Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Bank of America Must Remove Ghost of Hugh McColl from Board

By Eric Jackson, Senior Contributor

12/02/09 - 01:02 PM EST

Stock quotes in this article: BAC

NEW YORK (TheStreet) --

Reports are out today that several of the candidates under consideration for the top job at Bank of America(BAC Quote) have called on the board to consider breaking up the bank. They are having none of it. As a result, the CEO search for Ken Lewis' replacement continues.

All in all, you would have to give the board of Bank of America an "F" for how they've monitored management and succession planning since a firestorm enveloped the company last Fall.

Primarily blame for the lack of preparedness the board has shown to having a successor for Ken Lewis waiting in the wings lies at the feet of Hugh McColl, Lewis' predecessor. McColl has really shaped what Bank of America has grown into. It won't change until his ghost leaves the board by having directors he appointed step down.

On a "Frontline" episode from last year describing the financial meltdown, McColl, who is still the bank's chairman, recounted how he'd masterminded turning the small NCNB National Bank of North Carolina into the Bank of America juggernaut. He said that, as a company, "you're either growing or you're dying."

He took that advice to heart and did a series of acquisitions of companies to create a national titan in banking. And that's why it's unlikely this bank will break itself up now or while McColl is still around. It's just not in their corporate DNA.

Bank of America is the house the Hugh built. He hand-picked his board to be his lapdogs. He hand-picked his successor, Lewis, to carry on exactly in the fashion he had led the bank.

Lewis didn't miss a beat. In fact, he took it up a notch, making increasingly bigger acquisitions. Lewis' tenure as CEO will be defined by his acquisitions of MBNA, Fleet Bank, Countrywide, and Merrill Lynch. The bank is now enormous.

Yet, Lewis didn't like how he was treated by the government and the press. He was used to being seen as Ken the Conqueror, not a lightning rod for criticism. So, he decided to take his ball and go home. His decision to quit after the summer left the board completely flat-footed.

Succession planning is only something a company is judged on when they do it badly. The fact that Bank of America is now having such a hard time filling the top spot signals how poorly equipped this board was to do scenario planning.

It's a pretty basic question that every board must always think about: what would we do tomorrow if the CEO got hit by a bus? Most of the time, there are two to three internal candidates' names which easily come to mind. Nine times out of 10, a board would rather select an internal candidate for the knowledge of the company, industry, customers, and employees who will be able to take the company forward.

All of the largest banks in America appear to have done a poor job of internal talent development, but Bank of America is by far the worst. Why?

At the end of the day, the bank's directors were charter members of the "Friends of Hugh" club. Their primary job as a director was to rubber-stamp whatever Hugh wanted to do. If Hugh didn't bring up the issue of succession planning, it didn't need to be considered.

That's why, starting after the spring shareholders' meeting (at which there were several directors who received large numbers of "against" votes) the Federal Reserve has started reassembling the board of directors. That's something we first started mentioning here over the summer.

This revamped board was still not able to get an effective succession process in place to prepare for Lewis' surprise departure. They should entertain all kinds of scenarios such as breaking up the bank. In my view, it epitomizes a "too-big-to-fail" financial institution and hasn't demonstrated that it can manage the disparity and scope of so many businesses.

If the Fed really wants to see the company change though, it should remove all directors who have ties to Hugh McColl. Once that happens, this board will start to rethink how this bank should be run from a truly fresh perspective. And they’ll probably conclude it does need to be broken up.

At the time of publication, Jackson did not have any position in the stock mentioned.

Eric Jackson is founder and president of Ironfire Capital and the general partner and investment manager of Ironfire Capital US Fund LP and Ironfire Capital International Fund, Ltd.

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