ASK MOST ENTREPRENEURS WHY THEY tempt the tickle fates of the business world with a start-up and they will spout apocryphal platitudes about the thrill of hard work and the giddy rush of risking one’s personal fortune on a great idea. Closer to the truth, most are probably dreaming about living the life, albeit newfound, of John Tolleson.
Last January, Tolleson, 49, sold his company. First USA, for $7.2 billion to Columbus, Ohio-based Banc One. The acquisition of First USA, which in eight short years had become the nation’s third-largest credit card issuer, doubled Bank One’s card-holder base to nearly 32 million. Tolleson’s company had led the way among a stream of monoline firms utilizing aggressive offers that featured low interest rates and no annual fees-offers that the multiservice banks weren’t willing to make. First USA further distinguished itself by marketing to niche groups through "affinity cards" targeting club members, team fans, or purchasers of a certain product or service. With First USA’s annual growth rate of about 25 percent, the merger is expected to boost Banc One’s growth rate by 3 percent. It also made Tolleson, with shares, options, and cash valued at an estimated $133.7 million, a very wealthy man.
The merger has also brought about welcome changes in Tolleson’s life. For 25 years, he has been the very picture of a driven executive. He was present in 1985 at the birth of MNet, the credit subsidiary of the former MBank. That company was taken over by Lomas Financial Corp. in 1986 and then sold to its managers in a leveraged buyout led by Tolleson. He took the company public in 1992, as it became one of the nation’s fastest-growing card issuers. Much of that time was spent travding between Wilmington, Del. (the company’s processing headquarters). New York (10 work with investors), and Dallas.Tolleson’s recent travels have been a little more relaxed, as is his general demeanor. He spent last summer vacationing in London, Paris, and Colorado. The man who once decried the wearing of a beard in a corporate environment as "unprofessional for someone in this field" sports a full-grown one. And although Tolleson says he doesn’t consider himself retired, perse, he certainly seems to be the master of his own time.
"1 want to sit back, relax, and actually decide what the next move is," says Tolleson. "Now I can choose what I’m doing instead of have it thrust upon me."
Even as Tolleson contemplates his future, he doesn’t see himself re-entering management. "I’ll do something," he says, "but it will be as an owner rather than a manager. I’ll be more of a private investor." Considering his track record with First USA, Tolleson would probably not have a hard time finding investors for another foray into the financial services industry, but he says he is interested in broadening his horizons. "It’s what I know best," he says, "but that isn’t necessarily where I’ll go."
Wherever he’s going, though, Tolleson is in no hurry to get there. "I’m trying to slow down a little bit." he says.
"I want to spend time with my children," he adds, indicating two smiling faces grinning from a First USA photo credit card, "and work on getting rid of my gut."
At that, John Tolleson starts to laugh-the easy laugh of a man who now has the time, and the means, to do thai and just about anything else he wants.