A mathematician by training, David A. Coulter doesn't have the look of a bold reformer.
But in the year since the small, slightly built chairman and chief executive officer was given complete control of BankAmerica Corp., he has methodically laid the groundwork for his own version of perestroika.
The bank "will change on an evolving basis," Mr. Coulter said during a recent interview in his 40th-floor office here. "But what I wanted to get clearly embedded in everybody's mind in 1996 was that maximizing shareholder value is the basic governing objective for BofA."
That notion is commonplace throughout the industry today. But at BankAmerica-historically seen as overly bureaucratic, inefficient, and top- line oriented-such words riffle through the 93-year-old company like a breeze from a just-opened window.
What's even more refreshing to analysts and investors is that in just one year BankAmerica's $250 billion-asset empire, spanning nearly half this country and 37 others, is speaking with one voice.
According to observers, Mr. Coulter, 49, has brought focus to an unwieldy company that more than doubled in size in the first half of the decade through big-and in some cases, costly-acquisitions orchestrated by his predecessor, Richard M. Rosenberg, who retired as chairman a year ago.
"He's putting his own mark on the company, in terms of his style, his people, and initiatives," said Paul Hazen, chief executive officer of local rival Wells Fargo & Co. "He has not sat around there as a caretaker."
Wall Street has also taken notice.
Of the 23 analysts who follow the bank, 15 have a "buy" recommendation on the stock. Nearly all of those upgraded their positions from "hold" or "sell" within the past year, according to First Call Corp.
"People see this young guy who has a plan that is working," said R. Jay Tejera, analyst with Dain Bosworth Inc., Minneapolis. "So you either get on his train, or get off his train. When you hear people deep in the organization all talking about risk-adjusted return on capital, you know you've got everybody on the same train."
And the stock has not disappointed. Since Jan. 1, 1996, when Mr. Coulter became chief executive, the share's price has soared by more than 85%, to a near all-time high of $120 as of last week. To be sure, it benefited from the raging bull market, but it nevertheless has outperformed the stocks of the country's 15 largest banks.
Mr. Coulter's strategy is clear: Each area of the company either performs or is sold; proceeds from the sales go to more profitable business lines or to buying back more of the company's stock.
Examples of areas that haven't made the cut include the consumer finance subsidiary, which is expected to be sold by the third quarter; 68 retail branches in Texas; and another 120 retail branches in California. About 3,700 positions companywide are being eliminated, out of the 92,000 total.
The bank is also overhauling its overseas operations, marked in part by various reductions in its subsidiaries in Japan, Australia, Hong Kong, and South Korea.
"If you add up all the incremental things he is doing, the result is a very different company," said Raphael Soifer, analyst with Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. "It wasn't that dramatic at the outset, but it's becoming increasingly clear to me now that it is."
But Mr. Coulter's most daunting challenge, one that could take at least several years, is his desire to transform the bank's culture.
BankAmerica's corporate culture has been characterized as soft and clubby, with a heavy dose of turf battles. "BofA has had this image of one group on the 40th floor, and then everybody else," said Mr. Soifer.
That's going to change, Mr. Coulter said.
"What I want is a place that is active," Mr. Coulter said. "I want people trying to be on the leading edge of financial institutions, not afraid to raise their hands, to question, argue, and debate, but do it as part of a team that wants to move forward and be one of the winners.
"I don't want this to be the kind of place where someone brings bad news and you kill the messenger," he added.
To achieve this more open, collegial atmosphere, Mr. Coulter has fashioned himself as the great communicator within the company. He uses voice mails frequently and video messages about once a month, one insider estimated, sharing his thoughts on a wide range of company news with most of the bank.
"He's really come a long way in developing a video persona, and that plays well I think," said a BofA official who requested anonymity. "Dick (Rosenberg) didn't do that kind of thing."
Mr. Coulter got employees even more engaged in the company last fall by announcing, via a satellite hookup, one of the most far-reaching employee stock plans in the industry. The bank expanded that plan Monday, allowing another 3,500 employees in 24 countries to participate.
But to really change the culture, Mr. Coulter said, he had to change the people, which he has done gradually but extensively. The top tier of the bank's management, a seven-person body called the office of the chairman, is nearly unrecognizable from just more than a year ago.
Four members, considered part of the BofA old guard, left and have been replaced by three new vice chairmen-all outsiders. Two of them, Michael J. Murray, the wholesale chief, and Michael O'Neill, chief financial officer, came from Continental Bank Corp., which BofA acquired in 1994. The third is H. Eugene Lockhart, the 47-year-old former chief executive of MasterCard International Inc., who was named head of retail in March.
"Dave sent a hell of a big signal with the Lockhart hiring," said John McQuown, a local consultant who first recommended Mr. Coulter to BofA in 1976 when he was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he studied mathematics and industrial administration.
"The BofA culture has been inbred and insular," Mr. McQuown said. "So the Lockhart hire was Coulter's way of saying that he's addressing that problem."
Mr. Coulter is younger than all but two of his vice chairmen.
That is significant, observers said, because there will be no succession speculation, at least for some time, thereby avoiding the uncertainty that characterized the final years of Mr. Rosenberg's tenure. Mr. Coulter was the surprise choice to become CEO after a distracting yearlong search that ended in August 1995.
The top team knows that Mr. Coulter will be in charge possibly for the next 10 to 15 years, giving the company the continuity to make longer-term changes.
Among those changes, Mr. Coulter said he aims to decentralize management. When the company was recovering from near ruin in the late- 1980s and then bulking up in the early-1990s, a centralized management style was necessary, but no longer, he said.
"I really do believe that the industry is at a strategic inflection point," he said. "So to develop the sort of management team that is going to carry this place forward, you have to shift some of the responsibility and accountability down."
Not everything has been rosy in the first year. The bank has run into a flurry of bad press in recent weeks over lawsuits filed by San Francisco and the state, alleging misconduct in the bank's municipal bond department going back decades.
Mr. Coulter has publicly acknowledged mistakes and has vowed to correct them, but the matter should never have gotten this far, according to a former BofA official familiar with the case. The bank, and Mr. Coulter, who came up through the wholesale side of the company, have known about the problems for years, the former official said, and "should have handled it much more forcefully" before it became public. But overall, Mr. Coulter gets high marks for his efforts to chasten the behemoth that is BankAmerica.
"I'd give him an A," said Richard Fredericks, an investment banker at Montgomery Securities in San Francisco. "This is a guy who gets it."