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Rags to Riches CEOs: Ken Lewis


The Bank of America chief sold shoes to help his single mother make ends meet.

Recently, the government's Pay Czar, Kenneth Feinberg, "suggested" that outgoing Bank of America (BAC) CEO Ken Lewis should take home $0 in salary for 2009, and receive a bonus of exactly $0 when he steps down at the end of the year.

This means Lewis, 62, will be writing a check to the company for roughly $1 million in compensation he's received up to this point.

Lewis agreed to the request. "Mr. Lewis…thought it wasn't in the best interest of Bank of America to get into a dispute with the paymaster," a Bank of America spokesman said in a statement.

Lewis will still walk away with a $53.2 million pension, plus deferred compensation valued at $10.6 million, according to an analysis by compensation research firm Equilar. Additionally, stock and option grants will likely make his platinum parachute worth about $100 million -- even after public outcry for his head on a platter for a number of transgressions, including an accusation of lying to shareholders during the period before Bank of America absorbed Merrill Lynch earlier this year.

It's a far cry from his early days growing up poor in Walnut Grove, Mississippi, a town with a population of 489 when Lewis lived there. (The population figure more than doubled in 2001 when officials contracted with the Cornell Companies (CRN) to run a 941-bed maximum-security juvenile correctional facility within town limits.)

Lewis' father Vernon dropped out of school after the sixth grade, which limited his job prospects to the town lumberyard or poultry plant. He married Alice Byrdine and, with a wife and child to support, enlisted in the Army at the end of World War II. The elder Lewis returned to the States when Ken was seven and moved the family to Columbus, Georgia, where he was stationed.

In 1958, Vernon Lewis left his family, which now included a second child, Gloria. Their mother found work as a nurse in Columbus and regularly pulled double shifts to pay for basic necessities.

"She essentially raised my sister and me," Lewis said in an oral history. "One of the things I remember most is her work ethic."

That work ethic was not lost on young Ken, who helped out by selling Christmas cards and newspapers door-to-door in a nearby trailer park, bagging groceries, working at a filling station, a steel mill, and, as a teenager, landed a gig selling ladies shoes. "I made a 6% commission and the most expensive shoes were $5.99," Lewis said.

Lewis put himself through Georgia State University by working as a reservations agent for United Airlines (UAL) from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. every night and graduated with a degree in business, after which he turned down a job at Wachovia (WFC) in favor of one as a credit analyst at North Carolina National Bank (NCNB) in 1969. "They were the scrappy underdogs, which is not inconsistent with the way I view myself," he explained.

Colleagues have reportedly said Lewis seemed possessed with a powerful drive to prove himself to other bankers from more elite backgrounds, whom he believed viewed him with condescension. "I know that I have had a chip on my shoulder," he once said. "Maybe I wouldn't call it that anymore. But there's still an intensity to move forward and to put distance between us and second place."

A series of mergers and acquisitions led to NCNB changing its name to Bank of America in 1998. Hugh McColl, who retired as Bank of America's CEO in 2001 to give Lewis the position, says growing up without played a role in Lewis' success. "Hungry people do better," he told an interviewer. "People who worked with me from modest backgrounds were the moneymakers."

Lewis' own comments seem to suggest the fire in his belly to succeed always burned bright. As he said, "You had to be a dreamer to think we could do what we've done. I had no Ivy League background, no blue-blood parents. Yet this company allowed me to compete."

And compete he did. Lewis and his wife Donna own an 8,537-square-foot home in Charlotte, North Carolina, valued at nearly $2 million, as well as vacation homes in Hilton Head, South Carolina; Aspen, Colorado; and Blowing Rock, North Carolina.

Then, as we all now know, the Ken Lewis journey came to a less-than-storybook ending.

Universally reviled and under investigation by New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, Lewis returned from his August vacation sporting a full beard.

Psychiatrist Allan Peterkin, author of the book 1,000 Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair, once said, "You're either Satan or Santa if you have a beard. In North American culture, the negative associations have sort of won over the positive ones."

Ted Kaczynski: beard.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: beard.

Fidel Castro: beard.

Ken Lewis: beard.

He shaved it off the next day.
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