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BofA's Florida leader seizes new challenge

Published Sep. 27, 2005

Cathy Bessant will rely on a depth of personal and business experience as she faces a tough test in leading 800 branches and 20,000 employees.

Cathy Bessant, the new Florida president for banking titan Bank of America Corp., never thought of herself as the military type.

As a crossword puzzle enthusiast and champion debater who originally planned a college major in literature, Bessant grew up a lover of words, not war.

So when her husband was made a Naval commander last year, she was reluctant to attend an obligatory training program for spouses.

"I came away thinking it was one of the most profound experiences I've ever had," she said. Struck by the similarities in execution and teamwork between the worlds of banking and the armed forces, Bessant added, "I came away feeling wholly committed to the Navy."

It's the kind of story her boss, ex-Marine Hugh McColl, would love. With militarylike precision, McColl engineered a succession of bank takeovers, including the buyout of Florida's Barnett Banks, to turn his Charlotte, N.C., operation into the biggest bank in Florida and eventually the country.

Along the way, Bessant made her own mark. In a non-traditional move up the ladder, she chose to leave the branch banking network to focus on community development lending. She became a national leader in that federally mandated program to funnel more bank funds to poor neighborhoods.

She was among the few to receive one of the coveted crystal hand grenades that McColl bestows on employees who go beyond the call of duty.

Arriving in Tampa six weeks ago, Bessant took over the most influential post in Florida banking: head of Bank of America's operations in a key state where it's the largest bank.

She faces a tough challenge in replacing Adelaide "Alex" Sink, a well-connected veteran who was shoved out when she declined to commit to a long-term role in the bank's leadership.

The position will provide a crucial tryout for Bessant as a manager overseeing 800 branches and 20,000 employees. And she will be tested as she tries to improve the bank's reputation for customer service, which was battered in its glitch-filled takeover of Barnett Banks.

"Priority one is client satisfaction and expansion of customer relationships," Bessant said in her first interview since taking over her new position. And, she added, she wants to bolster confidence of the bank's "associates" that they are in the best place to work.

Bessant earned her hand grenade in a different, politically charged side of the banking business. McColl awarded it for her 1991 brainchild that the bank (then called NCNB) commit to spending $10-billion over 10 years on community development as it merged with C&S/Sovran to create NationsBank.

Seven years later, she put a similar 10-year commitment on the table to spend $350-billion _ a bold statement that appeased regulators and helped seal the merger between NationsBank and the old BankAmerica Corp. of San Francisco.

The crystal grenade now sits on a shelf in Bessant's new office in downtown Tampa.

To some of the banks' most vitriolic critics, it reinforces their view that Bessant is little more than a McColl foot soldier.

"She's very much like a Marine colonel," said Ken Thomas, a Miami banking analyst who specializes in community reinvestment issues. "You want someone in that position to look out for what's best for the state, (but) her first three priorities are company, company, company.

"She cuts herself on an envelope, she doesn't bleed blood; she bleeds BankAmerica."

Stella Adams of the Community Reinvestment Association of North Carolina said she had to stage a 30-day hunger strike to get Bessant's attention during the NationsBank/BankAmerica merger. When Bessant finally came to the table, she towed the bank's familiar strategy: pledging a big amount for community investment with few specifics and no promise to amend policies viewed as consumer-unfriendly.

"If you get misled by her southern charm and genteel ways and take that for weakness," Adams said, "you're going to get eaten for breakfast."

To others involved in community lending, though, Bessant has stood out as a rare breed of banker, one who is open, caring and genuinely tries to make a difference.

She pushed through some of the best mortgage products in the country geared toward working people: loans featuring no down payments, no closing costs, no application fees and liberal underwriting.

And when Congress was debating renewal of the Community Reinvestment Act two years ago, Bessant was the sole banker sitting at the table with community activists and speaking on their behalf.

"At that time, I think CRA could have been lost, and she was actually quite helpful," said John Taylor, president and chief executive of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, based in Washington, D.C.

With her high-profile job for the bank in Washington, Bessant was rumored to be a candidate for a Federal Reserve post two years ago. She didn't discuss it at the time but now acknowledges that she turned down the opportunity to be nominated.

In terms of making a difference in people's lives, she said, "I felt the entity I could be a part of (at Bank of America) was bigger than that of the Federal Reserve."

Bessant's new office reflects her complicated persona. Not far from her crystal hand grenade is a sampling from her collection of heart-shaped keepsakes ("because I believe in compassion in all things," she says). Inside a cabinet is a box filled with kaleidoscopes. She collects them because "they're symbolic of the best that comes with different perspectives and different views."

Rummaging through a box of photos she has yet to hang on her wall, she comes across one of her posing with President Clinton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. She slowly peels the bubble wrap away from the memento of a four-day sweep with the presidential entourage through impoverished communities across America.

Asked if she is a Democrat like her boss McColl, Bessant says only, "I love the community development part (of the banking business) and believe strongly in a platform of economic justice. You can draw your inference from that."

