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Ken Lewis: We're Just Getting Started Firing People

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The BAC CEO sat down with the Charlotte Observer to talk about throwing employees out on their asses, paying back TARP, memo writing, makin' money, John Thain, and regrets over not having sold a hedge fund to Bank of Amerillwide like a certain other bank chief, in which case he'd be rich.
Q. You're cutting 35,000 jobs over three years related to your purchase of Merrill Lynch and the weakening economy. Where are you in that process?
We're early into it. We hope to get about 45 percent of the cost saves this year, so we're close to having a fourth of it done.
Q. Does that mean you're about a fourth of the way through the job cuts?
That's right.

Q. We hear from people who say they were laid off or their colleagues were laid off without any warning, that they had to pack up their things immediately. Is there a better way to do the layoffs, or is there anything you would tell those employees?

Well, you'd have to know the individual situation, but there are issues of access to customer information and other privileged information. Once you tell somebody they've lost their job, you have to relieve that access. But again, there's no intent to do anything other than to make it the least impactful to the associate. We know it's devastating, and nobody finds it anything but that.
Q. Do you have a timetable for [retiring]?
Well, I'm going back to (my goal of the bank earning annually) $30 billion after tax.
Q. How soon can you meet that?
I would think that 2011 could be the year that you have a shot at doing that.

Q. Are there any changes you would make to TARP now to make it more useful?

No. I want to make it more useful by not having it.

Q. What are you doing to try to boost morale?
We've tried to communicate as frequently as possible, so virtually every week I put something on (the Intranet) to talk about the current environment. And then secondly I get out quite a bit to do town halls, and we encourage other leaders to do the same, so we are out talking to our people as much as we can. I was doing that last week, then I'll be out all next week doing the same thing.
Q. Any regrets on how the John Thain situation played out?
Well, my experience has been, things turn out for the best over time.
Q. Vikram Pandit at Citigroup did the symbolic gesture of saying he'd work for $1 a year. Is that something you've thought about?
No. But I've said before that I didn't make $800 million selling my hedge fund to the company, so I'm a different category from Vikram.
Q. What do you say to shareholders who are distressed over the drop in the share price and the big cuts in the dividend?
The drop in the dividend is something that I resisted for quite some time, because I knew that many of our stockholders had relied on it. It was one of the most difficult things that I've ever had to do. But at the end of the day, it was frankly the only thing we could do given the circumstances. Virtually every other major bank in the country (has done the same thing).
I'm as disturbed as anybody about the decline in the stock, since virtually all my net worth is tied up in it.