Up Front: January 2009

To go boldly

As this is written on deadline, early one morning 13 days before Christmas, the Three Kings from Detroit have been told there is no room for them at the inn. When the market opens in a few hours, the slaughter of the innocents will begin anew. These are tumultuous times in a season once reserved for reflection on what the old year has brought and the new one will bring. As we grieve for Wachovia, still wondering what price must be paid for its passing, we learn that the toll in jobs at Bank of America will be heavy, too. Things keep surfacing, ripples from the finance bubble’s bursting becoming waves that batter economies both local and global.

Among such uncertainty, it’s human nature to want to know whom to blame, whom to hold accountable. We want to put a face on our fears, as well as our hopes. This is especially true of a publication such as ours, which strives to chronicle commerce by telling the stories of those whose actions shape it. In our 25th anniversary issue in 2006, we profiled the two dozen people our editorial staff thought had the most impact on the Tar Heel economy during the past quarter century. Ken Thompson was one, for fixing First Union. If we were picking that list again, he’d still be on it, but for a different reason. It’s why he’s our Mover and Shaker of the Year.

Here’s what the magazine said back then:

“Ken Thompson is that rarest of corporate chief who will admit his company has made mistakes, then move boldly to fix them. By the end of the ’90s, Charlotte-based First Union was the nation’s sixth-largest bank holding company, but it was in trouble. An attempt to steer customers from tellers to computers backfired, as did an edgy ad campaign. When he became CEO in 2000, he pulled the campaign and shut a business it had bought only two years earlier. Then came an even bolder move that would erase the brand the bank spent decades building. Merging with Winston-Salem-based Wachovia, First Union assumed its identity, ditching its old name, which had become a liability. The ‘new’ Wachovia is now the fourth-largest U.S. bank holding company. It reported earnings of $6.6 billion in 2005 — nearly quadruple what they were in 2001.”

Many people, as the story that begins on page 38 attests, blame another of his bold moves for erasing that brand, too. But that’s too easy an answer. After all, boldness is something our society seeks and celebrates in CEOs. And it does not account for other factors, the forces beyond his control nor the responsibility others should bear, including members of his board, who backed his plans. This is why we’ve cast him in the role not as villain but as tragic hero. The fall of Wachovia is indeed a tragedy, one in which a great many have suffered and will suffer, he not the least among them.