by Christopher Koch

20/20 HONOREES – Nigel W. Morris

Oct 01, 20022 mins

Cofounder, President and COO

Capital One Financial Corp.

Companies have been doing market research for decades, but Capital One Financial does it more scientifically. For example, in 1999 Nigel Morris (who cofounded Capital One and became its COO in 1994) offered credit cards to two small, similar groups of customers. The differentiator was the channel: One group signed up on the Internet and one offline. The results?

“Internet people are substantially more risky,” says the 43-year-old Morris, whose background in psychology has left him with a great appreciation for the scientific method. “There’s a much higher preponderance of fraud, and they are much more likely to leave you for another company. So the Internet is a much more difficult channel to make work in the credit card business.” Morris claims Capital One has run tests like these at least 65,000 times.

Data mining is at the core of those experiments. Even slight changes to the many variables that alter credit users’ behavior can affect the bottom line. Technology lets Morris slice up the rewards?and the audiences that receive them?into ever finer segments. By identifying groups not being served by the credit card industry, he and his cofounder, CEO Rich Fairbank, opened up new markets by pioneering credit cards for high-risk customers?customized to minimize those risks. (The Federal Reserve recently has expressed reservations about the Falls Church, Va.-based company’s ability to avoid those risks, and the company has suffered some market reversals.)

It’s Morris’s skill in building an experimental machine that integrates rigorous scientific analysis with a risk-taking culture that has powered Capital One’s prodigious growth during the past seven years, and also makes him one of the 20/20’s most successful IT implementers.