CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Say this about Hugh L. McColl Jr.’s handing over of the reins Wednesday at Bank of America Corp.: He dressed the part.

Mr. McColl, who put on a 10-gallon hat, blue jeans, and cowboy boots just after the company’s annual meeting — he wore a suit for the formal proceedings — unveiled his immediate plans for retirement. Tucking a thumb into a belt loop, he said: “When the alarm goes off tomorrow morning, we’re going to get up, have some coffee, then go out in the boondocks and wait for some turkeys to come.”

His departure after a 41-year career in banking, and the ascent of Kenneth D. Lewis, who took over the posts of chairman and chief executive officer from Mr. McColl, closed out a transition that has been underway since last year.

Mr. Lewis, who has already put his stamp on the company through a series of high-profile hirings, reiterated in his first day at the helm that his mission will differ greatly from that of his predecessor, who for two decades steered the company on an acquisition path aimed at making it the nation’s largest consumer banking company.

“Now we’re a growth company with a different strategy,” he said. The challenge is no longer building to get bigger but “building shareholder value” by wringing results from two decades of mergers, he said.

Still, Mr. Lewis hinted that Bank of America’s days as an acquirer are not necessarily over. With 8% of all U.S. deposits, it is nudging up against the 10% national cap, but “that does not mean we will not be opportunistic,” Mr. Lewis said. Deals are most likely to occur where they make the most sense, such as in asset management, he said. Bank of America has already shown its commitment to that business with its recent hiring of Richard DeMartini, who had headed Morgan Stanley’s international private-client group, to lead asset management at B of A.

But future deals would have to be accretive to earnings, and the company would seek out smaller asset management firms, Mr. Lewis said.

Bank of America has yet to find suitable deals, in part because “prices so far have been very, very high,” he said. Some potential deals would be so costly that they would not produce a return “in my lifetime,” he said.

Mr. Lewis also said that consolidation is changing the competitive environment. Bank of America remains the nation’s only real coast-to-coast banking company, but he said he expects this distinction may be short-lived.

“I don’t know the companies, but I think consolidation will continue,” he said. “Somebody eventually will try to form a company that is coast-to-coast.”

Asked how First Union Corp.’s announced purchase of Wachovia Corp. might affect Bank of America’s strategy, he responded with a touch of humor. “If you have changed your strategy to one of being customer-focused … and two major companies in your market combine, you’d think that you have died and gone to heaven,” he replied.

Wednesday’s meeting, which was packed with 1,800 shareholders, employees, and reporters, was the last official act for Mr. McColl.

His retirement completed an executive transition officially begun more than a year ago but set in motion back in 1993 when Mr. McColl chose Mr. Lewis to be president. Mr. McColl announced his retirement plans in January, and the board anointed Mr. Lewis as his successor.

In a farewell speech to shareholders, Mr. McColl said Mr. Lewis “is a better businessman than I am; he is young, tough, and, in the tradition of the company’s leadership, eminently fair.”

And so far analysts agree. Nancy Bush of Ryan, Beck & Co., in Livingston, N.J., said that Mr. Lewis is clearly a product of Mr. McColl’s inner circle but is a “manager of the younger generation” as well.

“He and his peers realized some of the mistakes of the industry in the past,” Ms. Bush said. However, he faces challenges, she said. “Can he continue to downsize the bank, and reshape and restructure, and run it not necessarily for scope or size but for profitability and consistency?”

Mr. Lewis already is making changes with a number of key hirings from outside the company.

He has brought in executives from Kodak, Fidelity, FedEx, and other large U.S. companies to help build the brand name and find new ways to operate. “It’s opening up the pool of talent in ways that we haven’t done before,” he said.

In retirement, Mr. McColl expects to maintain roles in both business and community activities in Charlotte. As a consultant to Bank of America, he will be an “ambassador for the corporation,” the company said in its annual proxy statement.

He will not be paid but will get an office, an assistant, and use of the company jet under a renewable five-year contract.


From Our Archive

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.