Even when alone in her office on the 56th floor of NationsBank headquarters, Catherine P. Bessant is surrounded by opposition.
As president of the 260-employee community investment group, Ms. Bessant deals daily with stacks of letters from community groups and individuals who oppose NationsBank Corp.'s proposal to merge with BankAmerica Corp. The letters challenge NationsBank's commitment to serve its expanding customer base adequately.
Dealing with community groups and their fears is "basically 100% of my time," said Ms. Bessant.
And the work load is growing.
Ms. Bessant is preparing for a Federal Reserve hearing on the merger scheduled for July 9 in San Francisco. Organizations from around the country are sending representatives to the forum, even as they demand additional hearings in other cities.
The protesters are calling for NationsBank to make specific commitments about where and how it will allocate resources once the $60 billion merger is complete.
But Ms. Bessant said NationsBank would not put its promises on paper.
"We're too big, and it's really unworkable to try to write separate agreements with each and every group in all our markets," she said. "We think it's unproductive."
Still, Ms. Bessant said she understands many of the community groups' fears and is working to overcome them. She has compiled reams of data over several years documenting how NationsBank exceeded a 1991 $10 billion-over- 10-years pledge. And she has gathered proof that the bank was working on directing $150 billion to community interests before the BankAmerica merger came together.
Last year, NationsBank said it made 14,954 mortgage loans totaling $786 million to low- and moderate-income buyers. She cites programs in Atlanta, Dallas, Nashville, and Washington, as highlights of the company's efforts.
NationsBank generates more than three dozen detailed reports for each of its major markets each year, Ms. Bessant said. That practice will continue after the merger, with hundreds of reports going out annually to provide community groups in all major markets and regions with detailed information about community investment activity, she said.
"We have to demonstrate credibility," she said, "but it's not an overnight process."
With a nine-year track record of handling community investment issues for NationsBank, Ms. Bessant has a thorough understanding of just how hard it can be to win over company critics.
Ms. Bessant's high profile has made her a candidate for Federal Reserve Board governor, according to informed speculation in Washington.
Though she sees some protesters as opportunists out to get the most they can from lenders, she recognizes there are real concerns that must be addressed.
"It's very difficult at a time like this to understand who is really being represented by these groups," she said. "We want to deal directly with people in the marketplace, rather than assume they are represented."
Ms. Bessant spends a good deal of her workweek traveling from city to city, sitting at negotiating tables. Though she knows she will never meet the repeated demand for written agreements, Ms. Bessant said she sees value in listening to community concerns.
Her approach has won her praise from community activists who deal with her.
"Catherine is one of the more progressive community reinvestment advocates, philosophically," said Irvin Henderson, immediate past chairman of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. But NationsBank's policy of refusing to put agreements in writing "ties her in."
He said the bank's CRA commitments are more public relations than substance.
Even as Ms. Bessant prepares for the San Francisco hearing and meets several times a week with community organizations, a new storm is brewing.
Late last week, the California Reinvestment Committee criticized the Fed for limiting public hearings to one day in one city, and it called upon the regulator to hold multiple hearings elsewhere. More than 300 California organizations and individuals have written the Fed requesting hearings in Sacramento, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Fresno, according to the CRC.
In the meantime, more than 40 organizations representing Latino, African-American, Asian, and other constituencies are planning to protest at the July 9 hearing, said Robert Gnaizda, general counsel of the Greenlining Institute, San Francisco.
His group and the National Black Chambers of Commerce have asked that regulators conducting a CRA exam at NationsBank investigate the company's small-business, home lending, and investment practices. The groups want regulators to postpone approval of the merger until the exam has been completed and the results can be reviewed by opponents.
The public pressure is draining. But Ms. Bessant said she has adopted a line by NationsBank CEO Hugh McColl to keep her focused: "Hugh says, at the end of the day we have to judge ourselves on how we matter to the communities we impact."