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NATIONAL BANKING GIANT | MANAGEMENT

Contrasting Styles Mark Men at Top

But observers say NationsBank, BankAmerica share broad ambitions, can mesh well.

April 14, 1998|STUART SILVERSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ever since he took command of NationsBank in 1983, ex-Marine Lt. Hugh L. McColl Jr. has led his company like a commander on a fast-moving military campaign. After one of his many acquisitions, McColl introduced himself to the officers of the newly purchased bank company by explaining what he learned in the armed services: "There are three ways to take a hill--frontal assault, frontal assault, frontal assault."

In contrast, BankAmerica Chairman David A. Coulter has focused on fine-tuning his fabled San Francisco-based company since taking its helm two years ago, trying to improve such areas as customer service. And Coulter, an avid fly fisherman, has done it with an uncommonly soft personal touch. He made a point of leaving a voicemail message for all BofA employees to listen to Monday morning, explaining the company's decision to merge with Charlotte, N.C.-based NationsBank in a $62.5-billion deal.

Yet for all the stylistic differences in the executive suites of the two banking behemoths, many analysts and observers believe the organizations can mesh together well. Perhaps more than anything, analysts say, they are brought together by the broad ambitions long characteristic of the two companies.

As their names suggest, both BankAmerica and NationsBank have longed to put together the kind of coast-to-coast organization that their merger would finally provide. Both first blossomed in the banking industry by building expansive branch networks in their home states, a privilege that was barred for years in many other parts of the country. By the 1980s, BofA boasted of having "a branch within a mile and a half of virtually every Californian."

BankAmerica, founded in 1904 by A.P. Giannini and initially aimed at serving Italian immigrants in San Francisco, traditionally had more of a consumer focus. NationsBank, formed in 1960 after a series of local bank mergers, initially thrived by making commercial loans to tobacco and textile companies.

Over the years, both organizations expanded their reach and their territory with aggressive acquisitions. BofA, in fact, bounced back from huge losses from foreign loans in the mid-1980s to go on an acquisition binge, highlighted by its purchase of Los Angeles rival Security Pacific Corp. in 1992 for $5 billion.

Lately, the two companies have been moving in different directions. Under McColl, NationsBank has grown from $12 billion to $310 billion in assets, even before taking into account the proposed deal with BofA. Since the beginning of last year alone, it has snapped up St. Louis-based Boatmen's Bancshares, along with Jacksonville, Fla.-based Barnett Banks and San Francisco-based Montgomery Securities.

BankAmerica, on the other hand, has decided to shut down its retail banking operations in Texas and Hawaii, and it sold off its Security Pacific consumer finance operation. Its acquisitions have been relatively smaller than NationsBank's and aimed at building up such areas as investment banking.

Even so, analysts say, the two chairmen have more in common than immediately meets the eye. While Coulter, 50, portrays himself as a numbers cruncher, he "is willing to make the big decisions based on thorough analysis. It takes a lot of courage to do that, which he just demonstrated," said Joel Silverstein, a banking analyst with Prudential Securities in New York.

McColl, on the other hand, gets credit for running a company that generally has performed well even while digesting a steady stream of acquisitions. When McColl makes acquisitions, "they're good ones, and they work," said John J. Mason, a banking analyst with the Charlotte-based investment firm Interstate/Johnson Lane.

Mason added that McColl, 62, is "a very, very confident and driving individual who is not short on guts and not short on imagination but, despite that, a careful man. This reputation of him being quick to shoot from the hip, that's crap."

The merger decision, Mason said, represents a meeting of the minds of the two CEOs. "What McColl and Coulter have done is look around and say who has the best franchises in the United States?" Mason said.

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Banking Behemoth

Bank of America founder Amadeo Peter Giannini dreamed of a nationwide banking system like the one that would be created by the $62.5-billion planned merger of Bank of America and NationsBank. Giannini introduced many of modern banking's conveniences, such as branch offices and credit cards. Highlights in the storied history of the 94-year-old Bank of America:

* 1904: With a credo to serve "the little fellows," the bank is founded in a San Francisco tavern by Giannini as Bank of Italy.

* 1906: Using $80,000 he hid in a wagon of oranges before his bank burned down, Giannini makes loans to help the city rebuild after its disastrous earthquake.

* 1909: Giannini initiates branch banking by opening an office in San Jose.

* 1927: He consolidates banks into Bank of America of California.

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