Thomas W. Bunn, the head of high-yield debt origination for Bank of America Corp., waves his hand toward a window overlooking New York's Central Park.

"People love to think the world revolves around this city," he says. "And there are a lot of clients and financial sponsors here. But we aren't dependent on one industry. So if the financial sponsor business decides to shut down, we're not in trouble."

As he talks in his Southern drawl, it becomes clear that the distance Mr. Bunn places between himself and New York City is more than a matter of business.

Mr. Bunn's outsider status has been cultivated in a career spent largely in the South and Midwest. It has led to clashes with New York colleagues and prompted criticism from his biggest competitors.

Still, Mr. Bunn's profile in the industry has grown with that of the banking company he joined when it had just $12 billion of assets and little recognition outside North Carolina. And he comes to New York as a matter of necessity.

He is a Southern banker on a mission to convince corporate America that it does not need to bank at a Park Avenue address to get sophisticated, comprehensive financial services.

Charlotte, N.C.-Bank of America's headquarters and home to Mr. Bunn - will do just fine. So Mr. Bunn has been a frequent flier on the bank's corporate jet, meeting with the Coors family and hobnobbing with leveraged buyout titans on their yachts.

Mr. Bunn, 45, says meeting with America's great industrialists at what are often exclusive events satisfy an "intellectual curiosity."

"I enjoy it," he says. "But let's be clear. It wears you out. I get to Friday night, and all I want to do is go home and go to bed."

On top of it all, Mr. Bunn is trying to integrate the diverse and sometimes clashing debt origination teams of the former NationsBank Corp. and BankAmerica Corp.

As his boss, Edward J. Brown 3d, describes it, "we're taking two airliners apart in mid-air and making one."

While managing the transition, Mr. Bunn is also responsible for maintaining and building relationships with the corporate clients the predecessor banks served, persuading those clients that the integration has been seamless.

"I wake up every morning, stand in the shower or run or whenever I have empty time, and I think about how to refocus this business," he says. "Do we tweak it here or there?"

So far, the record suggests that Mr. Bunn has done at least a competent job. The bank's high-yield bond origination team held its position during the first two quarters since the merger.

And Mr. Bunn's corporate banking jewel, the loan syndications team, is holding its No. 2 position, if not challenging for the top spot, as many inside and outside the bank had hoped. With an industry-leading 349 loans in the first half of the year, the bank syndicated $93.5 billion-second only to Chase Manhattan Corp.'s $161 billion.

In the first quarter this year, Bank of America nearly edged into the top spot for leveraged loans, the most profitable loans in corporate banking. The bank slipped in the second quarter, syndicating only $14.6 billion to Chase's $22.1 billion.

The solid, if not spectacular, record contrasts the bumpy integration of the former banks' investment banking subsidiaries, notably, NationsBanc Montgomery Securities. Unlike the investment bank's high-profile departures last fall, Mr. Bunn's group has lost only a handful of players.

"I spent the last nine months integrating the merger," Mr. Bunn says. "I think anybody would tell you it is ahead of where we hoped to be. But now we're trying to get back in the right direction, which is to focus on the clients."

When BankAmerica agreed to a $60 billion merger with NationsBank in April 1998, the deal was widely seen as a retail-bank-driven acquisition. But the merger also created a corporate bank with a No. 1 position in corporate relationships with 31% of the 1,174 largest U.S. corporations.

It is not lost on Mr. Bunn that Bank of America is seen as the only bank capable of dislodging Chase Manhattan from the top ranks of syndicated lending.

"There are only two institutions that hit all bands of the business, and that's us and Chase," Mr. Bunn says. But he adds that profitability is most important to the bank, followed by "our deal list, our reputation, and our client relationships."

R. Bram Smith, a former loan executive at Bankers Trust Corp. and now the head of syndicated lending at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co., says he and Mr. Bunn have been tantalized by Mr. Bunn's challenge to Chase investment banking chief James B. Lee Jr.

