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‘We all report to Anne’

A Bostonian has one of the toughest jobs in the business — repairing Bank of America’s image

By Todd Wallack
Globe Staff / February 13, 2011

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Two days after being picked to run Bank of America in December 2009, Brian Moynihan was toasted by his colleagues at an intimate champagne reception at the bank’s office tower in downtown Boston.

Moynihan’s former bosses,Terrence Murray and Chad Gifford, both of whom ran FleetBoston before it was sold to Bank of America in 2004, praised Moynihan’s talent and his rise to the top.

When it was Moynihan’s turn to speak, the Wellesley resident first focused on another of their longtime colleagues: Anne M. Finucane, the bank’s global strategy and marketing officer.

“Terry, Chad, who are we kidding?’’ Moynihan cracked. “We know that we all report to Anne.’’

The quip was both a joke among insiders and an acknowledgment of Finucane’s stature inside the bank. Finucane, 58, who has worked for Bank of America and its predecessors for 16 years, had become a trusted adviser to one bank chief after another. She is also the only member of the company’s 13-person senior management team based in Boston (though the bank doesn’t disclose her pay).

Colleagues say she has one of the company’s toughest jobs: repairing Bank of America’s battered brand in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. For the past two years, the bank has been accused of everything from misleading shareholders to mishandling foreclosures to overcharging customers, even as it received $45 billion in taxpayer aid.

As the nation’s biggest bank, Bank of America was also a favorite target for activists and politicians who blamed Wall Street for the economic meltdown, drawing a raft of congressional hearings, lawsuits, and angry protests.

But Finucane helped the bank fight back.

Fueled by strong coffee, milk chocolate, and double-bagged Tetley tea, Finucane recalls working nearly nonstop over the past two years with colleagues to mend Bank of America’s relationships with customers, politicians, and watchdog groups.

She recalls talking through the bank’s strategies almost every weekend with Moynihan and other colleagues. And together, they produced an ambitious set of initiatives to rebuild the bank’s brand, including quickly repaying the government, maintaining its commitment to local charitable organizations, ending some of the most onerous consumer fees, and modifying its marketing message.

“We thought we needed to do something right from the get-go,’’ Finucane said. “This is a very aggressive, all-encompassing effort at this company.’’

Several people who know Finucane described her as calm and composed and deeply analytical — far from the stereotypical gregarious marketing executive. She is also a voracious reader, consuming everything from customer survey data to thick tomes on the financial crisis.

Community activist Bruce Marks, who has made a career of pressuring financial institutions with protests and other guerilla tactics to support his programs, said Finucane pushed back by asking him to produce hard data showing his programs were effective at reducing foreclosures.

“She is not someone who gets pressured into doing something,’’ said Marks, chief executive of the Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America, which has received billions from Bank of America to support low-cost mortgages for working families. “She will do it because she thinks it is the right thing to do, not because it is expedient.’’

Another activist was less enthusiastic. One of the leaders of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, a social justice group that has urged customers to boycott Bank of America and several other large banks because of their credit card rates, said Finucane was willing to meet with the group, but unwilling to lower its interest rates.

“I am not particularly impressed,’’ said Father Martin Curtin.

Raised in Newton, the fourth of six children in an Irish Catholic family, Finucane majored in English at the University of New Hampshire. After college she imagined she would eventually write a novel, teach, or maybe work in a museum. Instead she worked in public relations, first at Boston City Hall and then WBZ-TV. Then she spent 14 years at Boston ad firm Hill Holliday, under the tutelage of the firm’s boss and Boston powerbroker, Jack Connors.

In 1982, she married television commentator and former Globe columnist Mike Barnicle. The couple have four children.

But in 1995, Fleet’s chief executive, Terrence Murray, recruited her to run the growing bank’s marketing department. Moynihan, Bank of America’s current chief executive, was one of Fleet’s top lawyers at the time. The pair were then united with Gifford, who was running BankBoston at the time, when Fleet acquired BankBoston in 1999.

Fleet itself was gobbled up by Bank of America in 2004. Through all the changes, Finucane continued to gain the trust of one new chief executive after another and increase her power. She was named a regional president in 2004, then global chief marketing officer in 2006, and finally “global strategy and marketing officer’’ in 2009, making her a member of the company’s senior management team.

In her current role, she oversees roughly 2,000 people, including the bank’s marketing, public relations, philanthropy, and lobbying teams. And she was also charged with managing the bank’s battered brand.

Finucane said the biggest move was to quickly repay the $45 billion bailout the bank received from the government in December 2009. She said she practically “camped out’’ in the nation’s capital working out the details.

She also helped persuade Bank of America to break with the industry on two key issues: supporting President Obama’s effort to create a financial consumer protection agency and eliminating dreaded overdraft fees on debit card purchases.

“She is a woman of great political sense,’’ said US Representative Barney Frank, a Newton Democrat and former chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. “She’s helped them avoid mistakes.’’

Finucane also appointed a top deputy, Andrew Plepler, to meet regularly with consumer and community groups, ensuring their concerns about overdraft fees and other issues would be heard at the bank’s highest levels. Activists said the moves are more than window dressing, citing the bank’s willingness to eliminate overdraft fees on debit cards.

“I give them a lot of credit for that step, which I think is really big,’’ said Martin Eakes, chief executive of the Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit in Durham, N.C., that has been critical of overdraft fees. He said Bank of America’s move was particularly important because it issues 15 percent of all debit cards in the United States.

Colleagues say Finucane ran into resistance from other executives, who were concerned the move could cost the bank millions of dollars and position the bank as an outlier in the industry. But armed with customer research and testimony from consumer advocacy groups, Finucane kept pushing for the change.

“She’s not a shrinking violet,’’ said Gifford, the former FleetBoston head who remains on Bank of America’s board. “If she thinks something should happen, she will make her feelings very clear.’’

Finucane also oversees Bank of America’s charitable foundation and insisted the bank stick by its goal of giving away $2 billion over a 10-year period, even when the bank was losing money and forced to cut its shareholder dividend. In Massachusetts, the bank gives about $12 million a year to nonprofits, making it one of the area’s largest corporate donors.

But the money also buys good publicity for the bank. For example, the company pledged $10 million in cash and art to the Museum of Fine Arts during its addition of the Art of the Americas wing. The museum, in turn, agreed the plaza in front of its Huntington Avenue entrance would bear the Bank of America name. The bank also promotes its community involvement on billboards in Boston and other major markets.

Bank executives believe the efforts are beginning to pay off.

A survey by the American Customer Satisfaction Index in December showed the bank’s rating among consumers edged up slightly last year, though it still ranked well below where it was two years ago and worse than the industry average overall.

“It’s not where we want it to be,’’ Finucane says, “but we’ve charted a strong course ahead and have the right team all pulling in the same direction.’’

But the flak keeps coming, especially over the foreclosure issue. Arizona’s attorney general sued the bank in December, saying it violated an order to provide loan modifications and help relocate borrowers, calling Bank of America “the worst in the industry’’ on helping troubled borrowers. And new complaints and lawsuits seem to surface every week.

So Finucane’s long days don’t appear to be ending anytime soon.

During the past two summers, she said, she often found herself staring out the windows of her 32d-floor office at the sailboats bobbing along on the Charles River, frustrated that she couldn’t join them on her own boat.

“Somehow I just couldn’t look away,’’ Finucane recalled. “You would be in your office. You would be talking on the phone. And you knew you weren’t going to be able to leave.’’

Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com.

Anne M. Finucane

Company: Bank of America
Title: Global strategy and marketing officer, Northeast region president
College: University of New Hampshire
Age: 58
Town: Lincoln