When it comes to cybersecurity, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan has said his staff has a blank check for whatever it needs to protect the nation’s No. 2 bank by assets.
For Cathy Bessant, the bank’s Charlotte-based head of technology and operations, it’s a sign of great support from her boss, but also great responsibility.
“Anytime a CEO says your budget is unlimited and says it in public, that is code for ‘don’t mess it up,’” Bessant said in an interview Friday in the bank’s headquarters. “So I think that is both a measure of the firm’s commitment to protecting our customers, but it’s also a measure of accountability that my team and I feel.”
Moynihan has said the bank spends about $400 million a year on cybersecurity, but that’s just a portion of an annual technology and operations budget that approaches $10 billion. With around 100,000 employees reporting to her, Bessant oversees a unit that does everything from processing checks to managing call centers to rolling out new innovations such as Apple Pay.
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About 6,000 of her employees are in Charlotte, including staff focused on cybersecurity.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Observer, Bessant discussed staffing in the unit, the bank’s work-at-home policy, offshoring, the NASCAR Hall of Fame and her role as a female leader. She also covered the “terrifying” challenge of performing in the Charlotte Ballet’s local “Dancing with the Stars” contest next weekend.
In preparation, she had to overcome a pelvis fracture suffered last month when she slipped on ice during an annual conference in Davos, Switzerland. As a breast cancer survivor, she said she’s motivated to raise money for a cancer support center that honors a former bank executive.
Questions and answers are edited for clarity and brevity.
Q. How important is cybersecurity to your role leading technology and operations?
A. I think anyone worth their salt in any business is thinking about the risks to data and the risks to customers and the risks to their companies. So I think the risks are real, and I’m deeply focused on them, as is the company. There’s no question that I believe the bank is doing the right things. We are putting the right amount of investment into it. We have unconstrained our experts in terms of budget and people and talent because it’s a fight we want to stay ahead of. We are actively cooperating with others across the industry and with government agencies to be part of the solution.
Q. In recent years, we have seen layoffs in your unit. Will we see more expense cutting?
A. The decision to eliminate positions is the hardest decision any good executive ever makes. If it’s easy, you’re not a good executive. I review every single role and every single name personally. I don’t think I am different than anyone else at the firm. That said, there are times when things that are positive result in the need for fewer people. The Legacy Asset Servicing (mortgage) unit is a perfect example. A healthier economy, the fact that we have worked through many of the most difficult customer situations have meant that our portfolio of delinquent loans is almost 10 percent of what it was when we began. What that means is we need fewer people to help customers avoid foreclosure. In the technology space, the volume of checks we process is down dramatically year over year. Mobile check deposits are up. So you should and the shareholders should expect me to continue to manage the workforce in a way that the customer demands and in a way that’s needed to operate in a tough revenue environment.
Q. The bank has been moving some jobs to the U.S. from offshore. What is motivating that?
A. The management team has a fundamental view that we should support our businesses where our customers and clients need to be supported. We’ve made the decision for our predominantly U.S. businesses that means supporting them in the U.S. For our global businesses, that means worldwide support. That has caused us to make a lot of decisions about the workforce worldwide, which does impact roles and jobs particularly that support the consumer bank coming to the United States. Ultimately, that impact will be in the thousands over the course of the transition.
Q. What’s the benefit of having the jobs here?
A. Part of it is a philosophical and strategic choice. We had built a workforce that was distributed in a way that anticipated a company growing to 400,000 people, not a company of about 223,000 people. It was a real look at the distribution of the global workforce to say, “Are we proportioned in the right way and in the right places given our customers?” I think we also have a keen desire to be mindful of the increasing complexity of cross-border data movement. So moving more of our data in the U.S. is good news.
Q. In the past, the motivation for sending jobs overseas was cost. Was that a mistake?
A. There’s no question there was at some point a cost benefit. I think in the U.S., in terms of both manufacturing and technology and business processes, we’ve gotten a lot better as a country at being more competitive in terms of efficiency and labor cost. So that has helped. As a country, we have made great strides in productivity. So there have been changes in the economics of it and the productivity mix that have made the changes possible and beneficial to the bottom line.