"I call him 'the Jimmy Lee of the South,'" Mr. Smith says dryly. "And he says, 'Jimmy is the Tom Bunn of the North.'"

Mr. Bunn clearly savors his current position. When he joined the bank's predecessor, North Carolina National Bank, it had not yet embarked on the expansion that has made it the second-largest banking company in the nation.

That was in 1977, when he was just 23 and fresh out of the business school at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He was, and still is, pure North Carolinian, raised in Raleigh and schooled in the state.

He received an undergraduate degree at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and is an adviser at the school and longtime men's basketball fan.

"No one is going to remember me as an outstanding scholar," Mr. Bunn says wryly. "I wasn't an example of study habits."

Nor was Mr. Bunn determined to be a banker. He interviewed with a wide range of businesses upon receiving his MBA, including International Business Machines Corp. and other banks in the state.

After taking a hard look at leaving his home state, Mr. Bunn recalls, his decision to accept a job at North Carolina National became the obvious choice because "I wasn't swamped with offers."

But soon after his arrival at the bank, Mr. Bunn's career took off. He worked on the bank's fledgling corporate loan team, which at the time handled mostly North Carolina businesses. After interstate banking laws eased, it bought two Florida banks in 1982, and Mr. Bunn had his first lesson in mergers.

"When we entered a market, we didn't sit back and let the people who were there run it," Mr. Bunn recalls. "We sent our best and brightest down there to run it. We knew we had to bring it into the fold and run it like NCNB."

In 1982, Mr. Bunn was sent to Chicago to work in the bank's loan production office. He took over in 1985. There was no such thing as a real national bank at the time, which made the task of lending to companies in the Midwest more formidable, he recalls.

"People had no idea what NCNB was. Treasurers and assistant treasurers wouldn't agree to see us, because they didn't know why they should see us. We had to fire our way in the doors.

"People who grew up in the NCNB business in the '70s and '80s - we clawed and fought for everything we had," he says. "I would call and say, 'I'm Tom Bunn from NCNB,' and they'd say, 'NBD?'" referring to the big Chicago bank that preceded Bank One Corp.

In 1988, the team's fortunes began to change. Mr. Bunn's bank bought First Republic Bank Corp. of Dallas. It was the first time North Carolina National had bought a bank with a substantial corporate lending team.

The next year, Mr. Brown, the corporate banking chief, decided the time was right to build a loan syndications team. The bank was twice the size it had been when Mr. Bunn joined, and major national lending teams were forming at Chemical Banking Corp., Manufacturers Hanover Corp., and Citicorp.

After an initial job offer to another banker outside North Carolina National fell through, Mr. Brown approached Mr. Bunn. At first, Mr. Bunn was more than skeptical about getting into the syndications business.

For one, he thought, a loan for United Airlines had just gone bust. Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. was about to be shut down by regulators. And finally, a credit crunch was blooming as defaults skyrocketed to eventually more than 10%.

"I looked at (risk management executive) Bill Vandiver and Ed Brown and said, 'I don't know if I want this job,'" Mr. Bunn recalls. "'I don't know if this is a great time to get into this business.'"

Mr. Brown recalls Mr. Bunn to be "uncertain" about the job, but remembers that he had developed a reputation in Chicago as a determined young executive who had a flair for attracting clients.

"He was very aggressive in soliciting business," Mr. Brown says. "As we looked at putting him in the role, we figured Tom was going to be great at getting the positions, and he turned out great at distributing them."

And with some light arm-twisting, Tom Bunn, the company man, accepted. In retrospect, he admits it was one of the best decisions he ever made. During the next five years, North Carolina National stepped into deals abandoned by retrenching banks suffering from credit woes.

Under Mr. Brown's guidance, Mr. Bunn built a small shop with two people in Dallas and two in Chicago. Each member of the team had a background in credit risk-an invaluable asset for a lending staff in the early 1990s.

Also, the group's size meant every member would need to know all parts of the business. Mr. Bunn recalls that in the early years, the team would stay late into the night binding deal books and sending them out.

