Already the earth is beginning to tremble. Each of the three banking companies--Bank of America Corp., Bank One Corp. and First Union Corp.--are the creations of strong-willed and visionary executives who aggressively built backwater enterprises into the behemoths they are today.

Their function was to build, largely through acquisitions. And in the process, the bottom line often was sacrificed--wittingly or not. The men taking the place of these outgoing legends face the Herculean challenge of consolidating their often jerrybuilt enterprises and turning them into powerful profit generators.

At BofA, Hugh McColl is 64 and approaching retirement. His heir apparent is Kenneth Lewis, currently president and chief operating officer. At Bank One, Jamie Dimon has become CEO, taking over from his ousted predecessor, John B. McCoy. And Edward E. Crutchfield left First Union earlier this year to be replaced by G. Kennedy Thompson, a long-time executive of the company.

In efforts to raise profits and boost their beleaguered stock prices, each took similar moves during the summer. Lewis announced that Bank of America would cut its workforce by 10,000 people, or 7%. Thompson had First Union take a $2.9 billion charge as part of a restructuring plan that included the lopping off of its hemorrhaging Money Store Inc. unit. And Bank One's Dimon took a $1.9 billion charge, "cleaning the decks to build a great company," as he put it.

All are promising rapid and consistent growth in profits and revenues. But none seem to have found the magic formula to achieve those promises.

Conceivably, and most probably, their goals are beyond reach--not because they are incapable leaders, but because the promises are unrealistic. Maybe Lewis, Dimon or Thompson--perhaps all three--will find ways to meet their goals. But it will be intriguing to see what happens if they can't. Will they be replaced? Or will they, and the markets, take a more realistic view of what can be wrought?


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