The battle among big banks for talented executives, especially technology execs, is rough and tumble, though usually behind the scenes.

But it spilled out into the open Tuesday after two major banks — JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup — announced major changes in the ranks of their digital operations.

Citi said that it had hired Gavin Michael, the digital chief for JPMorgan's consumer bank, to be its head of technology for global consumer banking. Michael wasAmerican Banker's Digital Banker of the Year for 2016.

Then a JPMorgan Chase memo surfaced that said it was promoting Bill Wallace to take the job held by Michael. Wallace had been the head of operations for JPMorgan's consumer bank and ran its customer-experience council.

The two announcements followed news late last week that Heather Cox, chief executive of Citi FinTech, will join USAA as chief technology and digital officer this fall.

Whether Citigroup or JPMorgan Chase was the company in reactive mode Tuesday was uncertain, as a flurry of information and statements began to circulate that sought to put each company in the best light. Nonetheless, all the shuffling and the narratives made one thing apparent: scoring top digital talent has become incredibly important to the largest banks as they see mobile banking as the future of their businesses.

The JPMorgan memo, dated Aug. 11 and obtained by SourceMedia's American Banker on Tuesday, was written by Gordon Smith, the chief executive of the consumer bank. It says Smith had informed Michael that he was planning to move Michael out of his job.

"Gavin Michael and I have discussed that he will be looking at other opportunities," Smith said in the memo following the passage that said Wallace had replaced him. "Gavin and I are working together to identify potential roles at JPMorgan Chase, and he's expressed an interest in looking outside as well."

Citi said Tuesday that it had hired Gavin Michael from JPMorgan to be its new head of tech for global consumer banking; JPMorgan is replacing him with Bill Wallace, a move that may have been in the works. Image: Bloomberg News
Citi said Tuesday that it had hired Gavin Michael from JPMorgan to be its new head of tech for global consumer banking; JPMorgan is replacing him with Bill Wallace, a move that may have been in the works. Image: Bloomberg News

JPMorgan has a reputation for frequently shuffling managers, with executives often reassigned to various parts of the business. Smith noted that practice in the memo. "Customers look at us as one firm, and we have learned time and again that the best way to institutionalize a customer-first view, not business or product view, is to have people move across businesses and functions," Smith wrote.

But Citigroup quickly countered.

It said Michael replaced Mark Torkos as the head of technology. Citi announced in May that Torkos was planning to retire in July. At the time, Citi said it would quickly establish a slate of candidates to fill the role. On Tuesday, a spokeswoman said Michael was on that list.

"We've been running our process since early summer and have been speaking to Gavin for some time," the spokeswoman said.

The spokeswoman also provided this statement from Michael.

"Citi's Consumer Bank is well positioned to be a digital leader globally with scale and scope that present tremendous opportunities," Michael said. "As consumer behavior rapidly evolves, technology is a fundamentally transformative factor in how we engage, serve and acquire customers today and in the future. I am excited to join the Citi team and harness the power of new technologies to deliver a better, simpler, and safer customer experience."

Under Michael's direction, JPMorgan launched a new mobile app and website and recruited key talent, Smith wrote in the memo. JPMorgan's mobile app has more active users (25 million) than any other bank in the U.S.

A JPMorgan spokeswoman added Tuesday that Michael "helped us to build a foundation in digital and mobile banking that's put us well ahead of our competitors" but that "it's now time for us to build on that foundation, and Bill [Wallace] is a tremendously effective leader that can bring us to the next level.

Meanwhile, JPMorgan said that Mike Ashworth, chief information officer of the consumer bank, succeeds Wallace as head of operations for the consumer bank. Saul Van Buerden is set to become chief information officer of the consumer bank.

"These moves are designed to broaden our leadership team with new assignments," Smith said in the memo. "We know mobility creates stronger, end-to-end leaders and these changes will help strengthen our focus on three essential areas."