In acquiring Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc., Bank of America Corp. might acquire the eventual successor to its chief executive officer, Kenneth Lewis.
Bank of America said Thursday that Merrill chairman and CEO John Thain would oversee global banking, securities, and wealth management after B of A completes its $50 billion deal for the brokerage. That would make Mr. Thain the front-runner to succeed Mr. Lewis as CEO, observers say.
Mr. Lewis, a charismatic leader, has not groomed a successor, a former Bank of America executive said. He may be pondering that issue now.
Besides Mr. Thain, "There is really nobody else around," a veteran analyst said.
A B of A spokesman said there is "no commitment" about succession in Mr. Thain's decision to stay on. Mr. Thain "is delighted to be part of B of A" but did not make succession "a central part of the conversation" with Mr. Lewis, the spokesman said.
News that Mr. Thain plans to stay on boosted morale among Merrill brokers. That he is to oversee the wealth management unit may give some peace of mind to Merrill brokers over the future of Merrill's strong retail brokerage.
"Do I want to see him succeed Lewis? Absolutely!" said a veteran Merrill broker. "He's the most intelligent CEO I've ever seen. No ego, unlike Stanley O'Neal," who was ousted as Merrill's CEO and replaced by Mr. Thain.
Mr. Lewis, who is 61, has expressed a desire to retire at 65.
"Four years is a long time for Thain to stay," said a managing director at a Wall Street firm. Much depends on the future relationship between Mr. Lewis and Mr. Thain; retained CEOs of acquired companies often leave after a year.
There is also speculation that Mr. Thain, a Republican, has his sights set on Washington and possibly following in the footsteps of his former boss at Goldman Sachs Group, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. So a lot also depends on the presidential election, the managing director said.
Mr. Thain, who is to oversee Bank of America's investment bank, most of its wealth management operations, and Merrill's business, took the helm at Merrill less than a year ago. Before that he was CEO and a director of NYSE Euronext Inc. and oversaw NYSE Group's June 2006 merger with Euronext NV.
Mr. Thain joined the NYSE in January 2004, serving as CEO and a director. He began his career as an investment banker at Goldman, where he rose to become co-president and co-chief operating officer.
Bank of America also said that Brian Moynihan, who was appointed a year ago to oversee a shake-up of the Charlotte company's investment bank, will take on a newly created position after the Merrill acquisition — an "enterprise-wide role" that will look at the redefining the company's business model.
Since taking over Bank of America's investment bank, Mr. Moynihan has faced questions about his Wall Street experience, though Mr. Moynihan has bristled at those questions. He began his career as an outside counsel to Boston's Fleet Financial Group Inc. before being hired by the bank. Mr. Moynihan then spent six years in corporate strategy and mergers and acquisitions at Fleet, wringing out cost savings and scrutinizing operations during Fleet's 1990s acquisition spree.
He ran Bank of America's wealth management unit starting in 2004, when the company bought FleetBoston Financial Corp., the product of Fleet's acquisition of BankBoston Corp.
Mr. Moynihan took over wealth management in the wake of a mutual fund trading scandal, which shook Bank of America and led to a staff exodus.