Former Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis Deserves Better
By: Sheryl A. McAlister
Sheryl McAlister is a former Senior Vice President in Corporate Affairs at Bank of America. She worked for Ken Lewis from 1994-2004. She retired from Bank of America in 2007 and is based in Columbia, SC.
This spring’s news reports of the multi-million dollar settlement between the New York Attorney General, Kenneth D. Lewis and Bank of America did little to fill in knowledge gaps or offer a glimpse into who Ken Lewis really is.
What really happened in 2008 as the whole world was watching one investment bank collapse while another was being salvaged, only a few people know for sure. Documentaries have been made and books have been written. What we all are fairly certain of, however, is that we were teetering on the edge of global economic collapse. Heroes were in short supply. Who they were depends on who you ask.
The historic record may never tell the full story of Ken Lewis’ leadership in the face of insurmountable odds against the financial services industry during the worst economic crisis of our generation. He hasn’t spent the last few years talking about himself or setting the record straight. He has simply said he did nothing wrong. And I believe him.
News reports suggested that the penalties of his settlement were not harsh enough and that Ken had not suffered enough. While I haven’t seen Ken in a number of years, I’m pretty sure he has thought of little else the past few years. The notion that he wasn’t personally hurting enough was surely written by those who didn’t know him and never did.
Ken was born of modest means, to say the least. He was born in the Deep South, was the son of a single, working mother and called himself the original latchkey kid. If my memory serves, he learned to box at a local Boys & Girls Club.
His career biography has been quoted plenty and doesn’t need to be revisited. He was a fighter, though, and hungry early on. As a young banker, he moved to New York without a cost of living increase. He studied by night and was a banker by day. He took up the sport of running marathons because it was inexpensive, and it allowed him a chance to think. He used his first set of stock options to buy a television.
As a leader in the late ‘90s at then NationsBank, he was widely suspected to be the heir apparent to then-CEO Hugh McColl. He worked deliberately and efficiently on developing those aspects of his leadership style where he was weakest. And he handled the transition to CEO as graciously and humbly as if his father had just handed him the keys to the kingdom. I remember telling him that day in 2001 to pause long enough to enjoy it because he wouldn’t have that day again.
I worked for Ken for 10 years at NationsBank and then Bank of America. He was shy, which sometimes came across as aloof. He was tough as nails and didn’t tolerate poor performance or whiners. He was smart and widely respected internally and externally. He was kind and had a special place in his heart for single mothers, particularly those working for lower wages on the teller line. He was a mystery. Reporters couldn’t seem to get him to reveal much beneath the banking surface. Not because he had anything to hide but because he didn’t find himself interesting enough to talk about.
I’d be willing to bet those moments that stand out in his mind over a career that spanned four decades are those that involve energetic, enthusiastic associates working together to serve a community after a natural disaster; the bright, creative minds that found a way to serve customers and communities around the world every day and occasions such as the one in New York in the summer of 2002 when his teammates donated 3 fire trucks to the NYFD in memory of those we lost that day in 2001. Those were the kinds of moments that made him proud.
It’s unfortunate that the last 2 years of a more than 40-year career will be what define Ken Lewis in the history books. Maybe they should, but not in the negative light that has portrayed him incorrectly as the poster child for all that was wrong in the industry. I’d like to think the real story went something like this: He was asked for his help to save this country and the global economy. And he said yes.
His legal team released a statement at the time of the settlement: “Mr. Lewis is proud of the role he played in helping the U.S. banking system survive a very challenging period in its history,” the statement said.
I believe him, and I wish him well.
Copyright 2014 Sheryl McAlister