Business

The Real McCoy

By
From the February 2014 edition

It’s been 10 years since Bank One was sold to JPMorgan Chase, a logical time for John B. McCoy, third in the line of McCoys to run the homegrown bank, to reflect on a career of incredible highs and lows—marked by Bank One’s rise to national prominence and his resignation under pressure in 1999. Now 70, the former banker shares details about his life in retirement and thoughts on the McCoy legacy, leadership, politics—even gay rights

On a cold January evening in 1997, celebration was in order at the Columbus headquarters of Bank One. Not to ring in the new year, but to toast the high-flying bank’s most audacious move to date: the nearly $8-billion acquisition of consumer-credit giant First USA, vaulting Bank One into the leading ranks of issuers of lucrative MasterCard and Visa credit cards.

From where he sat at the corner of Broad and Third streets, Bank One chairman and chief executive officer John B. McCoy had every reason to be optimistic about the financial institution that three generations of his family had run since 1935. What began as City National Bank & Trust—a perennial No. 3 in Ohio’s capital city—had blossomed under family stewardship into a financial heavyweight with more than $100 billion in assets and 1,500 branches in 12 states. And they weren’t finished.

The heir to the Columbus banking dynasty was a year away from his crowning achievement, the $21-billion acquisition of First Chicago-NBD, an old-line banking franchise nearly the size of Bank One, creating the fourth-largest financial institution in America and the Midwest’s largest, with assets of $260 billion. That deal would also take Bank One headquarters to Chicago, a major blow to Central Ohio but something McCoy viewed as an effective bargaining chip and, in the end, a prerequisite for closing the deal. He and his wife Jane, a native Californian whom he’d met on a blind date while in graduate school, sold their Bexley mansion and bought an elegant high-rise apartment on the Lake Michigan shore.

There seemed to be no stopping the Bank One juggernaut.

“I think you would say we were eminently successful at doing acquisitions,” McCoy says. “So we were quite pleased with how things were going.”

Wall Street had certainly taken notice of McCoy and Bank One. One financial analyst called the First USA deal a “bold strategic move,” while another commented: “This is a dream come true for John McCoy.”

But little did the analysts, McCoy or any of his top lieutenants know then that their credit-card gambit would backfire. They were all living on borrowed time.

Within two years, the 65-year McCoy era at Bank One would be over, clearing the way for an unemployed East Coast banker named Jamie Dimon to step in as CEO and coolly engineer the sale of the former crown jewel of Columbus banking to JPMorgan Chase, forever changing the Ohio banking landscape.

John B. McCoy—“Johnny” to his friends—was born into a banking family. Some might say he was destined for leadership, graduating from Columbus Academy in 1961 as class president and earning degrees from prestigious schools including Williams College and Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. Both his grandfather, John H., and father, John G., had run City National, which would be renamed Bank One in 1979 and ultimately take the banking industry by storm.

It was at Stanford where he met nature-loving Jane Taylor on a blind date in 1966. It was a classic case of opposites attracting. “I recall many times when we were dating and I’d say, ‘It’s a perfect day for a hike,’ and he’d say, ‘No, Ohio State is playing whoever,’ ” Jane says.

Working under the iron-willed John G., who, like his father before him, allowed no coffee in the office and no alcohol at lunch, was both an asset and liability for young John B., who started working at City National in 1970.

“John G. was a severe judge,” says Mike Curtin, former editor and associate publisher of The Columbus Dispatch. “The weight of expectations when you grow up as the son of an industry legend is a challenge for anybody, and John B. was painfully aware that he wasn’t his father.”

John G. not only changed City National’s name to the unbank-like Bank One but also took advantage of liberalized banking laws to acquire other Ohio banks. A visionary, he’s credited with innovations including drive-up windows, credit cards and commercials. Famously defending his decision to feature brassy comedian Phyllis Diller in a series of early 1960s radio and TV spots, he told skeptical associates: “Gentlemen, it’s very simple. You can have either dignity or dividends. I vote for dividends.”

As CEO, John B. chose to play to his strengths rather than mimic his father’s style.

“My father may have been smarter than everybody else in the bank, but I knew that I wasn’t smarter than everybody else,” says McCoy, relaxing in the memorabilia-laden den of his German Village home. “He was more the general telling the private what to do; I was more collaborative.”

Chuck Sulerzyski, CEO of Marietta-based Peoples Bancorp and a Bank One executive from 1987 to 1995, says the team approach worked well for McCoy and Bank One.

“He was a wonderful leader—very much a people person,” Sulerzyski recalls. “He took time to touch the small people—the branch managers and junior executives. He was very gracious that way. It wasn’t that he was soft. There were performance expectations, but he had the ability to get the best out of everyone.”

