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April 2004
Banking on Higher Standards
By Ellison Clary

     Word association: Bank of America. Name an executive.

     Typical responses are chief executive officer Ken Lewis or chief financial officer Jim Hance. Some still mention Hugh McColl Jr., the former chairman and CEO who built the nation’s largest consumer bank before he retired in April 2001.

     A name not often called is Graham Denton. He’s a Charlotte native who signed on in 1971 and is the president of the Charlotte Market Area for Bank of America.

     A Wake Forest University graduate with a master’s in finance from Georgia State University, Denton’s the point person for the nation’s largest retail bank in its headquarters city. To involve the bank in a business venture, a promotional event, a civic project or a sponsorship in the Charlotte region, he’s the man to see.

     Getting the word out isn’t the easiest task he’s faced in his more than three decades as a commercial banker, duties he still performs in addition to his market president role.

     “Charlotte, being the headquarters city, presents some unique opportunities or challenges, whichever way you want to look at it,” says Denton, 59, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Korea. He acknowledges that people gravitate toward the well-known top executives.

     “But most of our (Charlotte-based) executives take more of a national or international view,” explains Denton, who earned the market president title in 2002.  “What we’ve done reasonably well is to get a lot of the things that would normally go to them directed to me.”

     Denton chairs a monthly meeting at which the local leaders of the bank’s area lines of business discuss pending moves, both business and civic. If that sounds like the old city executive role, it is, says Denton, who filled a similar slot as senior bank executive in South Florida during the 1990s. That regional experience comes in handy now that he’s back in Charlotte with his wife and son, because he also coordinates statewide initiatives as the bank’s North Carolina president.

     The big change in the market president position is that there’s more structure to support it, he adds. “When you come together and talk and understand what sales goals the various business units have,” he explains, “you can be smarter as a team in making sure that a particular business line is successful in achieving whatever it is they’re trying to do.”


Hot Button is Bigger Market Share

     Understandably, then, Denton knows the bank’s hot buttons. The hottest, he advises, is the one that promises more business.

     “We are trying to better link where we put money,” he says, citing high visibility events or partnerships with strong likelihood of bringing more customers into the fold. “Otherwise, we’re just wasting money,” he says matter-of-factly.

     Bank of America has 68 banking centers in the Charlotte area and plans to spend $44.4 million adding 15 more by the end of 2005.

     Bank of America, Wachovia and BB&T hold the overwhelming majority of the area’s financial relationships, but Denton won’t comment on local market share. He is emphatic that Bank of America wants a larger piece of the pie.

      “Nobody around here has been happy about our market share statistics and our banking growth in Charlotte,” he says. “The last 12 to 24 months, we have been shifting our momentum to give more attention to Charlotte on the business side to make sure we’re maximizing our opportunities. We’re going to continue to do that.”

     Some around Charlotte whisper that Bank of America isn’t as engaged in civic affairs as in McColl’s day. Denton differs.

     “There is still a tremendous commitment by people like Ken Lewis and Jim Hance.” He clicks off a list: consumer products executive Barbara Desoer will chair the United Way of Central Carolinas for 2005; chief marketing executive Cathy Bessant will chair the Chamber in 2005; technology and operations executive Tim Arnoult currently chairs the Arts & Science Council.

     “One of the challenges I have,” Denton adds, “is trying to keep track of all the involvement our people have.”

     Denton himself serves on the board of United Way of Central Carolinas and Leadership Charlotte; he chairs the board for United Family Services and is joining the board for Charlotte Center City Partners. Statewide, he’s on the board of North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry and will chair that economic booster organization in 2006.

     Still, some in Charlotte wrinkle a brow when they speak of the bank’s planned 55-floor office tower in Manhattan. They wonder what it portends for the Queen City.

     Denton’s quick answer: “(The tower is) symbolic of the fact we’re a significant financial institution. New York has all along (been) and will continue to be the center of our investment bank activities. (New York) is where you need to be, but it has nothing to do with headquarters issues.”

     Yet some Charlotteans wonder if Lewis will spend significant time in a New York office, especially in light of the pending Bank of America merger with northeastern powerhouse FleetBoston Financial Corporation. Denton downplays a Manhattan office for Lewis.

     “Whenever (Lewis) goes into a market, he’s out visiting with clients; he’s not going up there to spend several days trying to operate out of an area like that,” says Denton, who’s known Lewis since both were fresh-faced recruits. “That’s just not his style.”

     As if to underline commitment to Charlotte, the bank recently spent a reported $140 million to name the stadium where the Carolina Panthers play home games in the National Football League. “We’ve always attached ourselves to the world of sports. There’s the Olympics, and we’re probably the most active financing source for the professional sports world,” Denton says.

