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December 2005
Lofty Goals in Action
By Ellison Clary

     Cathy Bessant, Bank of America’s global marketing executive, sets higher standards for herself as well as the bank, as she talks about her job reinforcing the global reach of the bank’s marketing activities and the “Higher Standards” branding theme. Those activities involve more than the just the bank and its customers. They range from local to national to international civic responsibilities – involvement in everything from the local Chamber to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to NASCAR to baseball to the Olympics. That’s global! A youthful 45, Bessant has filled various executive roles for Bank of America since 1982, and has been in her current position since 2001. She oversees customer analysis and research, brand, advertising, electronic marketing, international marketing, sponsorships and event marketing.

“One of the reasons I love working for Bank of America is I believe what we do everyday is an enabler of a better world,” Bessant says with conviction in her neat-as-a-pin office on the 53rd floor of the Bank of America Corporate Center.

“I don’t think about a mortgage loan,” says the quick-smiling executive who has presided over the bank’s mortgage corporation. “I think about putting people in a house. I think the work we do, if we do it well, is at the heart of mattering. In a way, it advances the American dream.”

Asked why business owners should consider Bank of America, she quickly says the reasons go beyond products and services. “It’s human capital,” she says, “and the ability we have to help our clients stay on the cutting edge and focus on what they know, which is how to run their business.”

Bank of America offers what she calls “world-class capital, whether it’s financial or intellectual,” in helping advance a business. “The best way for me to think about our relationship with businesses is as a partnership,” she says. “At our very best, that’s what we offer.”

Partnerships have been important for Bessant personally. She’s nearing the end of a year in which she’s served as chair of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. One of her responsibilities was to work with a 12-member search committee that picked a successor for long-time Chamber president Carroll Gray upon his retirement. She has also been a driving force in the quest to win the NASCAR Hall of Fame for Charlotte.

Additionally, she has helped lead a task force studying the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, who co-chairs the task force, calls Bessant genuine, honest and straightforward.

“Cathy is absolutely an outstanding civic leader,” Gantt says. “She has a focus and a passion for the issues we are dealing with in the schools.”

Bessant has lived and worked in big cities such as Dallas, Tampa and Washington, D.C., but this year she’s gotten to know Charlotte. She likes what she’s learned.

“I’ve been awed at what a special place Charlotte is,” she says with conviction, then adds, “I’m a really tough customer. I’ve lived in a lot of places. This is a pretty incredible community. I buy into the fact that we have something special here that other communities would love to model.”

Bessant sees that something as vibrancy. She praises the region’s strong workforce and can-do attitude. But she adds that Charlotte can’t get complacent.

“I get really worried when I hear people say we don’t need to offer any economic development incentives,” Bessant says. “I promise you there are 20 cities across the country that 15 years ago thought they didn’t have to work on growth and those cities haven’t seen growth.”

Certainly, Bank of America has grown phenomenally. For the third quarter of 2005, the bank reported net income rose 10 percent to $4.13 billion from $3.786 billion a year earlier. For the first nine months of 2005, the bank earned $13.12 billion compared to $10.29 billion for the comparable period of 2004.

 

Stoking Phenomenal Growth

With the bank’s double-digit growth across all business segments. Bessant’s responsibility largely is to stoke that growth through marketing and branding.

Bessant acknowledges she previously has been in line positions where she thought nearly exclusively about financial accountability. “This job has given me an opportunity to develop a whole new skill set around the technical skills of marketing,” she says.

She touts new products and services such as the recently introduced “Keep the Change” program. The bank automatically rounds up the amount of each debit card purchase to the nearest dollar and transfers the difference into the customer’s saving account. There’s a bank matching element, as well.

“That account does several things at once,” Bessant smiles. “It encourages saving, gives people a reason to buy from us, and rewards customer loyalty.”

Technology will be huge in devising and delivering products and services, she says, and the capabilities of automatic teller machines will continue to expand. “I don’t know that I can predict what product development actually looks like,” she says, adding, “I know that the pace of it and competitive agility is very important.”

She’s leading a study of the bank’s brand and how it’s perceived worldwide. Early indicators show the name Bank of America resonates well but the red-white-and-blue logo can carry connotations that may be politically charged.

As she talks, Bessant has just returned from speaking via video hookup with a large audience of bank associates around the country. Internal studies show most associates like the aspiration to “higher standards” the bank uses often with its name. But on this day, some asked why Bank of America spends so much money on the Olympics and baseball.