Bank One thrived during 18 years of John B. McCoy’s easygoing leadership, extending its footprint from several Ohio counties to branches in 13 states with national lines of business. Managing at arm’s length worked like a charm—until it failed him in spectacular fashion.

McCoy was riding high in 1998 when he moved to Chicago to run the bulked-up Bank One. In rapid-fire succession, starting a year earlier, Bank One absorbed First USA of Dallas, a highly profitable credit-card business, and then bought First Chicago-NBD, an old-line bank that extended loans to help rebuild Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871. First Chicago was a proud banking franchise that had underperformed and needed a merger partner. Bank One was chosen partly on the strength of McCoy’s promise to move to Chicago and operate the combined companies from there.

Keeping the headquarters in Columbus “absolutely was a deal-breaker,” says New Albany businessman Jack Kessler, who was a Bank One director at the time.

“I took [McCoy] at his word that he tried to keep the headquarters here,” recalls Greg Lashutka, Columbus mayor from 1992 to 2000, though he likened the prospect of Bank One leaving to a kick in the stomach. “Losing that iconic brand was clearly not a good thing. You want as many CEOs walking your streets as possible.”

Mike Gorman, former president of the commercial office-furniture business Thomas W. Ruff, says Bank One’s departure sent shock waves through the business community. “The general sentiment was, we’re going to lose a hometown bank, and the real concern was the job situation,” Gorman says.

McCoy reasoned that Bank One’s Columbus operations would continue to thrive as long as he was CEO, regardless of where he was located. “It would be different,” he told The Columbus Dispatch at the time, “if I wasn’t going to run the company for the next 10 years.”

On the personal side, his three children were grown, and he and Jane were looking forward to fun times in the big city. Lynn Martin, Chicago native and labor secretary in the George H.W. Bush administration, hosted a dinner party on their behalf to introduce them to the city’s power elite. Jane said at the time that Chicago was “like a warm hug.”

What they didn’t anticipate was a bit of snobbery—the reluctance of some former First Chicago directors who now held half the seats on the Bank One board to play second fiddle to a bunch of Ohioans.

“Here comes John McCoy from Columbus, Ohio, to Chicago, and these guys are like, ‘Here comes this hillbilly,’ ” says longtime McCoy friend Michael Bloch, founder and former chairman of Michael’s Finer Meats. Two First Chicago holdovers in particular—billionaire James Crown and former Sara Lee CEO John Bryan—were looking to pounce on any sign of weakness.

Their opportunity came in August 1999, one year into McCoy’s Chicago tenure, when First USA managers disclosed financial problems that caught the CEO off guard and shocked Wall Street.

First USA was one of the largest and most profitable credit-card issuers in the country, adding $1 billion per quarter to Bank One’s bottom line. McCoy folded Bank One’s and First Chicago’s less-sophisticated card operations into First USA and let the company’s co-founder, Richard Vague, run everything from Dallas and report to McCoy’s vice chairman in Columbus, Richard Lehman.

To juice profits, Vague’s team raised interest rates and shortened grace periods to generate more late fees. The moves backfired when customers started closing accounts. McCoy was aghast when Lehman told him the card business would post quarterly earnings that were $750 million below projections. Bank One stock plunged, and First Chicago directors rebelled. McCoy fired Lehman and Vague, but the damage was done.

“It was on my watch, and it was perceived as a Bank One problem and not a First Chicago problem,” McCoy says. “The First Chicago people sort of ganged up and said, ‘McCoy’s not the guy to run this company; we need to get rid of McCoy.’ ”

To fill the talent void left by the departure of Lehman and Vague, McCoy says he had “several conversations” with Dimon. McCoy wanted to hire the talented banker as his No. 2, but with so much happening so fast at Bank One, he never got around to making an offer. After several months of boardroom strife and continued pressure on Bank One stock—it lost half its value in 1999—a beleaguered McCoy decided to step down. His father was among those who tried to convince him to soldier on.

McCoy told his wife that fighting would do the company and shareholders more harm than good. “I’m a builder, not a fighter,” Jane recalls him saying.

A few weeks after the resignation, John and Jane McCoy drove to Florida, starting the current chapter of their relationship. “I feel like every day is Saturday and I have my boyfriend back,” Jane says of life after Bank One. “I don’t miss the fishbowl.”

Though the decision to give in to the First Chicago pressure was seen as capitulation in some Columbus circles, McCoy remains steadfast. “The company was more important than any individual,” he says.

