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January 2009
Bank of Opportunity
By Ellison Clary

Completing two years as chief financial officer for Charlotte-based Bank of America, Joe Price reflects on the challenges he’s faced and still addresses at one of the world’s largest financial institutions.

“I had six months of what I thought was a tough introduction,” he smiles. “As it turns out, the last 17 months have been the real challenge.”

Price has been instrumental in the acquisition and integration of entities of staggering size and stature. There was LaSalle Bank Corporation, the largest bank holding company in Chicago, which cost $21 billion in cash at handshake time and deepened the bank’s presence in the Chicago area as well as Michigan and Indiana.

On the heels of LaSalle was Countrywide Financial Corporation, the largest U.S. mortgage lender and servicer, which came in a stock transaction eventually worth $2.5 billion, making Bank of America the nation’s largest mortgage lender and loan servicer.

And most recently, a true blockbuster. For what initially was $50 billion in stock, the Charlotte bank, headquartered in a 60-story tower on The Square, bought Wall Street’s Merrill Lynch, one of the world’s leading wealth management, capital markets and advisory companies with total client assets of $1.6 trillion.

Oh, and you can throw in the recent purchase of an additional stake in China Construction Bank, bringing Bank of America’s ownership to a bit more than 19 percent.

Helping facilitate such mammoth deals is part of the job but helping the bank’s core businesses is what Price calls his greatest job satisfaction. On the business side,” he says, it’s seeing us succeed. It’s being able to serve our customers and providing a role for our associates.”

“Everybody’s running into challenges,” he elaborates in the accent of a native Charlottean, “but there’s no place I’d rather be. I hope we create an environment where our associate base feels the same way and our customers do, as well.”

“It’s been a little like running a marathon at a sprinter’s pace,” Price acknowledges. “But when you’re in the middle of it, you can’t slow down.”

Each of these huge transactions fills a specific need for Bank of America, which boasts that it serves 99 percent of U.S Fortune 500 companies and maintains 59 million consumer and small business relationships.

Chicago represented a gaping hole in the bank’s retail footprint. So Bank of America jumped at the chance to buy LaSalle and went to work bolstering that institution’s retail reach in the upper Midwest. The operational consolidation of LaSalle concluded in the fourth quarter.

Bank of America had been growing its mortgage operation dramatically, Price says, when the chance to buy Countrywide appeared.

“So all the effort we’ve been putting into building the mortgage product gets combined with Countrywide and the collective team there,” he says. “We’ve got the expertise; we’ve got the integration resources. If you think about alignment with what we were already doing, it fits into the mold.”

The Countrywide integration is on schedule, with the initial larger scale operational conversion planned for the second quarter. It will continue throughout 2009.

Price makes a clear case that the Countrywide acquisition is nothing like Wachovia’s purchase of the Golden West mortgage operation. That transaction played a huge role in the financial undoing of Charlotte’s other homegrown bank, Wachovia, foreshadowing its ultimate sale to San Francisco-based Wells Fargo.

“Countrywide is a very different scenario, given the purchase price, given the valuation we put on the loans, and given the current underwriting criteria that we’re using to make loans,” Price maintains.

 

Merrill Lynch Fills Product Need

The Merrill Lynch transaction, closed at year-end, fills another consumer product need, Price continues. Merrill Lynch also brings the bank a strong brokerage force as well as an impressive platform for international, corporate investment banking and equities businesses.

Price believes Bank of America can persuade most Merrill Lynch brokers to stay with the combined entity. He acknowledges that the effort is costly. But it’s justified, he says, because “it’s a people-intensive business.”

After reporting a third quarter 2008 profit drop to $1.18 billion from $3.7 billion a year earlier, Bank of America raised $10 billion by selling 455 million shares in October.

Then came the China Construction Bank (CCB) investment, which is an interesting move. Price explains that Bank of America prizes being the leading financial services institution in North America, yet it is interested in areas enjoying faster growth. Further, it wants to take part in that growth.

One of the best ways to do that is to participate with someone who runs their bank as we envision we would run a bank in that region,” Price says. We think CCB is the best run bank in China. That’s why we have a relationship with them.”

So in November, Bank of America exercised an option to increase its 8.4 percent stake in CCB to 19.13 percent.

Counting $10 billion for Merrill Lynch, Bank of America received $25 billion in the federal Troubled Assets Relief Program, and that prompts some to ask if the bank sent TARP money to China.

“No,” Price says simply. “We had planned our exercise before the TARP money ever was offered to us.”

He reiterates that Bank of America didn’t seek TARP funds, but decided participation would help strengthen the financial services industry overall and therefore the economy. “It’s enlightened self-interest,” he says.

