As Bank of America’s technology chief, Cathy Bessant heads a unit tasked with keeping up with rapid change across the industry, an effort that has meant new jobs forming at the Charlotte-based bank but also occasional layoffs.
Bessant, who is based in Charlotte, spoke with the Observer this week in an interview covering a range of topics, including job cuts, her role in North Tryon Street redevelopment efforts, Charlotte’s push to be picked for Amazon’s second headquarters, and her recent first-place ranking on American Banker’s Most Powerful Women in Banking list.
Here are some highlights:
On Tuesday, Bank of America laid off an undisclosed number of Charlotte employees in Bessant’s global technology and operations unit, the latest cuts this year to such employees. Those layoffs followed cuts by the bank in June of an undisclosed number of tech employees in Charlotte.
Bessant, in describing recent layoffs, said the tech sector is faced with the “incredible” challenge brought by the fast pace of industry change, which has created the need for new programming languages and new ways of thinking about storing information.
Bank of America has to ensure it is staying on top of such change, a process that unfortunately produces job cuts at times, she said.
“Every single layoff is hard, and every single layoff involves a human, and I hate that, but that doesn’t mean those decisions are wrong,” Bessant said. “The expectation has to be that we’ll continue to responsibly transform the workforce.”
Even as Bank of America cuts jobs in some areas, she said the bank is hiring for other positions, noting that her unit alone has roughly 1,600 job openings worldwide, most of those in the U.S. In Charlotte, the bank has about 600 openings, not all in her unit, she said.
Charlotte economic development leaders are pushing to make Charlotte home of the second headquarters that e-commerce giant Amazon.com plans to open somewhere in North America. This month, the Charlotte Regional Partnership and Charlotte Chamber confirmed they will lead the effort for the region.
Bessant said she that while she has not been personally involved in the efforts, she is grateful that Bank of America Chief Administrative Officer Andrea Smith is playing a role as chair of the Charlotte Chamber.
Making pitches for large projects is tough, Bessant said, adding that Amazon has been “very open” about how it will closely scrutinize factors like transportation and education systems in evaluating communities.
“Those are places where Charlotte has to, I think, continue to rally because we can and do have all of those things,” Bessant said, adding that Charlotte also has to keep investing in public transportation in particular, as it’s an area that will determine the future competitiveness of the city.
“I hope this bid goes well,” she said. “I believe that economic vitality is really important, and that means continuing to focus on jobs and economic development.”
On North Tryon redevelopment
This year, Bessant was named chair of an advisory committee overseeing a plan to redevelop the North Tryon area of uptown, a project involving local government and the private sector.
Bessant described the vision for the area as “a sustainable, diversified, inclusive, vibrant North Tryon.” The corridor has lagged the explosive growth happening along South Tryon and Stonewall streets. But Bessant said that will change.
“While you may not be seeing many cranes today, you know you will be,” she said, pointing to projects that are beginning in the area, such as the remake of Carolina Theatre, a landmark that’s been dormant for about 40 years. Plans call for reopening the theater as space for community meetings and arts programs, like movies and music performances, with a hotel to rise in a new tower on top the theater’s lobby.
On her magazine recognition
This week, industry publication American Banker named Bessant No. 1 on its Most Powerful Women in Banking list. Bessant has appeared in the annual ranking before, but never in first place.
The magazine said Bessant, who leads a team of about 95,000 employees and contractors worldwide, has “emerged as a key thought leader regarding the digital revolution that is upending the banking sector.”
Other Charlotteans on the list are Ally Financial’s Diane Morais, president of consumer and commercial banking products, at No. 11, and Bank of America’s Smith, at No. 13.
Regarding her recognition, Bessant said she was thrilled to be honored with other women from Charlotte.
“I think my kids will think I’m cool for a little while,” she said.