McColl: The Man With America's Money

A biography tracks Hugh McColl's rise to banking legend.
Author:
Publish date:

McColl: The Man With America's Money

by Ross Yockey; September 1999; Longstreet; 636 pages.

Hugh McColl, chairman of the giant

Bank of America

(BAC) - Get Report

, is a fascinating man. So it is little wonder that this first-ever biography of him is a terrific read.

For those used to reading generic ("10 Steps to Success!") books on America's business leaders,

McColl: The Man With America's Money

requires a new mindset. Written by Ross Yockey, a Charlotte, N.C., resident who is not and has never been a business journalist, the biography tells the story of this son of the South in true Southern style, slowly and leisurely.

Yockey, who has also written biographies of

Zubin Mehta

and

Andre Previn

, paints McColl as a "backwater general," a small fry who took on the huge New York banks and won, ultimately orchestrating

NationsBank's

1998 takeover of BankAmerica. The tale of how McColl created the first coast-to-coast bank is at times brilliant, drawing the reader into the excitement of his rising star and the deals that catapulted him to the top. The 636-page book is packed with an all-star cast of characters, including

Ross Perot

,

Bill

and

Hillary Clinton

,

David Coulter

,

William Seidman

and many others.

Yockey, who spent two years interviewing McColl, his family, colleagues, employees and detractors, effectively sets the scene in the boardrooms and hotel rooms where billion-dollar deals were made. He does this so well that, after reading this book, the reader has a full, three-dimensional portrait of the man said to have changed the face of American banking.

McColl's family history -- chock full of bank presidents and steeped in privilege and Southern tradition -- is explored carefully. The decision to enter banking wasn't McColl's at all, but his father's. "Son, you don't have the brains to be a farmer. You better be a banker," his father told him. And so without question, young Hugh signed up for business and finance classes at the

University of North Carolina

and then, after a stint in the Marines, went to work for

American Commercial Bank

in Charlotte in September 1959, for the princely sum of $375 a month. Before the end of his first year there, the bank merged with

Security National Bank

, creating

North Carolina National Bank

.

The book covers McColl's early days as a correspondent banker, driving around South Carolina in a

Volkswagen

Beetle, drumming up business for NCNB. He soon became one of the "Young Turks," as the bank called its up-and-coming executives.

Yockey describes the creation of the corporate culture that would set NCNB on the road to expansion, eventually detailing the North Carolinians' charge into Texas, where they took over the failing

First Republic Bank

in Dallas. By creating a bridge bank that took on all the bad loans of the insolvent bank, NCNB was able to realize the tax benefits as the bad loans were written off. Brought to the table by NCNB's chief financial officer, Tim Hartman, the plan was "just crazy enough to work," according to McColl.

The author effectively sets the scene in the boardrooms and hotel rooms where billion-dollar deals were made.

The book then chronicles the other deals in which NCNB grew to become NationsBank and eventually led to the "big one," the merger with BankAmerica. While earlier deals are painstakingly described, the chapters covering the BofA talks are surprisingly brief. A more-mature McColl had obviously learned the art of the deal; he'd become a more patient man willing to compromise on the new bank's name, deferring to BankAmerica, while ensuring that the behemoth financial institution was headquartered in Charlotte.

Yockey's interviews with McColl -- some of which took place during the BofA merger -- lend an insidery feel to his account of the deal. For example, readers learn how a church sermon helped McColl realize that the new bank's name wasn't as important as what it stood for. "Even if he had to take on BankAmerica's name, he could make it stand for the things Hugh McColl believed in," Yockey writes.

While Yockey is obviously enamored of his subject, he isn't squeamish about showing the dark side of McColl. At times brusque and downright rude, McColl comes across as one of those people you either like or you don't -- and he doesn't really care one way or the other which way you feel. One memorable scene is McColl's verbal lashing of a room service attendant who was late bringing in coffee during one of the first mergers. After that, McColl's lieutenants made sure there was always a coffee maker in the hotel room.

While the book's jacket heralds the biography as a "deal-by-deal" account that led McColl to the pinnacle of banking success, it sometimes becomes a moment-by-moment account, which is its biggest problem. While details are important, the book often becomes mired in them, such as chronicling every meeting and phone call in a deal, even those that didn't lead to a merger. It would have been better to distill some of this information, but Yockey finds it difficult to leave anything out.

But even with this liability,

McColl

is still a fascinating read. The hefty volume isn't for readers in a hurry, but -- for those who can slow their literary metabolism to a speed found chiefly below the Mason/Dixon Line -- the book promises to be a pleasure.

Janice Wood is a Summerville, S.C.-based freelance writer. She previously wrote for American City Business Journals in Los Angeles, Dallas and San Antonio, as well as the Pacifica Tribune in California. She can be reached at

woodfam@wpmedia.com.