Wednesday's news that Ken Lewis will retire as CEO of Bank of America was not a huge surprise. But his looming departure poses giant questions about the bank's future, Charlotte's future and who will drive each.
The bank's board and senior executive ranks have been changing as fast as the landscape around them in recent months. Some who were once being groomed to succeed Lewis are gone. And some of the board members who will name Lewis's replacement are brand new to the bank, its culture and its history.
There has been no clear heir apparent. That's a stark difference from the years of planning that went into Lewis becoming Hugh McColl Jr.'s successor in 2001. And the bank, of course, is at a fundamentally different place from when McColl stepped down. McColl built an empire, then left amid a down stock market and a general banking slowdown. Lewis's departure comes as the bank tries to crawl back from a near-death experience brought on by last fall's financial crisis and some of his own controversial decisions.
Lewis's successor faces a tougher challenge than perhaps any new bank leader ever has: finding a way to bring stability, then growth, back to a company that owes tens of billions to the government, has toxic assets on its books and is still trying to swallow two companies that initially decimated its bottom line, all in the worst economic environment of the past 70 years.
An ability to execute
Following Lewis will be extremely difficult. Following McColl was no easy task either. Besides being brilliant at building a global banking powerhouse, McColl was gregarious and always passionate about Charlotte and civic affairs. Lewis is more introverted and less focused on Charlotte's civic affairs, though he successfully led such major efforts as the Arts & Science Council and ImaginOn campaigns.
But Lewis got the job because of his ability to execute. He was the one who made McColl's deals work, in Florida and Texas and Georgia. His ability to blend huge companies was crucial to McColl's vision of building tiny NCNB into the behemoth it became. Wall Street, Tryon Street and customers saw Lewis making the right moves right off the bat as CEO and the stock price reached all-time highs.
Lewis, though, had the misfortune of leading the bank when the global lending bubble of the past decade popped. Fairly or not, his decision to buy Merrill Lynch, at an exorbitant price and under heavy governmental pressure, will probably be his most lasting legacy. That move, combined with other factors, led to civil and criminal investigations, drove the stock below $3 at one point and led to tens of thousands of layoffs.
A civic and financial threat
The biggest question for Charlotte, however, is less about Lewis's legacy and more about whether the new CEO wants to live in Charlotte and maintain the bank's headquarters here. BofA employs about 15,000 people in this region. Its people and customers drive both our economy and our civic sector. Losing its headquarters would be traumatic for both.
McColl and Lewis committed the bank's money and its people to Charlotte's well-being. When Lewis got the top job, people asked whether the headquarters would remain in Charlotte. He dismissed the questions as ignorant; Bank of America was rock-solid on Charlotte.
The whole region should be grateful it was. Its impact on our community, financially and civically, is beyond computation.
We can all only hope it continues to be. This city is reeling from the economy and the shakeup in the banking industry. This is a city facing a lot of questions about its future, and who will lead us to that future.
A generation of leaders exited eight to 12 years ago, and with the departure of Lewis and former Wachovia CEO Ken Thompson, we're making a transition to yet another chapter. We hope Bank of America will continue to be a huge part of our story, and that other leadership from across the community emerges as well.
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