When it comes to retaining power, Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis has more moves than J. Edgar Hoover. Earlier this year, moving to deflect public outrage over the company's decision last fall to pay billions of dollars in bonuses to employees of the recently acquired, financially calamitous Merrill Lynch, he put the well-coiffed head of John Thain, who led the unit, on a spike (not that Mr. $1,200 trash can wasn't asking for it). And when shareholders this spring were whooping for Lewis's scalp over the heavy losses at Merrill afflicting B of A's balance sheet, he sensibly passed the buck to the U.S. government.
Today comes news that Lewis has shuffled management at B of A. Some interpret the move as a sign that he's paving the way for his successor as chief executive. Maybe. That's certainly the impression the announcement is intended to convey. Lewis, who's been CEO at the company since 2001, said in a statement that the management changes "position a number of senior executives to compete to succeed me at the appropriate time."
The company is bumping up Brian Moynihan, who heads its global corporate and investment banking and global wealth management, to lead consumer banking. You'll recall that Moynihan, a lawyer by trade, is the guy who took over stewardship of Merrill after Thain was forced out, and he's been widely pegged as a possible successor to Lewis. No doubt his legal training would come in service as B of A navigates the roiling regulatory and political waters.
Along with Moynihan, the company shortlisted several other possible candidates to take the helm. The most prominent of these pretenders is former Citigroup CFO Sallie Krawcheck, who will run B of A's wealth and investment management operations. Krawcheck, once famously known as the most famous woman in banking (following her career as the "last honest analyst" in America), was infamously pushed out at Citi last fall after reportedly clashing with CEO Vikram Pandit.
Of course, the succession scenario assumes Lewis, 62, really means it when he says he'll step down as CEO within three years. Remember that Lewis trained at the knee of the notoriously succession-averse Hugh McColl, who led NationsBank, and later B of A after the two merged in 1998, for some 18 years.
It also remains to be seen if B of A's board of directors, once the government backs off, has the gumption to keep Lewis at his word. Certainly, the executive's hold on the throne has weakened. In April, under shareholder pressure, he lost his seat as chairman of the board. But that board remains stacked with company insiders and industry fellow travelers, while even the panel's new and ostensibly more independent chairman, physicist Walter Massey, has long ties with Lewis and thus far appears content to rubber stamp management's decisions.
Ken Lewis lives. Long live Ken Lewis.
Images courtesy of Bank of America and Flickr user Irispengpeng.