September 30, 2022

At Bank of America, the Image Officer Has a Lot to Fix

Her co-star on this day, Bill Clinton, is waiting offstage. The audience shifts in its seats. The spotlight goes up and … action!

It’s a Thursday in early December, at a conference center near Orlando, and Ms. Finucane is busy shaping an image. Or, rather, trying to reshape one. This choreographed interview with the former president before a select group of businesspeople is, in fact, part of a much larger effort to rehabilitate one of the most demonized corporations in America.

That company is Ms. Finucane’s employer, Bank of America. Until recently, this colossus, assembled through a heady run of acquisitions, was the nation’s largest bank. But since the 2008-9 financial crisis, no big bank has lost more of its luster.

Today, Bank of America is often held up as a symbol of all that’s wrong with banking, from stick-it-to-’em fees to dubious home foreclosures. Investors have given it a black eye, too. Last year, its share price plummeted 55 percent, making it the biggest loser among the Dow industrials. The bank remains under unusually close scrutiny by regulators.

All of this — and more — poses daunting challenges for Ms. Finucane (pronounced fin-NEW-kin), one of the most powerful figures at Bank of America and, indeed, in American banking. Yet given her position, it might come as a surprise that she isn’t a financial whiz or, for that matter, even a banker. Her official title is global strategy and marketing officer, but the designation only hints at her influence within the bank, on Wall Street, in Washington and beyond.

Over a 17-year career at the bank and its predecessors, Ms. Finucane, 59, has spun a web of relationships in business, politics, the media and philanthropy. For years, she was a confidante of Kenneth D. Lewis, the executive who built Bank of America with a string of daring takeovers, and whose downfall is remembered as a pivotal moment in the financial crisis. Now she is a confidante of Mr. Lewis’s successor, Brian T. Moynihan, who has been struggling to turn this battleship around. Mr. Moynihan is the chief executive, but Ms. Finucane is, in effect, the chief image officer.

“We all report to Anne,” Mr. Moynihan once joked.

Ms. Finucane shrugs off such wisecracks. But she is serious about the challenges confronting the bank. For despite deep ties to Washington, as well as to Boston, where she and her husband, Mike Barnicle, are an A-list power couple, she isn’t having much fun these days. Yes, she’s tight with Representative Barney Frank, one of the most powerful and colorful figures on Capitol Hill. Yes, she vacations on Cape Cod, near her friends the Kennedys. And, yes, she is a powerhouse on the charity circuit.

But fixing Bank of America, in the eyes of the nation, is a tall order. Colleagues describe her as “blunt,” “brutal” and “a political operator”; on the positive side, they say she always has her ear close to the ground and is effective at getting what she wants.

“This is not the best moment,” she said in early December. “This is the most complicated and the most challenging of my professional life.”

She continued, saying that you can’t fix a reputation just with new slogans. “In order to repair reputation,” she said, “you have to repair the issues that underlie that.”

Still, last week, the bank announced that it had begun reviewing its advertising and image strategy.

In an interview, Ms. Finucane explained that the bank was operating in a “very distracted environment with a lot of finger-pointing and a lot of missteps.” She added: “I would like to demonstrate setting a new course, which Brian put in place, but we need to articulate.”

By almost any measure, Bank of America has fallen hard. In 2008, before the crisis hit and taxpayers bailed it out, its brand was considered top-notch. It ranked 14th worldwide among all corporations, according to Millward Brown BrandZ, a brand database. Today, Bank of America is 92nd, well behind rivals like Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo.

No wonder Bank of America has become a punch line for Jay Leno. Last year, as protesters in Zuccotti Park waved signs disparaging the bank, even Brett Ratner’s crime caper film, “Tower Heist,” took a shot: at one point, Eddie Murphy, posing as a banker, tells someone that if you want to wear a black leather hood and flagellate yourself, work at Bank of America.

The joke alluded to the bank’s biggest business challenge, as well as its biggest P.R. headache: home mortgages. Five years after the housing market came unhinged, the bank still faces tens of billions of dollars in potential damages from lawsuits over mortgage investments that went bad, according to McCarthy Lawyer Links, a legal consulting firm. Most of those investments were sold by Countrywide Financial, the subprime mortgage giant it acquired amid the crisis. Bank of America and other lenders hope to cut a deal with state attorneys general over improper foreclosures.

Ms. Finucane isn’t directly involved in the mortgage business or in the bank’s legal decision making. But when a problem threatens the bank’s reputation, it lands in her lap. Sensing the public’s animosity toward banking, for instance, she persuaded Mr. Moynihan to eliminate overdraft fees on debit card purchases in 2010, and to reject those purchases instead. Other banks later introduced a less stringent version of that policy, prompted by new regulations. But she and Bank of America stumbled badly last fall with plans to impose a $5 monthly fee on customers who use debit cards for purchases. It was a P.R. disaster, and the bank quickly backpedaled.

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