Hugh McColl: Installments

Part 1: Talented in Leadership

Part one of Biographical Conversations with Hugh Leon McColl Jr. traces the future CEO's journey from his childhood in a small southern town to his early days at the bank that would one day catapult him to the top of the financial world.

Born in Bennettsville, South Carolina, on June 18, 1935, Hugh Leon McColl Jr. grew up in a family that prized success. When McColl was a young boy, he proudly told his grandmother that he had received the second highest grade on a test in school. "You'll do better next time, son," his grandmother responded.

A young Hugh McColl possessed extraordinary leadership skills; elected class president his first three years in high school, he served as student body president his senior year, and was voted "best all around" in his class. McColl's quote on his yearbook page read, "He who is talented in leadership holds the world's dream in his fist."

After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1957, he joined the United States Marine Corps, where he learned perhaps the most important lessons in his young life: "It doesn't matter whether you are black or white or whether you are rich or poor or whether you went to Yale or went to LA High School. I mean it doesn't matter. You learn to judge people on performance. That is what I learned in the Marine Corps," said McColl.

McColl served in the Marines for two years, and then returned to Bennettsville, intent on joining his father's business. But his father, Hugh Leon "Peck" McColl, Sr. had other ideas. "We are getting along just fine without you," his father told him. "You better go up to the American Trust Company and get yourself a job." The company McColl Sr. was referring to was a bank in Charlotte--one that the McColls had done business with through the years, and that was about to merge with another bank to become North Carolina National Bank (NCNB). McColl followed his father's advice, though he was initially rejected and needed his father's reference to ensure a position in the bank's management training program, beginning in September 1959.

Before starting his training, McColl traveled to Europe with a group of college students. On the first day of that journey, he met Jane Spratt, and McColl knew right away he had met his future wife. While McColl explains it took Spratt a while to agree with him, by the end of the trip the two were engaged. They were married in October 1959, and the following year, their first child, Hugh Leon McColl II, was born.

Episode one of Biographical Conversations with Hugh Leon McColl Jr. concludes with reflections of McColl's promotion to full-time correspondent banker. It was a position that would take him on the road and away from his family several days a week. It was also the beginning of the trail McColl would blaze on his way to the top of the banking industry.

Part 2: A Long Chase

In part two of Biographical Conversations with Hugh Leon McColl Jr., the young correspondent banker begins his ascent through the bank's hierarchy. Early in his career, McColl had excellent instincts regarding potential clients. He also sought new innovations to keep money flowing to and from the bank. As the bank's client list grew, executives at the bank relied on McColl, as well as a handful of other "young turks," to devise successful strategies.

In the meantime, a new face emerged at the top of the NCNB roster when bank president Addison Reese promoted Tom Storrs to the position of executive vice president for administration. Not a native North Carolinian, Storrs was distrusted, and somewhat disliked, by many NCNB employees. But McColl worked well with Storrs, who promoted him first to deputy director of the bank's national division, and then, in 1967, to a senior vice president of NCNB.

By this time, the McColl family had grown again; John Spratt McColl, born in 1962, and Jane McColl, born in 1967, increased the banker's family to five. The McColls moved to a larger home, where they would remain for the next 27 years. Although McColl was not traveling as much as he had during his correspondent banking days, he still logged an abundance of hours each week at the office. His diligence paid off. Promoted to executive vice president in 1970, McColl headed the bank division in charge of commercial business, both domestic and abroad. He was also instrumental in the opening of the first international NCNB offices, in the Bahamas, and, in 1972, London.

It was also in 1972 that NCNB surpassed Wachovia to become North Carolina's largest bank. His dream realized, Addison Reese retired in 1974, and his successor, Tom Storrs, took the company reins. Hugh McColl, was promoted to president of NCNB.

