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BofA takes new approach, new attitude

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 6, 2002


Okay, I admit it. As a business writer, I sometimes miss the hell-for-leather days when charismatic North Carolina banker Hugh McColl, a CEO bordering on cartoon general for his insatiable appetite for acquisitions, routinely invaded Florida and bought its biggest banks.

McColl created the modern-day Bank of America that as the nation's third largest bank now so dominates the market in Florida and dozens of other states. But McColl is now retired, and so is Bank of America's growth-for-growth's sake strategy.

McColl's hand-picked, less colorful but more disciplined successor, Kenneth D. Lewis, has pulled an impressive 180 in the bank's direction. He's quashed the merger-mania culture, cut unprofitable businesses and cleaned up some sloppy service habits. Now Lewis is squeezing more profits, higher worker productivity, better feedback from customers and a significantly improved stock price out of his coast-to-coast cobbled banking company.

The bank's dramatic philosophical shift is not lost on Tim Laney, a lifer at Bank of America who was named president last fall of the bank's Florida operations and its 20,000 statewide employees. The Florida State grad and Jacksonville resident, who worked for the bank in the Tampa Bay area in the 1980s, was back in town this week to visit with employees, or "associates" as the bank prefers to call them.

After speaking to 500 or so BofA workers at a St. Petersburg loan processing center, Laney sat down to chat. And, frankly, we both had to marvel at Bank of America's uncharacteristic status in Florida as a steady, well-known institution that isn't wrestling with another big merger or trying to introduce a new corporate name to Floridians.

"Bank of America as a safe harbor," Laney wondered out loud. "Who would have thought that?" Safe harbor. It's a phrase Laney likes. He mentioned it in an interview with this newspaper a year ago, and in a quote last month in a story in the Charlotte Observer, the newspaper in Bank of America's headquarters city.

By coincidence, Bank of America's biggest competitor in Florida, First Union, just changed its name in this state to Wachovia. The name is brand new to most Floridians (though known elsewhere in the Southeast), and so foreign-sounding that Wachovia is introducing itself in print ads by spelling its own name phonetically.

Laney, a youthful 42, obviously is pleased it is First Union's turn to spend the next year or so trying to promote a name change. And privately, he chuckled that First Union considered its own name so tainted by lousy service that it swapped it for the far more unusual Wachovia.

In New York this week, BofA CEO Lewis summed up his bank's intentions -- to control expenses and seek more productivity gains -- in remarks delivered at Goldman Sachs' annual bank CEO conference.

Now Laney must take the lead of Lewis. Bank of America is getting smarter about running a bank that can be profitable and make more customers happy. The bank has overhauled its training and rewards systems. And it has cut error rates and customer complaints by applying the principles of Six Sigma, Corporate America's currently in-vogue system of cutting waste and improving service quality.

Here's where Bank of America gets downright rah-rah. Just over a year ago, Laney was recruited to launch a work force program called "Bank of America Spirit." I gulped when I heard the ethereal name.

The idea is to infuse Bank of America employees with a kinder, gentler work ethic. It's kind of a golden rule approach to service, as in treating others as you would want to be treated, Laney explains.

In good conscience, I had to interrupt him with a Who are you kidding? question. How do companies alter basic employee behavior on short notice?

The Bank of America Spirit service training program was developed with help from Walt Disney Co., a pro in customer service. It was first tested by the bank in Atlanta before it reached Florida. All 140,000 bank employees eventually will go through the program.

"I was not a believer," admitted Laney when he first heard about the program. At the start, he even had to practice smiling more so he could convince other Florida employees to buy into the program.

But Laney says he sees results. Bank employees are more courteous, even more kind. And that is reflected, the bank says, in recent internal surveys that show customers are more satisfied and less likely to defect to competing institutions.

Sure, you have doubts. So do I. History shows kindness and giant banks make for strange bedfellows. But hey, a little more courtesy these days won't hurt anybody. Let's see what happens. Later, we'll revisit Bank of America's experiment in kindness and see if its new "spirit" really sticks around.

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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