NEW YORK (
Bank of America's
Chief Risk Officer Gregory Curl, reportedly one of two leading internal candidates to replace outgoing CEO Ken Lewis, would be an unusual leader for such a large, mainstream company.
Curl has been an extremely important executive at Charlotte, N.C.-based BofA, but he has flown mostly under the radar. He came on board in 1996 after the then NationsBank acquired Boatmen's Bancshares of St. Louis. Until assuming his current post in June, Curl's main responsibility was to evaluate potential acquisitions, first as an adviser to former CEO Hugh McColl Jr. and then to Ken Lewis, when Lewis took over in 2001.
According to his biography on BofA's Web site, Curl was a distinguished student who served as a naval officer in the Mediterranean and the Middle East from 1970 to 1974, after which time he joined Boatmen's as a commercial loan officer. He then left Boatmen's to work as a special assistant to Senator John C. Danforth from 1976 to 1978 before rejoining Boatmen's, where he worked in many capacities, including vice chairman and chief operating officer. Curl grew up in a small town in Missouri, and likes to grow tomatoes, according to a
report written in September 2008.
Deals that Curl oversaw include BofA's $35 billion purchase of MBNA in 2005 and its $21 billion acquisition of Chicago's LaSalle Bank in 2007.
Perhaps Curl's crowning achievement was the bank's $3 billion investment in China Construction Bank in 2005. It was a pet project of Curl's, and a highly unusual one for Lewis, who according to Rochdale Securities analyst Dick Bove has always disliked doing business outside of the United States. BofA added to its stake in China Construction Bank last year, but then began selling part of its holdings this year to shore up its capital position.
Despite his importance, Curl has managed to keep an extremely low profile. In fact, just over a year ago, a Google search for "Greg Curl" turned up a different banker with the same name as the top result--the CEO of tiny Crossroads Bank in Effingham, Ill. The Illinois-based banker told me last year he had heard of his namesake, but that they'd never met.
Curl has many high-profile admirers in the banking industry, including McColl, private equity investor J. Christopher Flowers and Ed Herlihy, partner at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz and one of the top bank M&A lawyers in the country.
Institutional Investor Magazine
last year, I worked on a profile of Curl which was never published. A portrait of a man, who, while bright, seems far more introverted than one would expect of a CEO, emerged from that research. None of the people I spoke to at that time ever imagined Curl would one day be getting consideration to become BofA's CEO, nor did they think he aspired to hold that position.
Curl is known for his stealth, a trait that's useful for a bank merger specialist. One executive who follows BofA closely says Curl was one important reason that BofA's deals have never leaked ahead of a public announcement.
Curl's deal acumen has come into question, however, with the fallout from BofA's purchase of Merrill Lynch last year. The deal has been a political disaster for BofA, spurring numerous investigations and Congressional hearings that have ultimately led to Lewis's resignation. After Curl was mentioned along with Brian Moynihan, the head of BofA's consumer and small-business banking business, as a frontrunner for the CEO job in a
Wall Street Journal
article on Wednesday, BofA investor Finger Interests
Securities and Exchange Commission
urging shareholders to reject internal executives as leaders of the bank, questioning their credibility. Finger Interests also faults Curl for his role in the acquisition of Countrywide Financial, which the investor argues exposed BofA unnecessarily to liability related to allegedly deceptive sales practices.
Curl, however, appears to have substantial support from Bank of America board members and executives keen on maintaining the bank's Charlotte identity. He would not be the only prominent bank CEO who lacks the "people skills," that defined leaders such as former
boss Jack Welch or longtime
chief Hank Greenberg. Vikram Pandit has taken a lot of flak as
leader in part because he lacks the social skills of those CEO legends, but he looks to be hanging on, following a positive external review by executive search firm Egon Zehnder, the results of which were reported by the
Wall Street Journal
Curl may be capable of leading BofA, but his appointment would probably cause volatility in the shares for some time to come, as he struggled to instill confidence both inside the bank and in his public pronouncements while various factions within the bank continued fighting for supremacy.
Written by Dan Freed in New York