A recent obituary in the Wall Street Journal recounted the colorful career of financier A. W. Clausen, a former World Banker and a moving force behind Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) during some of the institution's best times -- as well as some of its worst. Clausen nearly single-handedly saved the big bank from failure during the 1980s, when B of A faced many of the same threats and problems that it does today.
Indeed, the bank has been a veritable damsel in distress -- facing the abyss on more than one occasion in its long history, and each time being rescued by a clever man with a strong attachment to the big galoot, who used his wiles and strength of personality to bring the battered bank back to its former glory.
As history can sometimes be the best predictor of the future, this story points to not only the resilience of Bank of America, but how the bank has managed to attract the type of leader, time after time, that can bring it back around after a particularly bruising bout in the world of finance. Is Brian Moynihan B of A's newest savior?
Humble beginnings and a first crisis
B of A began life as the Bank of Italy, founded in 1904 in San Francisco by Italian immigrant Amadeo Peter Giannini. Known for lending money to ordinary working people whom other banks shunned, Giannini expanded his bank quickly via a network of branch locations . By 1928, when he created the Transamerica Corp. holding company for Bank of America National Trust and Savings Association, his bank had 24 locations throughout California.
To help develop his vision of a nationwide banking system, Giannini's Transamerica bought Wall Street firm Blair and Company in 1929. Blair's top man, Elisha Walker, was Giannini's pick to run his company one year later, when Giannini retired.
But it was not to be. The very next year, Giannini got wind of the fact that Walker was running the bank into the ground and trying to sell Transamerica. Despite his poor health, the retired banker tirelessly traveled the length and breadth of California, talking shareholders into giving control of the bank back to him.
The plan worked, and a damaged Bank of America was returned to its founding father, who nursed it back to health. The paltry $876 million in deposits left in the coffers in 1932 ballooned to $2.1 billion worth of assets by 1936, and the bank went on a tear creating innovative financing products – and becoming the fourth-largest bank in the U.S. in the process.
More growth, another calamity
In the late 1960s, the holding company BankAmerica Corp. was formed in an effort to outpace its chief competitor, Citibank, now part of Citigroup (NYSE: C ) . When A. W. Clausen became CEO in 1971, the bank entered a time of incredible growth. While at the helm of B of A, Clausen oversaw a 50% increase in assets, which swelled to $60 billion by 1975. By the time he left B of A for a position at the World Bank in 1981, that number was nearly $113 billion.
Samuel Armacost took over as CEO, but the good times at B of A were over. Loans of all types began to fail , and the bank's stock tanked. In a desperate bid to set things right, Armacost began closing branches, selling assets, and instituting layoffs. This sorry state of affairs prompted a hostile takeover bid by First Interstate Corp. in 1986, and Armacost, defeated, resigned .
Though some felt Clausen caused many of the problems B of A was now facing, he rode in like a white knight -- in answer to a call from one of the board's members -- determined to save the company. He successfully fought the takeover bid, much like Giannini before him, by bringing shareholders over to his side.
Clausen set to work fixing the broken bank. He poached four executives from a bank he obviously admired, Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC ) , a new move for a leader who usually cultivated assistance from within the company. What followed should sound familiar to followers of B of A's Project New BAC: Clausen cut 20,000 positions, and sold non-core assets, as well as those that were making a profit . He closed branches, but ramped up services with ATMs . He also set about clearing up the nonperforming loans on the bank's balance sheet. By the time Clausen retired permanently in 1990, B of A had gotten its groove back, once again -- and posted a profit of more than $1 billion.
By the time of the bank's merger with NationsBank in 1998, the cachet of the Bank of America name likely prompted the new enterprise to take on that moniker, much as the purchasing entity of rival Wells Fargo embraced that venerable name during the bank's purchase in the late 1990s.
The big-bank era
The bank mergers of the late 1990s seemed to usher in the notion of the bigger the bank, the better -- to paraphrase the CEO of NationsBank at the time of the merger. At that same time, Citi was in the process of becoming Citigroup, via its melding with Travelers Group. Nowadays, there is much debate regarding how unwieldy these banks have become, and whether their size is, in fact, a detriment to their good health.
It's worth noting, though, that some of the same problems that faced Bank of America in the 1980s -- such as a failure to update technology -- is currently plaguing Citi . Could it be that, in fact, it is the management style, more than the size of the bank, that really matters?
Which brings us back to the question of Mr. Moynihan and his role as the bank's newest rescuer. Although he hasn't had to wage a proxy fight, his renovation model looks a heck of a lot like Clausen's. B of A has made incredible headway in just a short period of time, and I would venture to say that it is mostly because of Brian Moynihan.
The upcoming Fed stress test will give us a better idea of the bank's prospects, but things are looking pretty darn good so far. The bank's proven ability to bounce back from the void, combined with the renewal strategy that it typically responds to, gives me the feeling that Bank of America is on its way up -- again.
Who knew that B of A had such a checkered past? With its long history, there's so much to know about how it has reacted to headwinds in the past, and how it's likely to fare in the future. To learn more about the most talked-about bank out there, check out our in-depth company report on Bank of America. The report details Bank of America's prospects, including three reasons to buy and three reasons to sell. Just click here to get access.