All eyes are on Barbara Desoer. The former chief technology and operations officer for Bank of America is taking on the most formidable challenge in her career-as well as a 2,500-mile trek back to her native California- to oversee the blockbuster integration of Countrywide into what is now the nation's largest mortgage originator and servicer.
"I'm a corporate resource at this point," says Desoer, now president of Bank of America's Mortgage, Home Equity and Insurance Services. "I made it clear to [CEO] Ken Lewis I will do whatever and whenever is in the best interest of the company."
To many, her experience may be in its best interest at this point. Previously in charge of an IT unit that enjoyed a $6 billion-plus budget, she now takes over a unit that, on the Countrywide side of the ledger, has bled out more than half that amount in losses in the first half of 2008 alone. Nearly $40 billion in debt has been shifted to the wholly owned BofA subsidiary, and the losses expect to continue as the subprime mortgage crisis continues to show few signs of recovery, and problems seep into the prime sector.
Things look better for the bank as a whole. Revenues and profits have dropped for BofA in this challenging environment, due mostly to non-performing assets. The 2007 total revenue of $66 billion and net income $14.9 billion fell from 2006 levels of $72.5 billion and $21.1 billion, respectively. And while BofA's second-quarter net income of $3.41 billion was off pace from the record $5.76 billion set a year earlier, it was nearly double that of the bank's first quarter this year.
Long considered an archetype of the new breed of CIO, Desoer reshaped the technologist role at the $1.7 trillion-asset BofA into one that incorporated business-line and corporate strategies. That continued into her final year in the post, where she led a cornerstone partnership with the MIT Media Lab to create a joint research operation-the Center for Future Banking-to foment new ideas, technologies and products to the industry. BofA has pledged $15 million to $25 million over the next five years to the research.
She got things moving on another major initiative, too, before packing up the moving van. She was instrumental in forming the Pariter payments processing joint venture with Wells Fargo, and moving toward a next-phase mobile banking plan in which the Charlotte, NC bank inked an equity affiliation with mobile platform vendor mFoundry. While BofA has ramped up more than one million users for its mobile-browser capabilities, many point to embedded phone applications as the eventual mode for the e-wallet future. "We want to get to a place where customers can make payments, facilitate trade with merchants, facilitate trade among themselves, as the next generation of what we do," she says.
In her new role, observers say Desoer's first move will no doubt be the gargantuan task of meshing these two huge organizations together, finding the efficiencies and sharpening the ax to pare down systems and people. "With her background in technology and managing technology at Bank of America, she'll be able to go in and get her arms around the issues at Countrywide," says TowerGroup research director David Hamermesh. As the likely successor to chief executive Ken Lewis, Desoer will have the eyes of the world watching.
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