Kenneth Lewis

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Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Bank of America Chief Executive Kenneth Lewis listens as Chief Executive of Merrill Lynch John Thain (L) speaks during a news conference announcing the Bank of America Corporation acquisition of Merril Lynch in a $50 billion all-stock transaction in New York September 15, 2008.

Before he became the President, CEO and Chairman of Bank of America Corp. — and the man whose $50 billion purchase of brokerage firm Merrill Lynch & Co. was some of the only good news on one of Wall Street's worst-ever days — Kenneth Lewis was a Mississippi boy who lived in a town so small he once joked that you had to go one town over "just to be born." He went to Georgia State University and then to work at North Carolina National Bank (NCNB) in Charlotte as a credit analyst — his first banking job. That was back in 1969, and he never left.

Lewis worked hard and advanced quickly at NCNB. In 1985, when the bank's CEO Hugh McColl, asked him to move to Florida to run a string of branches, he reported to his new job in less than 24 hours. Through a series of purchases made by McColl, NCNB turned into NationsBank, which turned into Bank of America, which in time grew to become the nation's biggest retail bank, home loan provider and credit card issuer.

As Bank of America expanded, Lewis continued up the corporate ladder, and when his mentor retired 2001, Lewis stepped into the CEO spot. He immediately cut 10,000 jobs and outsourced many others to India. In 2003, he spent $47 billion on his first major acquisition, FleetBoston Financial Corp., which gave North Carolina-based Bank of America a foothold in the northeast market. A series of other purchases — Chicago's LaSalle Bank, Charles Schwab's private banking program — earned him a reputation as a man with a penchant for savvy multi-billion dollar deals. This January, he bought Countrywide Financial Corp. for $4 billion in stock, adding "largest mortgage provider" to Bank of America's list of bragging rights and saving Countrywide from possible bankruptcy. With that purchase, Lewis became a kind of quasi-savior on Wall Street — the man who helped you stand when you could no longer do it on your own. If everything goes smoothly, the Merrill Lynch & Co. purchase — which some analysts called "too good an opportunity" to pass up — will make Bank of America into the nation's largest brokerage firm as well, and help Lewis to save yet another drowning company.