Ken Lewis was taken down a peg by shareholders today angry at his stewardship of Bank America and the bank's acquisition of Merrill Lynch, voting to strip him of his title as chairman despite his re-election as the company's chief executive officer.
Following a heated debate at today's annual shareholder's meeting in Charlotte, N.C., and a protracted counting of ballots, the bank announced that shareholders had passed a proposal to split the CEO and chairman roles, and named former Morehouse College president Dr. Walter E. Massey to the position of chairman.
The bank said Lewis, in his role as CEO, and the 18 members of the board were elected by "comfortable margins."
Lewis's leadership was put to a vote following a shareholder proposal to strip him of his chairmanship. The CEO had become a flashpoint of shareholder scorn since the bank acquired faltering Merrill Lynch late last year, helping to drive its stock price down 42 percent since the beginning of the year.
"I question whether the board has effectively represented the stock holders who elected them," said shareholder Fred J. Martin Jr., who said he was from San Francisco and owned 25,000 shares.
"Whether you go or stay depends on whether you can turn around this large aircraft carrier and get it out of the puddle of systemic loss," he said.
Many of those angered shareholders were pleased to learn of Lewis losing his title as chairman. One called it a "rebuke" and said the move would rein in the "excessive risk taking" that led to the Merrill Lynch deal.
Lewis has led the company during a year in which Bank of America's shares have plunged nearly 80 percent, wiping out tens of billions of dollars in market value.
The shareholders meeting took on a circus-like feel with Lewis answering questions, dodging barbs and accepting praise from a diverse group of stockholders. When it was announced that the counting of ballots would take longer than expected, many shareholders booed loudly.
Despite calls from some shareholders for Lewis to leave, the CEO was greeted by applause when he took the stage this morning. Lewis defended the company's acquisition of Merrill Lynch and another troubled company, mortgage lender Countrywide Inc.
Lewis was met with a diverse crowd of shareholders who held diverse opinions of his leadership. He was slammed by pensioners who hogged the microphone and accused him of malfeasance, and praised by the directors of charities who said his stewardship of the bank allowed them to help people.
Lewis' acqusitions of Merrill Lynch and Countrywide were compared by one angry shareholder to the "blitzing of Baghdad." Many accused him of fiduciary neglect.
The CEO, however, said the acquisitions are providing "the positive counterbalance to our traditional banking businesses, which at this point of the business cycle are under much more stress from rising credit losses."
"Countrywide and Merrill Lynch are two of the most important reasons Bank of America is the most profitable financial services company in the United States so far this year," Lewis said. "Today, I can state without reservation that these acquisitions are not mistakes to be regretted. Both are looking more and more like successes to be celebrated."