The next Bank of America Corp. chief executive will inherit a long to-do list, and have to plot a course designed to please a wide range of people.
Kenneth D. Lewis' successor must repair the company's relationship with regulators, shareholders and political officials. He, or she, will need to finish the integrations of two of its largest acquisitions ever, Countrywide and Merrill Lynch & Co., while keeping a close eye on a growing pile of problem loans. Employee morale will also demand considerable attention.
What is the top priority for Lewis' successor? Opinions vary widely, but followers of the company say the board's answer to that question should be the prism for determining whether to promote from within or recruit an outsider.
Gary Townsend, the chief executive of Hill-Townsend Capital LLC, said the announcement of Lewis' planned retirement, coupled with the silence on his successor, has invited intense speculation. "We don't have an idea what is going on inside Bank of America right now," he said. "The only thing that is certain is, the strategic direction must be different now that Ken is no longer sailing the ship."
Townsend said the focus must be on improving relations with regulators and charting a roadmap for repaying $45 billion to the Troubled Asset Relief Program. This may involve "selling assets that they may have been reluctant to sell," he said. "To me, that says you have to look outside."
A company spokesman said that Lewis and Walter Massey, who has been the chairman since investors took that title from Lewis in April, would not comment.
John Kottmeyer, an adjunct professor in economics at Samford University's Brock School of Business, agreed that addressing relationships with regulators, institutional investors and political interests is the top priority. A new CEO must rise above the issues that beset Lewis in his final months at the helm, such as whether the risks of the Merrill deal were hidden. "Credibility, integrity and honesty are atop the list," he said.
Kottmeyer said there may be internal candidates with enough distance from Merrill's woes to offer a clean slate. Sallie Krawcheck, who joined the $2.3 trillion-asset Charlotte company in August as president of global wealth and investment management, could work. Another option may be Barbara Desoer, who as president of home loans and insurance was in California for most of the past year integrating Countrywide Financial Corp. "I would think those executives would have less taint than some of the others," he said.
The other internal candidates are said to be consumer banking chief Brian Moynihan, chief financial officer Joe Price, investment banking boss Tom Montag and chief risk officer Gregory Curl. At least a dozen outsiders have been named in speculation. Some observers have suggested that the board may opt for a short-term fix, either by hiring an interim CEO or naming an executive chairman to shepherd the company temporarily.
Marshall Front, the chairman of Front Barnett Associates Inc., a Chicago investment firm, backs the notion of promoting a company insider. For him, the benchmark for success has to do with performance and motivating employees to push forward. "In that regard, there will be a sizable learning curve having someone come in from the outside," he said.
Keeping middle managers will be crucial for the next CEO because some internal contenders are apt to leave B of A if they fail to get the top job. An outside hiring runs the risk of spurring defections.
"You can be 100% sure that there are people who are hoping to get the brass ring who will in time migrate elsewhere if they don't get it," Front said.
Joyce A. Thompsen, an executive consultant at Informa's AchieveGlobal unit, agreed. "Bank of America has a lot going on to breed fear-mongering within its own walls," she said. "The name recognition and reputation of the new CEO will be helpful to settle any jitters there."
Gaurav Patankar, a managing partner at 360 Global Partners Inc., said the greatest obstacle involves combining the cultures at B of A and Merrill and limiting defections from the investment bank and brokerage operations.
"The first challenge for the new CEO is getting the investment bank right," he said. "They also do not want the international Merrill Lynch business to wilt away. So you want someone with a solid grasp of global markets but also … seasoned in American banking."