HUGH MCCOLL: Seasoned Banker

Article excerpt

The CEO of the new Bank of America, Charlotte, draws on lessons from a long career in banking. His personal story, excerpted from a new biography, sheds light on a leader with strong instincts and a steady hand at the helm of one of America's premier financial institutions.

HIS BUILDINGS DOMINATE THE SKYLINES OF SOME OF AMERICA'S HOTTEST CITIES. The tallest towers in towns across America, from Charlotte to Seattle, are part of his portfolio. Yet Hugh McColl's real estate holdings are merely the ancillary benefits of acquisitions; it's the mortgages he holds, the loans on other people's property, that help make McColl, in the eyes of many, the most powerful banker in the United States.

* And while McColl has spent virtually all his career on the commercial side of the bank, both the bank and his career have been tested in the fires of home mortgage lending.

Charlotte, North Carolina-based Bank of America, with $621 billion in total assets, is the largest bank in the United States, with a customer base of 30 million American households and 2 million businesses. It provides international corporate financial services for business transactions in 190 countries.

Seattle's former SeaFirst Bank is switching to the Bank of America ensign this fall, which means McColl's red-white-and-blue flag will be waving down one seacoast and up the other, from the Florida peninsula to the Washington peninsula--the first ocean-to-ocean bank in the nation's history. And it all started down in Marlboro County, South Carolina, near where Crooked Creek runs into the Pee Dee River down in Bennettsville, where they raise a lot of cotton and not much else.

"Growing up, there was always talk about land values around our dinner table," McColl remembers. "Investments, earnings, profits. ... There was a lot more talking about that sort of thing than about the Bible. Daddy insisted we know about things like that."

McColl's father, also a Hugh, had kept the family bank from going under during the Depression, but by 1935, when Little Hugh was born, the reluctant banker felt weighed down by the responsibility of solvency--particularly since so many of the people who owned stock in the company were his relatives. By 1939, the Bank of Marlboro was liquidated, and McColl's father split his time between working the books at McColl Cotton Mills and managing the family farmland. That was the career young Hugh figured he'd inherit one day.

"Every Saturday he took me out walking the family property, walking the lines," says McColl. "I knew where every iron stake was buried. Then we'd go riding around the county, looking at every piece of land. He made me memorize who owned it, how much cotton it would grow, how much the land was worth and how much you could borrow against it."

In interviews conducted over a period of two years for his biography, McColl devoted a lot of time to reminiscing about his early years. At age 14, he says, he learned double-entry bookkeeping and began keeping the cotton brokerage books.

"We bought cotton from the farmers and sold it to the mills. We were always hedging. We had to pay cash to the farmers. Daddy had a $15 million line of credit at American Commercial Bank, up in Charlotte, but he held on to the collateral. The bank trusted him. Everybody trusted him."

It came as a shock to McColl, when he finished his stint in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1959, that his father didn't trust him to keep the cotton growing. "We're getting along fine without you," said McColl Senior to his brush-cut son. "You'd better go on up to Charlotte and be a banker."

Forty years later, the bank Hugh McColl went to work for still doesn't have a branch in Bennettsville, but there are plenty up the road in Charlotte, the bank's corporate headquarters, where American Commercial begat North Carolina National Bank, which begat NationsBank, which--after something of a turbulent cross-country courtship in 1998--wedded BankAmerica and begat Bank of America. …