Amy Brinkley once gave a man known for keeping a grenade on his desk advice on whether to keep the name of the company he’d spent a great deal of effort to build. Fabled former NationsBank CEO Hugh McColl Jr. took her advice, and when his 1998 acquisition was complete, a new era in banking was born. Bank of America became one of the biggest names in contemporary finance. And Brinkley’s stints as president of consumer products and head of marketing gave her a big say early in that repositioning.
It’s that calculated confidence and her ability to make a call that gained Brinkley, now chief risk officer, one of the most important places in the brain trust of Ken Lewis, chief executive of the $1.03 trillion bank. Brinkley, 48, has been key in helping Lewis steer BofA through calm and turbulent waters.
With some 4,000 people in her group, Brinkley watches over all risks—liquidity, credit, market and operational—for the bank. She’s on the panel that controls capital allocation to the bank’s many businesses. Brinkley is charged with reducing volatility of the firm’s corporate credit portfolio, and she’s also responsible for the credit performance of its $500 billion loan portfolio—about nine percent of all bank loans in the country. Bad commercial credits in a sluggish economy have gone down from a peak of $4.4 billion at the end of 2002 to $1.8 billion at the beginning of 2004. And, the company says, commercial loan loss rates at 0.48 percent at the start of the year, down from 1.33 percent last year, means a boost in the bottom line.
Years ago when Brinkley was chief marketing officer for NationsBank and then BofA, her role was, among other things, to be a cheerleader for the firm. Her job now is to worry. But she doesn’t sound like much of a worrier. “I wrestle with the challenge of bringing more of the unknown into the known,” she says. “There are probably some things we can agree that are unknowable. But there is so much out there that is within our power to know.”
Her work has gained nods from the likes of Bill Martin, an award-winning risk manager at Invesco, and from elsewhere in her bank. “It’s been a challenging environment to manage through, given all the interest-rate shifts and the company’s large balance sheet,” says RBC Capital Markets analyst Joe Morford in San Francisco. “They’ve done it pretty adroitly and some of that comes from top-line risk management.”
Brinkley’s obviously all about predicting outcomes, a phrase she uses repeatedly. Doing it comes from confidence in analytics and detailed business knowledge, but that’s not everything. “You have to have math and analytics, but there’s no substitute for judgement,” she says. It’s judgement that was valuable in handling one of the firm’s thorniest issues in the last year—how the top brass dealt with Bank of America’s involvement in a mutual-fund trading scandal that snared many names on Wall Street. To his credit, Lewis responded quickly and the firm agreed to a $675 million settlement. Brinkley won’t talk about her part in resolving the crisis, but what could have been a draining and lengthy distraction is now in the past. For Brinkley, the discussion came down to three things: “Urgency, [being] fact-based and doing the right thing,” she says. “It was a very disappointing time in our history and hopefully what we’ll be remembered for in the long run is how we dealt with it.”
It’s on the Chapel Hill graduate’s watch, BofA officials say, that each company division now has a plan for managing all types of risk, not just credit risk. Averting risk comes naturally for her, it seems. As former head of consumer products, she was instrumental in getting BofA to exit auto leasing, one of its more volatile businesses.
Brinkley’s quick to give a nod to clout. “Influence is a skill and talent, that’s in great demand,” she says. But gaining that means taking risks, and, perhaps not surprisingly, that’s her advice to up-and-comers. “Take personal risk, including taking lateral moves, to broaden yourself,” she says. “Sometimes people get very hierarchical in their thinking. Sometimes the best moves I made over the course of my career were the ones people looked at and said, ‘Why is she doing that?’”