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What Vanguard’s hire of a sizzling Wall Streeter reveals about Bill McNabb’s determination to avoid the whiff of stale passivity

Anne Robinson is the new chief counsel reporting to the CEO, but her Citi and AmEx branding expertise and her outsider status hint at the $3.4-billion asset manager’s nod to rapid shifts toward market challenges.

If you’re looking for a clue as to Vanguard Group chairman and CEO Bill McNabb’s direction as he navigates the rapids of the financial services industry, then look no further than his most recent executive hire. As the Malvern, Pa. firm’s new chief counsel, Anne E. Robinson, who jumps on board later this month, looks to be more than just the company’s lead in-house lawyer — she’s also a change agent with special expertise in consumer marketing and branding of Wall Street-produced financial products — particularly credit cards.

After steadily expanding the company’s reach into ETFs, Vanguard is now the second largest provider of those products and of actively managed funds. The company has also added brokerage services, variable and fixed annuities, educational account services, financial planning, asset management and trust services. See: An advertiser’s chats from the Inside ETFs event and the Vanguard-versus-the-world chess match they depict.

Could consumer credit, a service traditionally the province of commercial banks, be next? Currently the company flies close to the ground in this area, offering a Visa Gold debit card to VanguardAdvantage account holders, along with a checkbook. See: As Fidelity divorces American Express, Schwab steps in to launch AmEx cards — with help from RIAs — as part of broader effort.

If so, it would be another step beyond founder John C. “Jack” Bogle’s vision for the firm. Certainly, the financial world has changed dramatically since Bogle retired as chairman 19 years ago. Back then, even the embrace of ETFs — never mind financial advice — was viewed with some suspicion.

Bogle’s successor, former CEO John J. “Jack” Brennan, laid the groundwork for many of the changes. F. William McNabb III served as his dutiful lieutenant and the keeper of Brennan’s legacy once he took over the executive suite in 2008.