activities on campus were right for me. I decided right then and there that the other schools were out and this is where I wanted to go. While we were sitting in the orientation session, I looked across the room and there was my best friend from grade school who moved away in the fourth grade. We had always kept in touch, but I didn't know he was going to be there looking at UVM that weekend. It was just pure coincidence, but I took it as another sign that UVM was where I was meant to attend.
DH: Tell me about your education at UVM what things stood out for you personally, socially, academically?
BW: I always tell my own children that part of the college experience is learning about life and learning about people and it's as much about self discovery of what you enjoy and what you don't as the actual academic learning you will undertake.
One of the most valuable things about my education was making lifelong friends while there. They are to this day my best friends despite being spread all over the country. The social experience and how to build lasting relationships with people you trust is as critical a business skill in today's world that I attribute both to my upbringing and my experiences at UVM.
Academically, UVM gave me the freedom to take classes in three different disciplines really: electrical engineering, math and computer science. It helped me solidify the areas I wanted to focus on and I worked on a project for Larry Kost and Jim Burgmeier that ultimately cemented my interest in joining the computer science field. One of the other things I really remember is the approachable nature of the faculty. I think the campus environment at UVM fosters a level of informality that makes almost anyone from the administration to the professors approachable. I think this is a critical attribute for any student to getting the most out of the curriculum they undertake.
DH: I know I wouldn't trade my time as a college student in Burlington for anything what did you think about it?
BW: Burlington, as a city, has a lot to offer. The fact that you can walk downtown from campus was great so after class you could head down to the lake on a nice day or at night or for happy hour easily meet up with friends. Most of my group of friends loved to ski as well, so in the winter when I could afford it we'd try to get out and do some skiing.
There's a great range of restaurants and other establishments downtown that made it easy to find something you'd like. A visit to Ben and Jerry's when it was still in the converted gas station or to see Mama Bove was always an easy choice. I chose to stay up in Burlington one summer and had a great time taking a few classes, working and enjoying all that Vermont has to offer.
DH: Let's fast forward from there to the spring of 1984. What did you do immediately after graduating with your BS in Mathematics?
BW: After graduating, I actually worked as a substitute teacher for the fall and then went to work at GE Aerospace in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, as a programmer/analyst. GE was a great learning experience and I found that my academic experiences at UVM prepared me well to enter the work environment and be positive, productive and open-minded about taking on and volunteering for a number of unique challenges and opportunities.
I worked for GE for nine years across a number of disciplines, rising into management and getting exposed to a number of GE's management training programs. I ultimately crossed over into something called the GE Advanced Concepts Center and worked on large-scale commercial consulting projects. I was then recruited away by one of my clients to go to work for a small credit card company in Wilmington, Delaware.
DH: That small credit card company isn't so small anymore! Tell us a bit about your current position at Chase.
BW: Yes, that small credit card company in Delaware grew from 1993 to 1998 and was ultimately bought by Bank One, which was then merged with JPMorgan Chase. I ran the software development organization from 1993 to 1999 and then was CIO for Bank One Card Services and Chase Card Services through 2004.
The growth in the industry led to lots of innovation and technology is a critical component of running a large-scale, information-based business as is decision sciences and the art of building mathematical models in support of everything from marketing response to behavioral models of lending, spending and shopping characteristics.
Chase as a company was very supportive of my development throughout my tenure and at the end of 2004 after completing one of the largest systems conversions in the industry I asked to move into a role on the business side and led our partnership marketing business. Chase offers hundreds of co-branded cards on behalf of a number of America's great brands like United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Marriott, Continental Airlines, Starbucks, Disney and AARP.
Starting just last month, I became the president of the business unit that manages our Chase-branded products aimed at the mass affluent customers here in the U.S. That includes the innovative and popular Chase Freedom, which gives cardmembers the choice of earning either cash or points and changing back and forth without leaving any rewards behind.
I love the broad scope of businesses represented by JPMorgan Chase 3 from investment banking, asset and wealth management to retail banking and credit cards to commercial banking and treasury and security services. We serve a broad range of clients from small-business owners to the middle market to large corporations both here in the U.S. and abroad.
DH: Bill, you were recently asked to join the CEMS Board of Advisors. Given this new role for you, comment if you would on Dean Grasso's vision of "holistic engineering" and the value of a liberal education.
BW: After quite a few years focusing on my career and family, I've been able to re-engage with UVM, and in particular with CEMS and Dean Grasso. I find in the business world that critical thinking and problem-solving skills are very important.
I learned early on in the software development world to hire folks that were motivated by seeing someone use software they had written, but also to have a few folks on the team who looked at the code itself as the product. This blend of skills allowed me to build teams that were creative and good listeners for what the clients wanted and also enabled me to have some terrific problem-solvers who were able to generate very efficient and elegant solutions.
I also learned that when you motivate people to "bring their whole self to work" by engaging whatever they were passionate about, you were able to create a much more creative work environment and one that allowed everyone to share their interests in a way that contributes to the creation and evolution of our products and services. I draw today on the experiences I had at UVM, in the aerospace world and the IT world to help inform my perspective on every decision or innovation I'm involved in.
I think part of the value of Dean Grasso's holistic engineering approach is to expose students to a broader set of inputs earlier in someone's life so that their perspective on everything is broader from the outset. They also may find their passion in a space outside of the core disciplines of engineering, but be able to bring that passion to the projects and work environments they participate in.
In my mind, perspective along with core critical thinking skills are very important parts of the problem-solving and creative processes necessary to be successful in today's (and tomorrow's) professional environment.