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Bank of America’s Hugh McColl Jr. on the bank’s legacy, Dean Smith and Charlotte growth

If you’re going to visit Bank of America’s uptown history museum, you can’t get a better tour guide than retired CEO Hugh McColl Jr.

McColl recently walked the Observer through an exhibit opened last year that highlights the bank’s North Carolina roots and its growth into a national banking giant.

Before retiring in 2001, McColl helped build Charlotte-based Bank of America into a financial titan through a series of mergers in the 1980s and 1990s. Along the way, he also shaped the city’s center city and put Charlotte on the map as a growing New South powerhouse.

During the museum tour, McColl, who turns 80 in June, shared anecdotes about predecessor Tom Storrs, the crystal hand grenades he passed out as employee awards and the bank’s Texas expansion. He also discussed Bank of America’s recovery from the financial crisis, current CEO Brian Moynihan, the late UNC basketball coach Dean Smith, Charlotte development and a health scare last year.

McColl’s comments were edited for brevity and clarity.

On Bank of America’s North Carolina roots: “There’s no question that the bank that survived is (Charlotte-based) American Trust Co. Its leadership survived the (1957) merger with Commercial National. (The renamed Charlotte-based) NationsBank acquired (California’s) BankAmerica and took the Bank of America name. It acquired FleetBoston. It’s never changed.”

On predecessor Tom Storrs, who spearheaded the bank’s entry into Florida in the early 1980s: “He was a brilliant man. He never said anything he didn’t mean and never meant anything he didn’t say. He deserves more credit than he gets for our going into interstate banking. He saw it very early that it was something we had to do.”

On his crystal hand grenades: “I decided I would give away a grenade as an award. I was going to do a gold, silver and bronze grenade like the Olympics. A local man who ran a gift shop here said, ‘Why don’t you give crystal hand grenades away?’ I bought 100 of them, and from then on I gave away crystal grenades to people who were outstanding performers. I’ve seen both men and women cry when they got them.”

On the 1988 purchase of First RepublicBank in Texas: “It was the most important merger we ever had. It changed the future of our company forever. It allowed us to escape the Southeast.”

On current CEO Brian Moynihan, who has spent much of his tenure working through losses and lawsuits tied to mortgage lender Countrywide Financial: “He’s been a great CEO for us. The company has come through very difficult times, and it took somebody young and tough to get them through it. It’s not the first time we’ve gone through difficult times. We’ve had at least three serious periods – always caused by real estate, I might add.”

On the bank’s current condition: “I feel really good about what our people have done. It’s hard to work hard all the time when you’re getting beat up in the press. I’ve been impressed that through all this difficulty Bank of America has continued to support all of its cities. My thinking is that this company is so strong that when it goes back on offense everybody will understand it.”

On Dean Smith, the former UNC basketball coach who died this month: “Dean would call me and say. ‘I’ve got a young man I want you to be interested in. I think you’ll like him.’ The first one he sent was Phil Ford, and Phil Ford worked in our trading room. He was very successful. Everyone he sent us was a good young person. We trusted him that he wouldn’t send us a bad person.”

On bank regulation: “The economy doesn’t run without banks. Money is the oil or the gasoline of the economic engine. Congress does the country and themselves a disservice when they interdict that process. The banks may have been under-regulated in the past, but they are over-regulated now. I think that’s a mistake, and it is hampering the economy both here and in Europe. So I think over time you will see some of this regulation rolled back.”

On development in Charlotte’s center city, which had been in decline until urban pioneers aided by McColl started pushing redevelopment in the 1970s: “I think it’s always been a contest between fear and greed. For years, fear dominated the view of the center city. People were afraid to invest down here. Because of the bank, being candid, we were able to change that. Now you can’t keep the developers out of the center city because they aren’t afraid anymore. I think our company and other banks put up a huge amount of money to see that it happened.”

On Charlotte rival Atlanta: “Atlanta is larger and always has been. The difference is we’ve had good planning. We are a more compact city. We are not linear in the way that Atlanta went up Peachtree Street. It was very hard for Atlanta to have a central business district. It’s a great city. But we have a more coherent plan.”

On the Blue Line light-rail extension: “What encourages me the most is taking the train north to UNCC. I think that’s going to do what we’ve always wanted to do, which is spur development along North Tryon Street. It’s going to change our city forever. For the first time, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte will be at Charlotte.”

On his surgery last year: McColl had surgery in November to treat a blood clot on his brain that developed after a fall. “I’m fully recovered thanks to my surgeon Tim Adamson and the Carolinas HealthCare System. I’d like to thank everyone who reached out and expressed their concerns.”