TARP money brings Bank of America added financial stability and helps it fund any qualifying loan, Price adds. He acknowledges that credit criteria is tighter, but is emphatic that his bank continues to make loans.

Assessing 2009 economically, Price predicts some positive signs in the second half, leading to a better 2010. “Unemployment levels generally lag a little, so the peak in unemployment probably is a tad farther out,” he says.

 

Price Knows Corporate Strategy

If Price sounds savvy in recounting reasons for the bank’s unprecedented acquisition spree, it’s because he spent time on the corporate strategy team in the progression that landed him as a direct report to Chief Executive Ken Lewis.

“The corporate strategy team works with the entire management team on not just the game plan of where we’re going, but also preparing us in the event an opportunity comes along,” Price says. He names Greg Curl, global corporate planning and strategy executive, as a big influence on his career.

Price grew up the son of a father who worked in a Charlotte machinist shop and a mother who taught in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system and a stepfather who was a Charlotte police officer. He credits his mother Ella for instilling his strong work ethic.

Price graduated from Charlotte’s Independence High School and earned a bachelor’s in accounting at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 1983. While still a student, he started at accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) as a “gofer,” tackling odd jobs.

After graduation, he signed on full-time in the PWC Audit Group. He worked with Marc Oken, then a partner at PWC in Charlotte, who subsequently joined Bank of America and rose to chief financial officer.

While Oken was chief accounting officer at Bank of America, he recruited Price to work in his team. This was in late 1991, when the old NCNB acquired C&S/Sovran and formed Bank of America predecessor NationsBank.

Price calls Oken a mentor and credits him with shaping the way he conducts business. Oken, in turn, praises Price.

“Joe is one of those guys you can always depend on to demonstrate good judgment and to have good solutions,” says Oken, now managing partner at Falfurrias Capital Partners, which he co-founded.

“The best thing about where he stands on an issue is, it’s fact-based,” Oken says. “He probably thinks about problems and issues harder and longer and does more research and talks to more people and has a broader knowledge base than just about any CFO you’ll work with.”

Price became Bank of America’s general auditor, and then moved his family to Jacksonville, Florida, where he led, and subsequently exited the bank’s subprime mortgage, auto leasing and manufactured housing lending businesses.

Back in Charlotte by 2002, he joined corporate strategy and later moved into risk management. Price calls Bill Vandiver, who retired that year as corporate risk management executive, a strong influence. Price assumed the CFO role after the departure of predecessor Al de Molina, who ended up as chief executive of GMAC Financial Services.

 

Finding Family Time Is Tough

Price feels the hardest part of his job is carving out enough time for his family, which is what helps him keep things in perspective. His family includes his wife Christine and two daughters in college and a 10-year-old son. His son, a ball boy for the Charlotte 49ers men’s basketball squad, “wants to be on every sports team in Charlotte.”

Outside of business, Price identifies with his alma mater. He and Christine show up at most home basketball games and he supports the effort of UNC Charlotte to add a top-level football team.

Price is a member of the UNC Charlotte Board of Trustees, and he serves on the advisory board for the school’s Belk College of Business.

He takes pride in naming UNC Charlotte alums in the region with high profile business positions. Among them are CFOs David Hauser of Duke Energy, Terry Lisenby of Nucor, and Bob Hull of Lowe’s, as well as Lowe’s CEO Robert Niblock.

Price also serves on the board of Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte.

“He’s been involved with a Bank of America team that comes out on a fairly regular basis to build with us,” says Bert Green, executive director of the Charlotte Habitat.

“When he’s here, he’s fully engaged,” Green adds. “He is making a contribution to what we’re doing. He’s listening. He has a very creative and critical input to the question at hand. You’re engaged by the guy when you’re in his presence. He’s a down-to-earth guy.”

That seems to come natural for Price. I’m pretty simple,” he says. I was born here, I grew up here, and I want to see the city prosper. I want to see our company, in the same manner, succeed.”

At 47, he believes he will stay at Bank of America for the rest of his career. “There’s nowhere I’d rather be,” he says.

He’s optimistic about the future for Bank of America. He feels it will emerge from recession as the leading global financial services company.

“We think we’re putting the pieces in place to do that,” he says. “I want to be an active part of that, along with my colleagues, because it takes all of us to do this. It takes the entire associate base.”

Is Price surprised that he’s made it to the executive offices on the 58th floor of the Bank of America Corporate Center? Not so much.

To explain why, he shares what he calls his general philosophy since he’s been in the business world.

“Take care of the assignments at hand and the teammates around you and you can step forward at each opportunity,” he says. “You may ultimately end up in a role like this (CFO), or end up in a different kind of role. But whatever the role, you’ll be satisfied and it will be fulfilling.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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