Driven, detail-oriented Metris CEO makes no apologies

Ron Zebeck, the boss at booming Metris Companies since 1994, disputes the notion that he made $53.5 million last year.

Sure, he knocked down $2.75 million in salary and bonus in 2000.

But most of his 2000 compensation package resulted from gains that came when he converted option shares priced years ago at around $1 per share into common stock worth $25 a share in 2000.

"It took seven years of building this business," said the 46-year-old CEO of the Minnetonka-based credit-card firm that employs 4,200 nationally. "We've performed better than our peer group and the stock market.

"I converted those options, founders shares, since 1994, to equity. My financial adviser would say I did a stupid thing. Probably 85 percent of my net worth is in Metris stock. I also wrote a check for $28 million [last year] to the federal government to pay the taxes."

Zebeck is the driven fourth son a Baltimore steelworker who started out of high school as a finance-company loan collector. He owns Metris stock valued at $55 million, including restricted and option shares.

The company, whose shares have quadrupled since 1996, boasts a market value of more than $1.7 billion.

Zebeck is a blunt, detail-driven CEO. He has matured somewhat from a nit-picking, brash boss into a more measured executive, associates say.

Metris has grown from a dozen-person start-up that was once the fledgling credit card arm of catalog-retailer Fingerhut. This year it may crack the Big 10 of U.S. bank-card issuers.

"He is direct [and] can be tough on people, and has strong opinions," said Jean Benson, 33, a seven-year Metris veteran who just left the firm as executive vice president and controller to spend the summer with her three young children. "What amazes me is how well he remembers things and his ability to catch on from an accounting perspective. He gets things down.

"From a CEO perspective, he is very hands-on," she said. "He's had to get better at that. But he still feels passionately that this is his company. He feels strongly that he's doing good things for people. He thinks about Metris people when he makes decisions. And he is family-oriented."

Zebeck, the father of two, credits his wife of 20 years, Rita, with helping his career by tolerating Ron's cross-country career moves and slavish work hours.

In conversation, Zebeck moves easily among subjects ranging from consumer finance (a very tough business) to the growing ranks of Metris employees and the need for in-house day-care centers and vacation prizes to attract and retain the $28,000-a-year customer-service agents who are so important to the company's operation.

"We've had two stock grants of 100 shares each to every employee in this company," Zebeck said. "And the stock has split. We've got $25,000-a-year employees who are worth $12,000-plus in stock." And most of them have held on to their shares, he added.

More polish

Zebeck is a far more polished and articulate man than he once was. As a rookie marketing manager at Citibank 22 years ago, Zebeck recalled one day when he could not stop stammering and shaking during a presentation he was making about a new product.

John Reed, the Citibank consumer boss who would become chief executive of parent Citicorp, had acquired NAC, a small Baltimore retail credit operation where Zebeck and several other family members worked. It was part of Citibank's strategy to grow its credit card franchise through retail operations.

"Ron was one of the bright, shining stars," recalled Ed Speeno, then a Citibank regional vice president. "He came to me in 1976 and wanted to know what he had to do to move up. He didn't want to spend his life in collections. I sent him to management training."

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