     “It’s very appropriate,” Denton says of the new Bank of America Stadium. “Charlotte being our headquarters, we said ‘Sure, this makes a lot of sense.’”


Charlotte Remains Vital Part of  Territory

     Even though Bank of America stretches coast-to-coast, Charlotte remains important, Denton says. By a ranking based on population, business share and other measures, Charlotte is among the bank’s top 25 markets.

     Denton says the bank would like to see Charlotte and the region grow by retraining the thousands of workers who’ve lost jobs in manufacturing, such as textiles, apparel and furniture, to prepare them for careers in service fields.

     That will be good for the bank, too, adds Denton, who with his gray hair, dark suit and quick grin could play a banker on the screen. “You can find yourself doing a lot of financing in the service sector.”

     He ticks off some service sector behemoths, including his bank with nearly 14,000 associates in the area, Wachovia Corporation with 18,000 and Carolinas Medical Center with more than 14,000. Joining these, he says, is a multitude of smaller service firms.

     Bank of America stands ready to promote smaller companies, Denton says, touting the bank’s national leadership in U.S. Small Business Administration loans and its 2 million small business customers. In 2003, the bank made 9,406 SBA loans nationally and led North Carolina with 252 small business loans.

      “That’s our bread and butter,” he says of loans to businesses with annual revenues of up to $10 million. “That and mid-market,” he adds, defining mid-market as firms with annual revenues from $10 million to $2 billion.

     When it comes to big business, the Charlotte area boasts headquarters for eight Fortune 500 companies. Denton says leaders of those firms tell him they’re here because the city is attractive and easily accessible through the US Airways hub at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. “Being a hub airport is a significant driver of the growth of the economy of this region,” he says, “and we’ve got to be very sensitive to and aware of making sure we don’t lose a big competitive advantage.”

     A practice associated with big business that draws criticism for Bank of America is its outsourcing strategy. “We will outsource where we think it will be a better deal for our shareholders,” Denton says. Up to 1 percent of the company’s total employment of 133,000 could work in Bank of America’s new subsidiary that will open in India this spring, he adds.

     The continuing health of Charlotte’s urban core also is vital to economic growth that Denton says he and the bank see continuing at above the state and national average. The bank spent more than $1 billion building mixed-use office-retail-residential complexes and arts facilities in Charlotte’s center city in the last decade.

     “Hardly any time goes by without us thinking about how can we give further stimulus to the center of the city by providing incentives to organizations or to help with trying to solicit businesses to the center city,” he says. “That’s not to the detriment of the region. It’s just that if we don’t have a vibrant city itself, then it’s questionable how healthy the rest of the region is going to (be).”

     Other challenges include issues of adequate housing and transportation networks, he says. “Those things seem to be getting addressed, but they don’t ever seem to happen soon enough,” he says, because of fast-paced growth.


Self-Financing Bonds Promise Job Growth

     Donning his statewide cap, Denton points to an April North Carolina economic development summit sponsored by Duke Energy and suggests a topic for support: self-financing bonds. Most of the country already uses such bonds, which are paid off from additional tax revenues generated by increased property tax values.

     As finance chair for North Carolinians for Jobs and Progress, Denton is pushing passage of a referendum in November. It would change the state constitution to permit these bonds, which pay for public improvements such as streets, water and sewer service and sidewalks in special development districts for new or expanding businesses. They also can spur rehabilitation of abandoned textile or furniture factories.

     “Anybody involved in economic development in this state must get out there and make sure there’re no misunderstandings about how this works,” Denton says. “North Carolina has lost more jobs in the last two years than any state in America. We need self-financing bonds to recruit jobs and boost our economy.”

     Underlining his commitment, Denton adds, “I consider it my responsibility – and the responsibility of all business leaders – to communicate to as many voters as possible about the jobs and economic development that a constitutional amendment will generate.” 

     Economic growth brings Denton’s focus back to his hometown. For a 1963 graduate of Myers Park High, Charlotte is a much bigger place these days. Much of the impetus for its rapid growth, he believes, is an historic, healthy relationship between public and private sectors.

     “Very much on both sides (business and government), we have a pro-growth, pro-business, pro-desire to make sure that we’re addressing the needs of every population segment we have,” he says. “I hope we don’t lose that.”

     With Charlotte’s growth, the public-private consensus building takes more people to steer it, he admits. “But I think we still enjoy that great spirit of working together.”

     That’s high praise coming from the man who coordinates Charlotte concerns with the agenda of a financial institution with $660 billion in assets.


Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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