Bank of America has been the official bank of the U.S. Olympic Committee since 1996 and became the official bank of baseball in 2004. A good estimate, she says, is that the bank spends $50 million annually on these sports branding initiatives, which also include significant NASCAR activity.

These sponsorships are important because the bank gained close to 100 percent brand recognition only recently. “The task at hand is: How do you convert the knowledge of our company to actual consideration and purchase of our capabilities and products?” she explains.

Using the Olympic rings in association with Bank of America can motivate potential customers. The same is true of baseball, she adds, where the bank is tied in at the Major League, Minor League and Little League levels.

Bessant praises the entree Minor League Baseball offers to small businesses and regional companies. Then her eyes light up as she gets to Little League.

“People’s attitudes about purchases do change when they know you’re affiliated with something like Little League Baseball,” she says. “Little League gets at the heart of what people care about – neighborhoods. It’s such a popular, family-based sport.”

Broad considerations play into why the Bank of America name is on the Charlotte stadium where the Carolina Panthers play home games in the National Football League, and why there’s a newly minted Bank of America 500 race at nearby Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

The bank was instrumental in convincing the NFL to award an expansion franchise in Charlotte and team ownership has been a customer, Bessant says. “We’re a part of the history and heritage of the team,” she adds. “It’s part of the soul of who we are.”

It’s a similar situation at Lowe’s Motor Speedway where Bank of America made a construction loan for the track 30 years ago, Bessant says. “Naming a race gives us an opportunity for all kinds of consumer promotion and for client hospitality,” she says.

Branding continues to loom large, Bessant says, as Bank of America expands into New York and New England with its FleetBoston Financial Corporation merger and with its pending acquisition of credit card giant MBNA. Yet these acquisitions bring growing pains for associates. They are the individual components of family.

The bank must continually adjust its workforce, which numbers about 175,000, with around 13,000 in Charlotte.

“It’s really hard to downsize,” Bessant frowns, calling it the part of her job she likes least. “Efficiencies and economic environment and running a good business for shareholders sometimes demand it. The thing that’s hardest is when you affect people’s real lives. You cannot be dispassionate about it, and I wouldn’t want to know anybody who was.”

Maybe that helps explain why Bessant is popular within the bank. “She has a knack for acting as a magnet, attracting bright people to her,” says Graham Denton, president of both the bank’s North Carolina presence and its Charlotte regional market. “Her style helps her get a lot accomplished in a methodical way.”

 

Valuable Lessons Learned

Bessant calls her mother, Ursula Pombier, her most important mentor. Now retired in South Bend, Ind., her mother was executive director of three Girl Scout councils, one in Eastern North Carolina. Bessant also praises John Clay, her husband, a retired U.S. Navy Commander and pilot: “He’s the lynch pin in keeping our household going.” Daughter Meredith and son Hayden complete the family picture.

Bessant says she learned valuable lessons from both bank chairmen she’s worked for. Hugh McColl Jr., now retired, “taught me how to have a vision that can excite and ignite people,” she says, speaking of McColl’s quest to fashion a truly national bank. Current chairman Ken Lewis taught her “how to make that vision a reality and have it operationally flawless.”

Bessant professes to an enjoyment of evaluating people. She did that in the community as she helped the Chamber committee determine that Bob Morgan, formerly of the Charlotte Chamber and most recently president of the Gaston County Chamber, is right to take over from the veteran Gray.

That brings her back to the betterment of the Greater Charlotte community, something she admits she didn’t give much thought before this year of enormous civic involvement. Her Chamber chair responsibilities, the schools task force duties and the NASCAR Hall of Fame recruitment all are winding down. Will she remain involved going forward?

“I would hate to imagine Charlotte without Cathy Bessant,” declares Tim Newman, chief executive of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, who has worked with her extensively on the NASCAR effort. “She has a brilliant mind and an indefatigable spirit. I hope she’ll continue to be involved civically.”

In answering, Bessant sighs: “The pace is not sustainable.” But she quickly adds that she’s not done. “I’ll enjoy figuring out what is next,” she says. “There has to be something, but I’m not sure what it is yet.

And would she encourage bank associates she leads to get involved in the community? The short answer is yes, she says.

“I’ve learned a great lesson in how to motivate people who have both direct and indirect accountability to you,” she says. Campaigning for the NASCAR Hall of Fame to locate in Charlotte has taught her much about selling. “The next business pitch I make will be immensely better for having the NASCAR experience.”

So she’ll spread the word. “I’ve been thinking about even how my direct reports and management folks would benefit from a greater experience in the community,” she says, “to give them a breadth of exposure to things they wouldn’t see otherwise.”

 

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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