ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Now we're going to hear about one man who made a major bet this weekend. While lots of people were bailing out of investments, Kenneth Lewis doubled down. Lewis is the CEO of Bank of America which bought Merrill Lynch for 50 billion dollars. Some say he overpaid, but Lewis calls it the opportunity of a lifetime, as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI: As Ken Lewis himself said, it took almost no time to decide to buy Merrill Lynch.

Mr. KEN LEWIS (CEO, Bank of America): It didn't take but about two seconds to see the strategic implications, the positive implications. And so then it got to the harder parts. You know, the deal itself.

NOGUCHI: In his seven-year tenure at the helm of Bank of America, Lewis made many big buys - FleetBoston, MBNA, LaSalle and Countrywide, to name a few - but none quite matched the risk, expense, and scope of Merrill Lynch. Merrill Lynch, after all, has 60,000 employees who work in areas where Bank of America isn't a big player: investment banking, securities, and wealth management. Lewis' predecessor was know as a spendthrift who bought dozens of companies. And for most of his four-decade career, Lewis was the cleanup guy who made those deals work.

He focused on cost cutting in the bank's branches. He hired part-time tellers to keep lines shorter during lunchtime and on pay days. He invested in ATMs and other technologies that increased efficiency. In fact, during an interview with CNBC in June of last year, Lewis insisted he was still focused on businesses that dealt directly with retail consumers. He even said he wasn't interested in many of the companies he later ended up buying. Here he is dismissing the possibility of buying Countrywide.

Mr. LEWIS: We've stated pretty specifically over and over, we just don't like the total business.

NOGUCHI: Lewis, a native of Mississippi who was raised in Georgia by a single mother, grew up in a Southern bank, far removed from the downtown New York culture. And when asked in that same interview whether he'd consider buying a Morgan Stanley or Merrill Lynch, he said the different cultures would make such a deal difficult. Instead, he said, he would build an investment banking unit to compete with them.

Mr. LEWIS: We will continue to build out our investment banking capabilities, and we're doing that.

NOGUCHI: But the last year wrought enormous change. Once mighty investment banks that waded in too deep with risky mortgage-backed securities now need stronger partners. And Wharton Professor Michael Useem says Lewis simply changed his mind.

Dr. MICHAEL USEEM (Professor of Management, University of Pennsylvania, The Wharton School): Ken Lewis obviously has a vision here, because we've seen it unfolding before our very eyes, of building a full-service financial institution.

NOGUCHI: It's not without risk. First of all, there are critics who say Lewis could have gotten Merrill Lynch for far less if he'd just waited. And there's the challenge of integrating two very different companies in different business lines. But yesterday Lewis said he's long believed retail banks would eventually own investment banks.

Mr. LEWIS: As we weighed everything, we said it is better to seize on this opportunity as we see it at the moment, as opposed to trying to catch the very bottom and possibly not catching it at all.

NOGUCHI: Investors punished Bank of America following the announcement, sending its shares down 20 percent on Monday. The stock was trading up slightly today. Lewis acknowledged all the challenges that would come with it, but said essentially, remember, I'm the cleanup guy.

Mr. LEWIS: We know we have some hard work to do in this transition, but in fact, we're good at that.

NOGUCHI: Wharton's Michael Useem said Lewis has staked his company and his career on a deal that ordinarily would have taken months to decide.

Dr. USEEM: So call it bold, call it risky. It may pay off, it may not.

NOGUCHI: At a time when few banks have the guts or the money to gamble, Lewis has just placed his biggest wager ever. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News.

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