Other cherished photos already are on display _ those of her working on community building projects and several of her 4-year-old daughter and 5-month-old son.

With her husband's Naval career committing him to weeklong stints in Virginia, Bessant asserts, "I live the single mom life."

"I can relate to people in our banking centers because I live a very normal life. . . . I'm a champion for balancing career and home," she said.

Wearing a fuchsia outfit, with perfectly coiffed hair, Bessant looks and sounds the part of a polished executive. She never seems at a loss for words, perhaps a trait she can attribute to her father.

She grew up in a small Michigan town where her father doubled as a public high school teacher and her debate coach. She went on to win state honors in debating.

Early on, she developed an appreciation of teamwork and a sense of leadership. She was captain of her high school swim team, though she didn't consider herself among its strongest swimmers.

These days, Bessant isn't talking about higher aspirations, but banking observers consider her on a corporate track headed back to Charlotte. After all, Bank of America president Ken Lewis, the heir apparent to McColl, made his mark as Florida president.

So far, her balancing act in Tampa has more than pleased Bessant's bosses. In a written response to questions, Lewis said, "Cathy's vision, commitment to customers and ability to attract and retain talented associates has already begun to energize and drive our business forward in Florida, which is clearly one of the most important markets in our franchise."

Bessant promised that Bank of America won't treat Florida as a banking colony. "We'll be a very engaged civic partner," she said. "We have a keen sense of the importance of community."

One of the few goals she specifies is to double net income in the state within four years. (The bank, which made $1.9-billion nationwide last year, does not release a net income breakdown by state.)

With cousins throughout Florida _ and a Tampa Bay Buccaneers' mousepad already next to her computer _ Bessant displays some connections to the Sunshine State.

One of those links to Tampa Bay was memorialized last year in a company-endorsed biography of McColl.

It was 1996, and McColl flew to St. Petersburg to take part in a neighborhood revitalization project spearheaded by Bessant's group. Part of the fix-up involved refurbishing a rundown basketball court.

Ever energetic, McColl rounded up a group of neighborhood kids for a pickup game to try out the new court. As Bessant was cheering on her boss, McColl suddenly fell to the ground, clutching his left side in pain.

Bessant feared the worst: McColl was having a heart attack. It later turned out to be no more than a separated shoulder.

"Ninety-nine point nine percent of me was saying, "Oh my God! What's happening to the chairman?' " she recalled. "The other was thinking, "Don't let this happen on my watch. Don't let this be part of my legacy.' "

At a glance

NAME: Catherine Pombier Bessant

TITLE: President, Bank of America Florida

DUTIES: Responsible for all consumer and commercial banking activities in the state, including overseeing 20,000 employees, 800 banking centers and 1,400 ATMs.

OTHER BANK DUTIES: Member of the bank's operating committee and corporate diversity council.

AGE: 40 (July 12)

FAMILY: Husband, John Clay, a Naval commander and pilot stationed in Virginia; daughter, Meredith, 4{; son, Hayden, 5 months.

HOMETOWN: Jackson, Mich.

HOBBIES: Running; reading; working on crossword puzzles.

BOOK SHE'S READING: It's Not About the Bike by cancer survivor and cycling champion Lance Armstrong.

BOOKS ON HER OFFICE COFFEE TABLE: Raving Fans by The One Minute Manager author Ken Blanchard and Life Doesn't Frighten Me by Maya Angelou.


PERSONAL QUOTE: "Every morning I make a conscious decision to leave the house .


. I tell my daughter that mommy goes to work to change the world."

TAMPA TRIVIA: From the same hometown as Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy; worked with Dungy's brother and sister during a summer college job as a playground supervisor.

More about Bessant's background

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Michigan in 1982.

EMPLOYMENT HISTORY: Worked for several banks in Texas (including First Republic and First Union) before rejoining First Republic when it was part of NCNB (a predecessor of Bank of America); named vice president in 1988; became director of community investment in Texas in 1989 and took over nationwide responsibility for community investment two years later; most recently was president of consumer real estate and community development banking, responsible for developing the bank's consumer real estate, mortgage and community development financing strategies. She also managed the Bank of America neighborhood development subsidiaries, including the Bank of America Community Development corporations, the Bank of America Community Development Bank, Small Business Investment Corp. and other entities engaged in investing capital into historically underserved markets.

BREAKTHROUGH: In 1991, she talked the bank into pledging a then unheard-of sum of $5-billion in community reinvestment (which grew to $10-billion over 10 years) when NCNB and C&S/Sovran merged to create NationsBank. Seven years later, in a similar regulator-appeasing move, the bank pledged to spend $350-billion on community development over 10 years when NationsBank and BankAmerica merged to create Bank of America.

OUTSIDE BOARDS: Member of the boards of trustees of the Enterprise Foundation, Partners for Livable Communities, the National Community Investment Fund and Johnson C. Smith University; serves on the boards of directors of the Center for Housing Policy, National Housing Conference, Congressional Millennial Housing Commission and the Welfare to Work Partnership.