Q. The bank has scaled back its work-from-home program, My Work. Can you talk about future plans to require people to report to work in an office?
A. There’s no question that My Work will be a very important part of the ways we have our people come to work. That said, there were some places in my organization and in some others in the company, where we had overdeployed My Work. Some teams, for example, three-quarters of the workforce was working from home. There are two elements of a decision about where to locate a workforce that are important to this discussion. One is, “How do you get the best work?” When you have a distributed workforce and what you’re trying to do requires collaboration, those things just don’t sync up. The second thing is we have to build a workforce and a culture for the future, and building a culture is a very difficult thing to do if your workforce is overbalanced to working from home.
Q. Will more people be required to come to the office, or are all the cuts to My Work done?
A. From a Charlotte perspective, we’ve done most of what we intend to do. We may fine-tune that over the next year.
Q. You’ve spoken out against North Carolina’s now-overturned same-sex marriage ban. What has it meant for the bank to see restrictions on gay marriage rolled back?
A. The important thing to us as a bank is that all of our employees can come to work as their whole selves. I think among the factual, indisputable elements of running any kind of organization is that diversity always produces a better result. There’s empirical evidence, social evidence and just flat 32 years of experience that tells me that it isn’t even a point worth debating. And the only way to get diversity is by ensuring that whole people show up to work every day.
Q. Have you or the bank taken a stance on the city of Charlotte’s proposal to extend protections to gay, lesbian and transgender residents?
A. We haven’t. The bank’s involvement in municipal ordinances like that is something that we traditionally have not done. Again, I think the issue is pretty clear: What does it take to produce the environment where our people come to work capable of reaching their full potential? I promise you that can only happen if they come to work fully comfortable, fully feeling like they are truly, authentically themselves. But I haven’t expressed a particular view on the ordinance.
Q. Bank of America and Wells Fargo recently forgave loans for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Was that project worthwhile for the bank? Should the deal have been structured differently?
A. I believe what I have believed from the moment that we had the opportunity to win the Hall of Fame, which is that the Hall of Fame is an incredibly important asset in Charlotte. Among the byproducts of the Hall of Fame that people often don’t see are the creation of the office building next to it, the creation of the new parking deck, the creation of ballroom capacity that has enabled Charlotte to win lots of conventions that we couldn’t have won before. Our involvement with the Hall of Fame is very consistent with the long-standing commitment to the community. I think there’s no question it cannot be ignored that the hall is not universally beloved as one of Charlotte’s finest assets. And I think the real task at hand is to bridge the gap between the hall being perceived one way and being what we’d prefer to have, which is the hall be beloved.
Q. Four members of CEO Brian Moynihan’s 12-person executive team are women. Do you think that is enough representation for women at that level of the company?
A. What I know is that the decision-making at both the board and the management-team level is diverse and it is well-balanced. I don’t think it’s about the numbers. I think it’s about the balance of perspective, and there’s no question to me that all perspectives are represented at the table. Diversity is extremely important to Brian. It’s something that I’m required to report on. He holds all of his direct reports accountable, and in every single business review we have with him we report on our progress in diversity. I don’t think there are many CEOs that say the right things but then also hold people accountable.
Q. Why did you decide to participate in the “Dancing with the Stars” event?
A. It’s something I’ve been saying no to for years. There are lots of hard things I could picture tackling but never the concept of dancing in public. I’m turning 55 this year, and I thought there are not many things that terrify me anymore, and what could be better than the combination of checking a terrifying thing off the list and supporting two important causes (the Charlotte Ballet and the Buddy Kemp Cancer Support Center)? When I was going through my own cancer, the Buddy Kemp Cancer Support Center was a huge part of my recovery. Plus, the Buddy Kemp Center was founded by bank executives in honor of (former bank executive) Buddy Kemp, and I love bridging back to the legacy of our company.
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