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Moynihan, in running for Bank of America’s top job, has experience winning tough fights

EXECUTIVE MATERIAL 'He put in long hours and loved it. He was indefa- tigable,' a former colleague says of Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan. EXECUTIVE MATERIAL
"He put in long hours and loved it. He was indefa- tigable," a former colleague says of Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan.
By Todd Wallack
Globe Staff / November 17, 2009

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Brian T. Moynihan was gifted with speed. At his high school in the Appalachian town of Marietta, Ohio, he was named outstanding male runner his senior year, when his relay team finished 62-1.

But Moynihan also threw himself into three other sports at which he was not a natural, relying on smarts and an unblinking work ethic more than on athletic prowess.

“He was an average athlete, but he was a competitor,’’ said his high school basketball coach, Ed Paxton. “He worked very hard.’’

Those days seemed to portend Moynihan’s professional career. The Wellesley resident has swiftly ascended through the ranks at Bank of America by tackling jobs outside his training as a lawyer, succeeding by dint of sheer intelligence, indefatigable energy, and a willingness to bull ahead, despite stepping on some toes along the way.

He has risen to become head of the bank’s sprawling consumer banking division. And now Moynihan, 50, is being considered for chief executive of Bank of America, one of the top jobs in corporate America.

Moynihan - he is one of several internal candidates for the CEO’s job, now held by Kenneth D. Lewis - is being scrutinized in ways that outside candidates are not. Bank of America’s travails have become an unusual public spectacle: Lewis unexpectedly announced his retirement without a clear successor in place, and the bank is facing multiple investigations related to its acquisition of the investment bank Merrill Lynch.

One of those investigations brings Moynihan to Washington, D.C., this morning, where a congressional committee is expected to grill him about a crucial period in December 2008, when he was named the bank’s general counsel. At the time, Bank of America executives were preparing to tell government officials they were considering backing out of the deal because of Merrill’s mounting losses.

Moynihan was one of three executives who met with then-US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke about Merrill. The bank ultimately agreed to go through with the deal, after the government gave it an additional $20 billion in taxpayer aid.

“This was wild times,’’ Moynihan told the Globe several months ago. “We got to places that were unbelievable.’’

Moynihan has expressed keen interest in the CEO’s job, recently calling it one of the best jobs in America. He declined to be interviewed for this story, but said in a brief statement: “I have devoted a lot of energy to help make this a great company, and I plan to keep doing that however the CEO selection shakes out.’’

In Marietta, a city of 15,000 people just across the Ohio River from West Virginia, Moynihan was the sixth of eight children. His father was a chemist; his mother sold insurance. After graduating from high school with honors, he went to Brown University, majored in history, cocaptained the rugby team, and met his future wife, classmate Susan E. Berry. He then studied law at the University of Notre Dame, which his uncle and grandfather attended. He remains a loyal fan of the Fighting Irish football team.

After law school, Moynihan returned to Providence, joining the city’s largest corporate law firm, Edwards & Angell LLP. Colleagues remember him coming in some mornings bruised from a rugby match the night before, and then outworking everyone in the office.

He worked mostly for one client, Fleet Financial Group Inc., as it made a series of acquisitions on its way to becoming the largest bank in New England. Fleet’s chief executive, Terrence Murray, recruited Moynihan as the bank’s deputy counsel in 1993.

In 1999, when Fleet acquired BankBoston, Moynihan was put in charge of his first large operation: the bank’s brokerage and wealth-management unit. Then, after Bank of America bought Fleet in 2004, he ran an even bigger investment unit. One of his tasks was to combine the banks’ mutual fund units, after each was scarred by the market-timing scandal that swept the industry five years ago.

But Moynihan clashed with executives during another acquisition, the 2007 purchase of US Trust, a 156-year-old investment firm that catered to wealthy clientele.

Peter K. Scaturro, US Trust’s CEO, complained to colleagues that Moynihan wanted to junk many of the personalized services that distinguished the firm, such as intimate dinners with clients, a person involved in the situation said. Scaturro resigned after being told he would report to Moynihan; most of the other top US Trust executives left soon afterward, too.

The US Trust integration “has gone pretty poorly,’’ said Peter Deragon, an executive recruiter for Stanton Chase International, who has recruited executives from Bank of America.

Other analysts said a US Trust exodus may have been unavoidable because the companies’ cultures were too different. Jeff Harte, a banking analyst with Sandler O’Neill and Partners in Chicago, said it may be unfair to blame Moynihan, given the culture clash.

Though it eventually elevated his prominence in the company, the Merrill deal almost ended Moynihan’s career at Bank of America.

Initially, Lewis asked Merrill chief John Thain to run the combined company’s investment units, making Moynihan’s job redundant. Lewis then offered Moynihan a new position, running Bank of America’s credit card unit. He turned Lewis down and appeared ready to leave.

Then Gifford, Moynihan’s former boss at Fleet, and other board members nudged Lewis to find another spot for Moynihan.

“A bit scary willing to let Brian go,’’ Gifford wrote in an e-mail to another board member, a copy of which has been obtained by the Globe. “He’s a key character in understanding all that’s on plate.’’

Lewis’s solution was to replace general counsel Tim Mayopoulos with Moynihan in early December. Mayopoulos, who is also scheduled to testify at the congressional hearing, has said he was stunned by his dismissal. One banking executive briefed on the situation said Lewis felt Mayopoulos was not a good fit for the company and that he needed a job for Moynihan.

After Thain resigned in January, amid criticism he had pushed for hefty bonuses for himself and Merrill executives, Lewis tapped Moynihan to replace him. In August, Moynihan was promoted to run the company’s consumer banking division.

Two images of Moynihan emerge from descriptions by friends and colleagues: that of a hard worker whose hours test the limits of endurance, and that of a devoted family man. He apparently works just as hard reconciling these two sides.

“He put in long hours and loved it,’’ recalled a partner at his former law firm in Providence, James Skeffington. “He was indefatigable.’’

While work often requires him to be in New York City, Moynihan continues to live in Wellesley with his wife and three children. Last year, he coached a daughter’s basketball team, rushing from New York to get to the Monday evening games.

Jane F. Magpiong, a former co-worker who lives near Moynihan, said she can’t shake an image of Moynihan and his wife sitting at one of their girls’ lacrosse matches, operating a manual score board in the pouring rain.

Beth Healy of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com.