"It was a time when you could really make money lending money." he says. "Over the last 10 years, we've sustained that credit mentality. All of our distribution people can structure."

One of Mr. Bunn's early allies in the business was Mr. Smith, who at the time was with Bankers Trust. Mr. Smith explained details of the business to the young NationsBank executive and included his bank on several loans.

"He was a smart kid, a quick study," recalls Mr. Smith. "He was very tight with the right people at the bank. That's very important. (Senior management) knew and trusted him."

It was not until 1990 when Quaker Oats spun off toy maker Fisher Price that NationsBank truly made its name by leading a $175 million loan to finance the deal.

"I don't know if it went fabulously, but it syndicated, and we were so damn happy we couldn't see straight," Mr. Bunn says. "That was a huge breakthrough for us."

The team followed that success with a co-lead on deal for the National Football League that turned out to be a model for future deals. NationsBank used regional ties to draw support from team owners in the South to win the mandate, among them, Hugh Culverhouse of Tampa Bay.

By 1994, NationsBank had built a much larger corporate finance team and finished the year among the top five syndicated lenders. Still, many of its deals were at the co-agent level, meaning that it had yet to take the lead in managing a substantial deal.

That changed in the summer of 1994, when the bank made a pitch for a $5 billion deal for Wal Mart Stores Inc. Mr. Bunn and his team flew to Wal Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., and gave an unusual pitch.

"I'll never forget. I looked them in the eye and I said, 'We're a Southern bank, you're a Southern company. This is a very important transaction for us,'" Mr. Bunn sad. "We were very aggressive on it. We said we'd use our balance sheet in whatever way we needed to because there was no risk."

The Walton family, the company's owner, was convinced, the deal was done, and the relationship still holds to this day. Along the way, NationsBank forged relationships with other big companies such as WorldCom Inc., Owens-Illinois Inc., and CSX Corp.

But about the same time, Mr. Bunn was having a difficult two-year run at the bank. He declines to go into specifics, but he did say he was considering leaving banking. He and his wife, Gail, contemplated a life without the executive income the bank provided.

Colleagues and friends say the heart of the problem was a rift that developed between Mr. Bunn and Greg Meredith, hired by NationsBank CEO Hugh McColl in 1993 from Salomon Brothers Inc. to head high-yield debt in New York.

The soft-spoken but razor-sharp Mr. Meredith and the blunt Mr. Bunn squared off in 1994 over who would run a leveraged corporate finance team that would combine bank loans and bonds. At Mr. Brown's request, they combined their efforts.

It did not last long. In June 1996, bankers say, Mr. Bunn, flanked by top members of his group, walked into Mr. Brown's office and demanded he be given authority over the leveraged finance team.

"It got ugly at some points," said one associate. "And it stressed Tom out quite a bit."

Part of the rift, associates say, was cultural. Mr. Bunn is known to bristle at suggestions that he cannot keep pace with New York financial players. Just last year, he took great offense at a memo by Chase's Mr. Lee that suggested the new Bank of America was "regional."

In the end, Mr. Brown gave authority over the team to Mr. Bunn. Mr. Meredith resigned the same month. As Mr. Bunn describes it, he was ready to leave should Mr. Brown decide otherwise. But he concedes he wanted to stay.

"I genuinely like the people I work with and I'm good at what I do."

The battle between Mr. Bunn and Mr. Meredith became fodder for the trade press. And Mr. Bunn seems to harbor some ill feelings about the media as a result. Nevertheless, in retrospect Mr. Bunn believes the whole episode has allowed him to flourish.

"I am more excited about the power of this franchise, the power we have on the table," he says. Mr. Bunn is working to smooth the obstacles that created the stress in the first place. One is the stress of travelling.

"I can't do this pace for 15 more years," Mr. Bunn said. "The job will evolve and I won't have to ... Would we like to have everyone in the debt finance business in one city, in one building? Absolutely. But I've never had that."

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