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Exiting McColl's influence difficult to underestimate

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 25, 2001


At his final annual shareholders meeting today, Hugh McColl Jr. officially retires as the head of Bank of America.

You can love him. You can hate him. But give him due credit.

No other single business leader has more influenced the Southeast -- and Florida -- in the past quarter century.

McColl took NCNB, turned it into a regional powerhouse called NationsBank, then expanded coast to coast under the Bank of America name. In the process, he transformed his headquarters town of Charlotte from a sleepy backwater North Carolina hamlet to a sprawling metro area with a correspondingly sized ego. And with aggressive acquisitions, including Barnett Banks, he took control of Florida's banking market.

Not a bad career for a short, toothy-grinned guy who, at age 24, was wandering the Carolina backroads trying to peddle bank loans out of a white Volkswagen Beetle.

On Bank of America's private intranet called insite, company employees received the internal, online corporate farewell to McColl earlier this week.

Ken Lewis, BofA's new CEO, says on insite that McColl is "the most compassionate person I have ever known." He thanks McColl for helping him when needed and getting "out of the way" when appropriate.

The intranet salute is full of McColl photos. As a young trainee at American Commercial Bank (an earlier name for his bank). Walking on the beach with Bennett Brown, CEO of the acquired C&S Bank of Atlanta. A Dallas Morning News headline from the 1980s when federal bank regulators approved NCNB's takeover of a huge, troubled Texas bank -- a deal so favorable to NCNB that it all but sealed the bank's prosperous future.

There's even the photo of a helmeted, jubilant McColl and his bank buddies recreating the Iwo Jima flag-raising scene to celebrate NCNB's first entry into Florida's coveted borders.

Given McColl's imprint onBofA, the company's intranet salute is almost understated.

Just as it should be. McColl's day's of rampant bank acquisitions and growth are gone. Now in Lewis' hands, BofA's expansionist culture must morph -- quickly -- into a bank that grows internally by outperforming its competitors.

As McColl leaves, Bank of America earnings are lousy. Some analysts have dubbed it a "beached whale." But that's another story.

In a nationwide sea of colorless bankers, McColl's bravado and willingness to call things as he saw them captured and held the media's attention for many years. Over time, in an excess of coverage, McColl became a parody.

Reporters obsessed on his time as a U.S. Marine and the ornamental grenade on his desk as metaphors for his take-no-prisoners style as a bank CEO. In truth, McColl handed out crystal grenades to reward employees. And as a young marine, McColl admits "the most action I saw was around the poker table."

McColl loved to boast that his bank was a "meritocracy," where employees of greatest talent truly floated to the top. But when NationsBank bought California-based Bank of America, McColl eventually drove away nearly all of BofA's senior managers. And McColl's own board of directors was awash in pals -- good ol' boys from the Carolinas with names like "Hootie" -- who in turn stuck McColl on their boards of directors. As a going-away gift in 1999, McColl's board gave him a compensation package of $76-million that made him by far the highest-paid banker of the year.

As that rarest of commodities -- a bank CEO who was a Democrat -- McColl was a big backer of President Clinton.

The president showed his appreciation. McColl wrote Clinton a letter on behalf of Charlotte car dealer Rick Hendrick, one of his former bank directors, who pleaded guilty to mail fraud in 1997. Hendrick was pardoned in December, less than three weeks after the Bank of America Foundation pledged $500,000 to Clinton's library fund.

On the other hand, McColl ignored presidential candidate Al Gore and cast his vote for Republican George W. Bush.

McColl did manage to accumulate one thing faster than banks: nicknames.

Forbes magazine dubbed him the "General Patton of banking." But that did not stop such similar nicknames as "Napoleon of banking" (as a 5-foot-7 CEO) or "Sam Walton of banking" for his push to become a nationwide institution. A 1997 book called The Bankers refers to McColl as "a candidate for most disliked CEO in banking." Even Bank of America's 60-story headquarter in Charlotte has long been known as "Taj McColl."

McColl won't serve on BofA's board. But he will remain a BofA consultant/ambassador. And he gets an office, an assistant, and use of the company jet under a renewable five-year contract.

Don't think for a moment that McColl's going quietly into the night of retirement. He's joining several new companies as a director. He's involved in attempts to buy the Charlotte Hornets NBA franchise from its current owners. He's invested in a Charlotte Internet start-up, MindBlazer Inc., that produces marketing and training events for large corporations. He's out stumping for high-speed rail as a key component of the Southeast's future success.

And he's forever promoting Charlotte, his special love. Up in the Carolinas, the name "McColl" works better than the Good Housekeeping seal when it comes to seeking approval.

All in all, not bad for the son of a South Carolina farmer who in the 1950s told young Hugh: "Son, you don't have the brains to be a farmer. You'd better be a banker."

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

Top 10 reasons McColl is retiring

10. Ran out of crystal grenades.

9. Became so well known, physical presence no longer required.

8. Could not resist allure of quail-hunting every day.

7. Swore he'd outlast arch-competitor, First Union's Ed Crutchfield, as a bank CEO -- and did.

6. Claimed he wanted to slow down, so he could join more corporate boards, try to buy the Charlotte Hornets basketball team and invest in local start-ups.

5. Dubbed "General Patton of banking" by Forbes, but now prefers simpler "Your High-Ness."

4. Crowed he "owned" Florida after buying Barnett Banks, but forgot he hates to wear shorts.

3. Figured if second Civil War ever starts, South now has own bank big enough to finance it.

2. Kept his real chief executive title: CEO of Charlotte, N.C.

1. Bought everything in banking, so all the fun's over.

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