But the next couple of years proved trying for the bank as a national recession forced NCNB to the brink of insolvency. The crisis culminated over Independence Day weekend in 1974, when McColl was told that his bank would have to raise $40 million by July 5. Aware that all national businesses were closed for the holiday, McColl had to think fast. "Our London office was open, since the British don't celebrate the 4th of July. And our head money trader was able to raise $50 million in the market for us that allowed us to meet our obligations when our bank in Charlotte reopened on the 5th. That singular action saved our company. Had we not had a London office...hey, I wouldn't be sitting here," says McColl.

Despite the stress at the bank, McColl found time for another passion: the growth of Charlotte. Joining forces with his NCNB colleague Joe Martin and other city residents, McColl became involved in a project to revitalize Charlotte's Fourth Ward. It would become the first of several projects McColl would undertake as part of his mission to turn Charlotte into the vital city it is today.
Back at NCNB, McColl continued to climb the corporate ladder. Promoted to chief operating officer in 1981, McColl worked closely with Storrs to move NCNB's presence beyond state borders and into the US Southeastern region. In 1983, Storrs retired and Hugh Leon McColl Jr. became CEO.

Part 3: The Art of the Merger

Part three of Biographical Conversations with Hugh Leon McColl Jr. examines McColl's tenure as chief executive officer of North Carolina National Bank. NCNB expanded dramatically under McColl's leadership. During his 18 years in the CEO chair, NCNB would move across state lines, time zones, and regions to become one of the three largest banks in the nation. In the process, the company would change names twice, becoming NationsBank in 1991, and then, in 1998, Bank of America.

The ascension of McColl's company up the banking ranks was not without its challenges. In 1985, he attempted to merge with First Atlanta Corp, a prominent bank in Georgia. But McColl's brash style offended the First Atlanta's CEO, who instead accepted a merger deal with Wachovia, NCNB's biggest rival. Four years later, McColl made an unsolicited attempt to acquire another important Georgia bank, Atlanta-based, Citizens and Southern. But C&S's CEO, Bennett Brown, rescinded the offer and did not mince words regarding his resentment toward McColl.

But in between, the CEO had plenty of triumphs. NCNB merged with banks in South Carolina and Florida during the mid-1980s, merging its way through the latter state with such fervor that Florida newspapers dubbed him and his executive team "Pac-man bankers." In 1988, a major opportunity to expand beyond the borders of the southeast arose when First Republic Bank of Dallas, the biggest bank in Texas, went on the selling block. McColl pursued this acquisition relentlessly, flying his team to Dallas to seal the deal. In July 1988, NCNB acquired First Republic, and immediately doubled in size.

In 1991, McColl had a chance to redeem a past mistake when C&S/Sovran became available for sale. This time McColl prepared carefully for his meeting with Brown. The two reached an agreement that summer; and with this merger, NCNB became the second biggest bank in the nation; fittingly, its name changed to NationsBank.

Seven years later, McColl extended NationsBank's reach to the West Coast. After a delicate, sometimes turbulent, series of negotiations, NationsBank and San Francisco-based BankAmerica agreed to terms for a "merger of equals." The new massive company would be called Bank of America and its headquarters would be based not in California--or Dallas, Atlanta, or Chicago, for that matter--but in McColl's own city of Charlotte.

When McColl was not working on business deals, he remained busy nurturing the city of Charlotte, and the southeast in general. In 1995, he hired Harvey Gantt to design a public transit system that would prove vital to the revitalization of the Queen City. One year later, his bank was an instrumental part of Atlanta's highly successful Summer Olympics. A passionate advocate for southern industry, McColl spoke often about the importance of progressive policies in his home region; his bank was regarded as one of the most diverse work forces in the nation.

When McColl retired in 2001, he left a legacy filled not only with great financial success, but also sound ethics. Every year the bank failed to make a solid profit, he would cut his own salary and deny executive bonuses. McColl also played a crucial part in the revitalization of Charlotte. "I can certainly claim that I've made a difference in our city, and I feel good about that," he says. This aggressive and highly powerful bank CEO never lost sight of the responsibility that comes hand-in-hand with success: "I remember an admonition that my grandmother gave me--'to whom much is given, much is expected.' I believe that, and I hope I taught my children that."