Sink's resume reflects gains, losses
The Democratic candidate for finance officer is a political newcomer but a business insider.
By ALISA ULFERTS
Published October 16, 2006
Alex Sink paints herself the outsider.
As a candidate for Florida's chief financial officer, she tells voters she has never held public office before, so "no one owns me." She is proud to be a Democrat, but says the label is irrelevant when it comes to balancing the state's checkbook.
And unlike her opponent, Republican Senate President Tom Lee, Sink says she's no politician. She turns her head away when she says politician, like she's slipping gristle from her mouth into a napkin.
But when it comes to the industries she'll help regulate if elected CFO, Sink is indisputably an insider, one linked to both impressive corporate successes and a few embarrassments.
She was Florida president of Bank of America - at the time NationsBank - for seven years, and controlled other departments, including commercial lending and private banking, for close to two decades.
She has served on a number of corporate boards, sometimes earning tens of thousands of dollars a year for her expertise and oversight.
She once chaired Leadership Florida, an invitation-only business and political network affiliated with the state Chamber of Commerce. She has a Rolodex that has helped raise $3-million for her campaign.
Her resume has netted her some high-profile endorsements, including that of former Comptroller Bob Milligan, a Republican, who says he would "rather have an experienced banker and businesswoman watching over my money than a politician any day."
Her slogan is "She means business."
Yet, as with many long-term finance careers, Sink's record at times has mirrored the hiccups of the market.
Sink was on the auditing committee of the Sykes Enterprises board when the company went through an accounting meltdown that spawned more than a dozen class-action shareholder suits.
She was the public face of NationsBank when it went through what was initially a nightmare for customers: merger with Barnett Bank.
She remains on the board of Raymond James Financial Inc., the parent company of Raymond James Financial Services Inc., whose oversight of its brokers has provoked sharp criticism from the Securities and Exchange Commission. Sink has said she'll quit Raymond James and her other current board, First Advantage, if elected.
Sink says that lows are a part - valuable, even - of every industry, every company and every career, and that voters know mild turbulence is no reason not to invest in a blue chip with a history of strong performance.
"You just have to be diligent," Sink says, and promises to do that if elected to the Cabinet. She says her experiences, good and bad, at the bank and on corporate boards have sharpened her eye.
Inroads in Florida
Sink grew up in Mount Airy, N.C., the town used as the model for Mayberry of The Andy Griffith Show fame. Her father taught her to balance the family farm checkbook when she was 10, and she earned a mathematics degree from Wake Forest University. (And no story about Sink's background is complete without a salute to her famous great-grandfather: Chang Bunker, one of the original Siamese twins.)
Sink went to work for then NCNB, later NationsBank and even later Bank of America, in 1974. Retired Bank of America chief Hugh McColl said it didn't take long for bank executives to see her potential. The bank moved her at first to New York, and then to Miami, to build up its commercial banking business.
"She was always someone who made it happen. She had a lot of confidence. She brought in business," McColl said.
McColl said Sink did so well, and made so many valuable inroads in Miami's coveted Cuban community, that the bank decided in 1993 to put her in charge of its Florida operations. Sink notes that while she was president, the bank's deposits more than tripled, from $13.7-billion in 1993 to $43-billion in 1999. Net income increased from $54-million during that time to $403-million. Sink oversaw more than 9,000 employees and 800 bank branches statewide.
In 1997, NationsBank lined up a merger with Barnett Bank. The $15.5-billion megadeal, an industry record at the time, made NationsBank the No. 1 bank in the state. Most of the merger went smoothly enough. But the decision to flip the switch on a new computer system all at once - on Oct. 9, 1998 - instead of phasing it in led to chaos.
Bank employees hadn't received enough training on the new system, and their repeated attempts to log in caused the computers to shut down. Long lines were common at many branches because of a flawed model for predicting customer turnout. Customer service phone lines were jammed for weeks.
Sink walked up and down the lines of cars idling in the drive-through lanes at a South Tampa branch, asking for customers' patience, while a celebratory sheet cake sat, uneaten, inside. McColl personally apologized.
McColl said the decision to merge the two banks' computers in one day wasn't Sink's, even though she took the heat for it.
"That decision was made in North Carolina by a person who lost his job over it," McColl said.
Said Sink: "I learned there are some things you can control and some you can't."
Around that time, when NationsBank also began merging with Bank of America, Sink was temporarily replaced as chief. She was brought back several months later when her replacement left for Bank of America headquarters in San Francisco.
Sink retired two years later, in part because she said she was unwilling to give her bosses the long-term commitment they wanted. Her departure fueled speculation that she had been shown the door, but McColl said there was never a time when the company wasn't satisfied with Sink, even if she at times ruffled feathers.
"She was never willing to be a nice little girl and wait in the aisle."
Audit trouble at Sykes
Sink's management experience extends beyond banking to the corporate boards of several Tampa Bay companies. She helped get troubled Republic Bank in shape in preparation for a merger. She watches over Raymond James and First Advantage Corp. Mostly, her tenure has been smooth. But not always.
Sink served on the auditing committee of the corporate board of Sykes Enterprises from 1997 to 2001, during which time the company restated its earnings multiple times. Sykes said that it had prematurely recorded earnings from a software contract, and that it was following a difficult new set of accounting rules. Company founder John Sykes was unavailable for comment.
Shareholders didn't buy it. After watching Sykes stock tumble from more than $50 a share to around $5, they sued. Shareholders accused the company of hiding real earnings to boost stock prices so it could complete acquisitions using company stock in trade. The lead co-plaintiff in the consolidated case was the Florida state pension fund, which, along with the Louisiana pension fund, lost $1.7-million. The entire case was settled for $30-million.
If Sink is elected CFO, she will help oversee the state pension fund.
She said she and other board members - in that pre-Enron era - relied on the assurances the company's independent auditors gave that everything was in order. She says she now knows better what and when to question.
"I'm going to change the way the Cabinet operates," Sink said.
Times computer-assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Alisa Ulferts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (727) 892-2379.