My Biggest Mistake

Hugh McColl, 57, is chief executive of NationsBank, the fourth largest banking group in the US. Born in South Carolina, he was a Marine Corps officer and joined North Carolina National Bank (NCNB) as a management trainee, rising to become its president by 1982. NCNB spread rapidly through the southern states as a result of its aggressive acquisition strategy. It changed its name to NationsBank after a 1991 merger with C&S/Sovran Corp, which doubled its size. Mr McColl's approach and personal style have drawn both respect and criticism in the banking industry.

I HAVE made some mistakes in personnel management in the past. Moving too slowly to fix a bad situation has been the main problem. I suspect it is human nature: people don't like to deal with personal issues because they are the hardest.

But my biggest mistake was in 1985, when my competitors acquired something I wanted - and I missed it.

I had been holding negotiations for about a month with the chief executive officer of the Atlantic Bank Corporation, based in Jacksonville, Florida. I got him to agree to merge with us (North Carolina National Bank) and he was ready to do a deal - though a lot of people afterwards assumed we didn't merge because of personalities.

When it came to the nitty- gritty, the investment bankers for Atlantic wanted us to pay 15 times earnings for it - period. They wouldn't negotiate the price any further.

I walked away from that - we wouldn't pay the price - and I allowed myself to make a hostile offer instead for First National Bank of Atlanta, in Georgia.

My offer was rejected by First National on the very day that one of our biggest competitors, First Union National Bank (based, like NCNB, in Charlotte, North Carolina) was buying the Florida bank that I had walked away from. So I had failed at both.

My unwillingness to pay a higher price for Atlantic Bank meant that I missed that unique opportunity. By missing Atlantic, I have been precluded from expanding in Jacksonville, which is an important Florida market we would like to be in.

First Union ended up buying another Jacksonville bank later and consolidating its position, but we don't have anything there. Turning away from Atlantic and chasing First Atlanta was one of my biggest mistakes, because today I would have a more powerful position in Florida if I hadn't walked away.

Meanwhile, First National Bank of Atlanta, which had rejected my offer, accepted an offer from First Wachovia Corporation, another big competitor bank in North Carolina, based in Winston- Salem. So it was a very bad Monday for me.

I remember it well because it was my 50th birthday, 18 June 1985. It was a miserable day - losing two mergers you wanted, to two of your most bitter competitors.

In retrospect, it was a blessing that I missed First National Bank of Atlanta, because later I would never have got C&S/Sovran, the dollars 50bn multi-state bank we absorbed in 1991.

We have 1,700 branches now in 10 states and the District of Columbia. We've told the investment community that we will be able to take dollars 450m out of our expenses annually by 1994, and we've already made job savings of 7,000, which brings our staff to 52,000.

Over my 30 years in banking, I have been through a large number of mergers. Since I became chairman of the board in 1983, NCNB has made 20 to 25 acquisitions.

We've always wanted to be a bank that stretches from Baltimore, Maryland, south to Miami. After we take up our option on MNC Financial of Maryland, we will be the dominant bank in Washington DC and Virginia.

I've had many victories since that day in 1985, but it was years before I could even think about it.

(Photograph omitted)