McCoy’s golden parachute, according to media reports at the time, included a $10 million buyout and a $3 million annual pension for life, with the understanding that a search committee with ample Columbus representation would select a new CEO. That process resulted in the March 2000 hiring of Dimon, who had been fired by Citigroup in 1998.

Dimon, now 57, became president and chief operating officer of JPMorgan Chase when the New York bank bought Bank One in 2004; a year later, he was named CEO.

The bank’s presence in Columbus has swelled in the post-McCoy era—employment has grown from about 8,000 in 1999 to more than 19,000 today. Central Ohio is home to employees who support all of JPMorgan Chase’s lines of business and corporate groups. The largest segment in Columbus is Consumer and Community Banking, which includes the Chase branch and ATM network, small-business banking and the mortgage business, which represent the core of Bank One’s former retail banking business.

In 2011, in part to underscore his commitment to the region, Dimon held Chase’s annual shareholders meeting in Columbus rather than New York, its home base. The chosen venue: the McCoy Center in Polaris. The 2-million-square-foot complex, which houses more than 9,200 workers and ranks as the single-largest office building in the Chase system, is named for John G. McCoy. In hindsight, Columbus has fared well, Lashutka says. “(McCoy) promised we’d have significant jobs preserved and expanded in Central Ohio, and they have done that,” he says.

Ever the banker, McCoy finds solace in the numbers.

“In my career, did I make any mistakes? Absolutely,” McCoy says. “Do I have regrets? Absolutely. But the main thing is that JPMorgan Chase is the largest bank in the country, and I feel good about being a part of that.

“I liked being CEO of Bank One—it was a blast. But the future has always been best for me. Jamie was picked, and the rest is history. We got the right guy to run it, and he’s done a hell of a job.”

With their three children and eight grandchildren all living outside Ohio, the McCoys split their time among homes in California, Florida, Michigan and Columbus. John returns for board meetings, occasional Ohio State football games and golf outings with friends. He has an office in the Arena District staffed by longtime assistant Sandy Anderson and frequents his favorite restaurant, Lindey’s, which isn’t far from his house.

A history major in college, the self-described “left-leaning Republican” loves to read about the presidency. He won’t watch Fox News and is frustrated by the religious right and hardliners in general. “I hate the social stuff,” he says. “I’m not God-fearing, and I’m not against gays. I think gays should have the same rights that married people have. Let’s make life easier, as opposed to harder.”

McCoy serves on five boards, including Battelle and AT&T, but, these days, his passion is advising young entrepreneurs.

“He has been a mentor for me in a huge way,” says Ted Spooner, who in 2001 asked McCoy to serve as chairman of his startup company, Oregon-based Corillian, which created online banking platforms. McCoy brought credibility but also provided invaluable guidance for the rapidly growing company. The best advice he ever gave, according to Spooner: Decide on Friday what you’re going to do Monday, then do it. “John is such a calming influence and a person who you can have a conversation with and help you take a longer view,” says Spooner, who sold Corillian to CheckFree Corp. in 2007 for $250 million.

The McCoy family legacy continues to live on in a variety of ways in Central Ohio. Before they died, McCoy’s parents donated $1.2 million to Ohio State to underwrite the Jeanne Bonnet McCoy Presidential Scholars Fund, $2 million to help build the Jeanne B. McCoy Community Center for the Arts in New Albany, $3 million to Nationwide Children’s Hospital to pay for the care of children in need and additional millions to causes such as Habitat for Humanity, cancer research at Ohio State and the university’s colleges of business, medicine and others.

John B. and Jane McCoy have donated more than $250,000 for the Columbus Museum of Art building expansion, more than $1 million to endow a chair at the James Cancer Center at Ohio State, and several million more to other organizations. They also give $25,000 to $50,000 annually to the United Way of Central Ohio.

Whatever he does, or contributes, McCoy knows that some people will always complain that he betrayed Columbus by moving Bank One. He doesn’t buy it. “When people say, ‘You deserted Columbus,’ I say, ‘Other companies have been sold; other companies have moved on, and they can’t say that they’re the largest [private] employer in Columbus, Ohio,’ ” he says. “So when people say Bank One left and is gone, that’s not really true.”

While he plans to continue visiting, donating and mentoring in his hometown, he has no desire to see his name on a building, run the chamber of commerce, serve on a task force or hold elective office. After being treated for prostate cancer and having both knees replaced, he’s more inclined to stay on the sidelines, focus on friends and family, play golf and travel. If that’s being a slacker, he pleads guilty.

“I’ve been the majordomo,” he says, seemingly content in an overstuffed chair. “We had a hell of a roll, and the unknown—retirement—came faster to me than I thought it would. But there’s a time when other people should run things. “Life’s a long, winding road, and you’ve got to get on with it.”