Observers said Monday's retirement of Frank L. Gentry, chief architect of Bank of America Corp.'s aggressive expansion, signaled the end of the company's most acquisitive period.
Mr. Gentry, 57, was executive vice president of corporate planning and strategy at the Charlotte, N.C., company and its predecessor, NationsBank Corp. In 27 years at the company he gained a reputation as the brains behind the higher-profile insiders who led the march across the continent that culminated in the 1998 merger with San Francisco-based BankAmerica Corp.
When Mr. Gentry started, the company was known as North Carolina National Bank. As NationsBank it grew from $3 billion of assets to $633 billion through a series of industry-shaping deals.
"I don't know any officer who has participated more in the growth of the company," said Hugh L. McColl Jr., Bank of America's chairman and chief executive officer, in a Jan. 11 memorandum. "While [former chairman] Tom Storrs and I get most of the credit for being the masterminds of our expansion strategy," Mr. Gentry "really was the person who put meat on the bones of those ideas," Mr. McColl said.
Mr. Gentry helped the company devise a plan to get around confining regulations, observers said. In the early 1980s, Mr. Gentry served on the company's interstate banking group, which was set up to find ways of circumventing restrictions on expansion. The committee struck gold in 1981, when it found a loophole to secure approval to buy tiny First National Bank of Lake City, its first depository institution in Florida.
"Buying that little bank in Florida was one of the last straws that broke the back of state limitations on interstate banking," said E. Kenneth Reynolds, executive director of the Association of Banks in Insurance and a former colleague of Mr. Gentry. "In that sense, some would argue it was a more important development than last year's banking bill in the evolution of banking powers."
Observers also view Mr. Gentry's retirement as symbolic. Bank of America has said it is no longer on the hunt for large acquisitions, which some say left Mr. Gentry without a definite role at the company. "The era of this company as deal maker appears to be over," said an investment banker and former NationsBank employee, who asked not to be named. "The company is now in the hands of people capable of making something out of the empire people like Frank created."
Gregory L. Curl, vice chairman, has assumed Mr. Gentry's duties at the company.
In an interview last week, Mr. Gentry said expansion was an obsession inside the company during the last two decades. "We decided long ago that we wanted to be a growth company in a nongrowth industry," he said. "To do that, we knew we would have to be a consolidator."
In the 1980s the company snapped up 30 banks in the Southeast, in a spree capped by the 1988 purchase of the fledgling First Republic Bank Corp. in Texas from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The First Republic deal would be the first of three that in each case doubled the company's size; the others were the 1991 merger with C&S Sovran Corp. and the BankAmerica deal seven years later.
"I am particularly proud of the fact that we have never been afraid of a merger that might dilute our culture," Mr. Gentry said. "We always believed our culture would be able to persevere, and it has."
Mr. Gentry said he does not plan to seek another full-time job.