NEW YORK — Bank of America Corp. Chief Executive Kenneth Lewis might be acquiring his successor as part of his plan to purchase Merrill Lynch & Co.
On Thursday, the Charlotte banking giant said Merrill Lynch & Co. Chairman and Chief Executive John Thain will oversee its global banking, securities and wealth management once Bank of America completes its $50 billion acquisition of the brokerage. The appointment puts Thain in a position as the front runner to succeed Lewis as chief executive.
The announcement comes a week after Lewis told Merrill brokers Thain would stay at the combined company but didn't specify his role.
Lewis has been a charismatic leader, but also one who didn't groom any clear successor, a former Bank of America executive said. Lewis, now 61, may be pondering who would be the right kind of leader once he retires.
The highly regarded Thain, 53, might well be that person. "There is really nobody else around," a veteran analyst said.
In a similar vein, JPMorgan Chase's former chairman and CEO Bill Harrison lured James Dimon into staying as his successor when the two struck a deal for JPMorgan Chase to buy Bank One Corp. in 2004. Dimon was chairman and CEO of Bank One. Both Harrison and Dimon have said the Bank One deal was not only a strategic coup for JPMorgan Chase, but also a shrewd instance of succession planning.
A spokesman for Bank of America said there is "no commitment" about succession in Thain's decision to stay with the bank after the acquisition. Thain "is delighted to be part of B of A," the spokesman said, and Thain "did not make (succession) a central part of the conversation" with Lewis.
To be sure, Thain would need to bide his time to succeed Lewis, who has expressed a desire to retire when he's 65. "Four years is a long time for Thain to stay," said a managing director at a Wall Street firm. Much depends on the relationship that Lewis and Thain form as well. Retained CEOs of acquired companies often leave after a year.
There is also speculation that Thain, a Republican, had his sights set on Washington, possibly following in the footsteps of his former boss, Henry Paulson, now Treasury Secretary. So a lot also depends on the presidential election, the managing director said.
Thain will oversee Bank of America's investment bank, most of its wealth-management operations and Merrill's business.
Thain took over at Merrill's helm less than a year ago. Prior to Merrill, Thain served as CEO and a director of NYSE Euronext Inc. and oversaw the merger between the NYSE Group and Euronext NV in June 2006. Thain joined the NYSE in January 2004, serving as CEO and a director.
Thain began his career as an investment banker at Goldman, where he rose to prominence and became co-president and co-chief operating officer.
Bank of America also said that Brian Moynihan, who was appointed a year ago to oversee a shakeup at Bank of America's investment bank, will take on a newly created position after the acquisition dubbed an "enterprise-wide role" that will look at the redefining the company's business model.
Since taking over Bank of America's investment bank, Moynihan has faced some questions about his Wall Street experience, an assertion Moynihan has bristled at.
He began his career as an outside counsel to Boston's Fleet Financial Group Inc. before being hired by the bank. Moynihan then spent six years in Fleet's corporate-strategy and mergers-and-acquisitions activities, wringing out cost savings and scrutinizing operations during Fleet's 1990s buying binge.
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. Moynihan took over wealth management in the wake of a mutual-fund trading scandal, which shook Bank of America and led to a big personnel exodus.
Bank of America's shares recently traded down 22 cents at $37.94. Merrill's recently traded up $1.05, or 3.9%, at $27.75.