Though he was passed over for the top job at BankAmerica Corp. last year, Lewis W. Coleman is proving that success in another career may be the best revenge.
Last December, a disappointed Mr. Coleman resigned his post as BankAmerica's chief financial officer three months after the bank's board chose its wholesale banking chief, David Coulter, as the successor to retiring chief executive Richard M. Rosenberg.
But instead of moving on to another commercial banking job, Mr. Coleman, now 54, became a managing director at San Francisco-based Montgomery Securities, one of the fastest-growing investment banks in the country.
His new office on the 22d floor of the Transamerica building is only two blocks away from the BankAmerica headquarters. But by Mr. Coleman's reckoning, the go-for-broke culture of investment banking is a world apart from the profession he left behind.
"It's been fun," Mr. Coleman said one recent morning. "People here are not steeped in bureaucracy and don't worry about keeping their jobs. They're driven by a real passion for business."
Montgomery tapped Mr. Coleman to help build its expanding practices in financial services and other consumer-related areas. In the past year alone, the San Francisco-based firm has represented Wells Fargo & Co. in its $13.2 billion acquisition of First Interstate Bancorp and Union Bank in its $1 billion merger with Bank of California.
During a wide-ranging interview, Mr. Coleman discussed everything from his thoughts on the bank merger market to his decision to climb over the firewall into investment banking.
First, he doesn't see BankAmerica in a significant merger anytime soon. Nor is he surprised by the current slowdown in merger activity at the moment.
"A lot of these deals are driven by personalities," he said. "Coulter will do what makes sense for shareholders. He's not interested in size for size sake."
Mr. Coleman said that other acquisitive banks have mostly cooled off this past year for several reasons - namely the high prices at the moment, time needed for digestion of previous deals, and perhaps most important, the technology question, he said.
Most big bank CEOs, Mr. Coleman believes, have put major acquisition plans on hold for the moment for the simple reason that technology has made them look at new markets differently.
The question Mr. Coleman believes many bank executives are likely asking themselves: If the traditional branch retail delivery system is no longer so important, then why make a potentially dilutive acquisition to get new customers?
"Do you want to have 2,000 branches across the country, or would you get more value with a technologically based delivery system?" he said. "This sort of thinking tends to slow them down a bit."
Nevertheless, consolidation will continue, he said.
He estimated that the process is somewhere between halfway and two- thirds complete. As for the big banks, he said he expects the top five to more than double in size before they are finished, but "that won't happen until the technology questions are answered."
Thinking about the future, namely his own, was something Mr. Coleman was doing a lot of last fall.
Mr. Coleman had been first on many analyst lists as the man most likely to become CEO. The question of why he didn't get the job has never been fully answered, though some suggested personality differences between him and Mr. Rosenberg, among other theories.
"It's proof that you guys don't pick CEOs," Mr. Coleman said.
With 30 years of banking experience in a variety of areas, including capital markets, wholesale banking, and merger work, Mr. Coleman had corporate America at his feet.
"I suspect that he could've been short-listed for any job in the country," said Jay Tejera, analyst at Dain Bosworth Inc. "But I'm not sure money was an issue for him at that level. There are softer issues at work there."
One of those was staying in San Francisco, where Mr. Coleman, a Stanford University alumnus, has lived most of his life.
Mr. Coleman said he never seriously considered another position in the commercial banking industry. One theory had Mr. Coleman joining his predecessor as chief financial officer, Frank Newman, who had just taken the top job at Bankers Trust New York Corp.
"I never spoke with Frank," he said.
His final list of options included three investment banks, two high-tech companies, and one nonprofit organization. Why not another commercial bank? Part of the answer was that there were no appealing positions open at the time.
"I had been No. 2 at one of the largest banks in the country," he said. "Why would I want to be No. 1 at the 20th-largest?"
Mr. Coleman also suggested that his decision to leave BankAmerica might not have been as automatic as others believed.
Former associates of both Mr. Coulter and Mr. Coleman said that though their styles differ - Mr. Coulter is more reserved in public, whereas Mr. Coleman is more direct and outspoken - the two are close and have deep respect for each other. Mr. Coulter made it clear to Mr. Coleman that the bank wanted him to stay, one former executive said.
"Dave is an old friend and we have worked together for a long time," Mr. Coleman said. "We had a number of discussions (before the decision to leave was made)."
Former colleagues of Mr. Coleman said his shift into the faster-paced investment banking industry came naturally.
"Lew is bright, quick, kind of in-your-face, and has a bit of the maverick in him," said a former BankAmerica executive, adding that those traits should serve him well in his new field. "Lew is very deal-oriented."
Perhaps even more valuable to a large, growing company like Montgomery are Mr. Coleman's administrative skills.
Like BankAmerica in this decade, the privately held investment bank is undergoing prodigious growth. In the past 15 months, its number of research analysts has nearly doubled to 43, and assets under management have ballooned from $5.3 million to $7.2 billion. The firm also just opened a new office in Boston and plans to open another soon in New York.
"Tom (Weisel, founder and chief executive of Montgomery) felt that having some experience in a big company would make a good addition to the team," Mr. Coleman said. "It was my big company experience they were interested in."
One San Francisco headhunter said he initially speculated that Montgomery would be just a "way station" for Mr. Coleman until a top spot at a big bank emerged.
But now, he and others interviewed agreed, it appears that Mr. Coleman has found a new home.
"Personally, I've never seen him happier," said a former BankAmerica executive who worked with Mr. Coleman for years and still sees him socially. "I think he's been very stimulated by investment banking. It's rejuvenated him."