Up Front: November 2006

Better late than never

We’ve been trying to do this month’s cover story for more than five years, and it had been assigned for more than five months. But Ed Martin didn’t get to talk to the subject until after he had finished writing it.

“We’ve been trying to interview Ken Lewis since 2001, when he succeeded Hugh McColl, as well we should have,” our multiaward-winning senior editor says. “The position of president, CEO and chairman of Bank of America, in my estimation, makes the holder the dean of Tar Heel business, and as the state’s most authoritative business publication, we’d have been remiss if we’d given up. That’s true even if, as Lewis’ aides have told us repeatedly, the bank has outgrown its North Carolina roots and become an international powerhouse. Or as one put it: ‘North Carolina’s just another state to Ken now.’”

Last May, we budgeted the Lewis profile for this issue, which focuses on banking, committing to do the piece with or without his cooperation. Ed began laying the groundwork and doing research. He read everything he could get his hands on that’s been written about BofA’s boss — surprisingly, there’s not been that much, of any depth, even in the national media. He scoured public records. He interviewed dozens of sources, including people inside and outside the bank, including one Lewis had hired and a few he had fired. In mid-July, he placed his first call to a BofA public-relations executive, who didn’t hold out much hope that Lewis would agree to talk.

But Ed is nothing if not persistent and was determined to meet this man he’d been working so hard to know. Finally, we could wait no longer. “I began writing what I had reported in late September, still peppering the bank with requests and reminders several times a week that we needed to talk to Lewis and still being told that it would be unlikely. The story was completed in early October and being edited when, quite unexpectedly, on Oct. 10 — already more than a week past deadline — Terry Francisco, BofA’s senior vice president for national media relations, e-mailed me, saying Lewis would be available sometime that week. Within hours, he called and set the time for 10 a.m. the next day.”

Ed and Assistant Editor Maggie Frank spent about 30 minutes with Lewis. Then Ed came back and recrafted the piece from top to bottom. “It added immensely to the story, partly for his take on the bank’s direction and future, but more so as insight into the man, in flesh and blood. The impression we got? He’s a very reserved individual, an executive who has an astounding devotion to — focus on — his corporation, with an amazing talent for making money.”

We got a half-hour with him, which for a guy who BofA’s proxy says pulled down $22 million last year, was very generous. If he were paid wages for a 40-hour week, that’d work out to $5,288 of his time — which Ed probably would have been willing to reimburse the bank just to have the interview. Fortunately for us, he’s the guy who writes great stories for BNC, not the one who signs its checks.