Hugh McColl Gets Small
By David Whitford

(FORTUNE Small Business) – "One thing I've learned over the years is, it really doesn't matter if you don't do it all in one straight line," says Hugh McColl, 70, former chairman of Bank of America, "as long as you do it." He's talking about his workout routine--last year he walked 1,463 miles, a few each day, mostly meandering through his leafy Eastover neighborhood in Charlotte--but he might as well have been describing his journey through the business world.

McColl built Charlotte's NationsBank into a financial juggernaut, culminating in the acquisition of Bank of America in 1998. When he retired in 2001, he exchanged a perch at the pinnacle of corporate America--at what was then a $52.6-billion-a-year enterprise, the largest commercial bank in the world--for a new life as an entrepreneur. Today he's involved in five small businesses, including two art galleries (McColl Fine Art in Charlotte and MME in New York City); a longhorn-cattle ranch in Kenedy County, Texas (where he hunts quail on weekends); and two Charlotte investment-banking boutiques catering to small and midsized companies: McColl Garella, which targets firms owned by women, and his main thing, McColl Partners, which last year brokered deals worth more than $1 billion.

To each of those undertakings McColl brings ample capital, a proven ability to lead, a legendary appetite for growth, an unmatched network of contacts, and a convert's daily gratitude. McColl suffered a setback in February--quintuple-bypass surgery--but instead of knocking him off track, it channeled him. As soon as he was "functional" again, he says, he resigned from the boards of Queens University in Charlotte and two public companies to leave more time for his entrepreneurial adventures. "I'm just as interested in my businesses [since the operation]," he says. "I just ain't gonna be interested in everybody else's."

McColl spoke recently on two occasions with FSB editor at large David Whitford: once during a fast-paced walk around Eastover, and later, after his surgery, over lunch at a Charlotte café down the street from McColl Fine Art. The following is culled from those conversations.

What's it like running a small business like McColl Partners after years of running a Fortune 500 company?

Well, it's bigtime different. In the Marine Corps they used to have a saying, "Every man a rifleman." Secondarily you were a jeep driver, a clerk, a whatever, but everybody fired weapons. That's true in my little business. Everybody does two or three things. Nobody gets to be just a star. Then, because of the nature of our business as a partnership, it takes a hell of a lot longer to settle small issues that I would have dealt with summarily in another life. And because it's our money, we are more conservative with expenditures, whether it's for meals or travel or capital investments. We recently ran out of computing power and had to upgrade. We damn near were down for a week because my partner was trying to get the best deal we could get.

The main issue is the same one I had running a big organization, and that is getting the right people. But the truth is that in a large corporation like I ran, we had people who would do what I call drafting, which is a NASCAR racing term where they get in behind and follow the lead car's suction. In a small business, I'm learning, there's no place to hide.

Do you miss the power you had as CEO of the biggest bank in America?

I had dinner with Bill Clinton a while back. He was asking me the same question. And I asked him, Did he miss the power? And he said yes, but he had swapped it for influence. And I would have to say in my own case there is some of that. I don't have the financial power anymore. I can't move an entire block where I want it to go. But I still have leverage in terms of contacts, influence. And it helps not being perceived as a threat anymore. Whatever the harder side of your image was, it goes away when you have fewer weapons.

Maybe it's not quite as exciting?

No, it is! Look, we [McColl Partners] went into business on the most inauspicious day one could pick: Sept. 10, 2001. We started with six of us. No customers, no revenue. That first year was pretty tough. But we came through and paid our bills and made about $1 million. Last year we did $10 million in revenues. And in our business, at least half of that falls to the bottom line. Now, my women-directed partnership has yet to make money. That's another thing you learn: Just because you've got a good idea doesn't mean it makes money. I admit that when I was chairman of the bank, I could have an idea and if it didn't work, it didn't work. In the overall scheme of things it was something we could afford. Over here we can't make too many misses.

You built what became Bank of America largely through acquisitions. What's the secret to a successful merger?

I think in the small-business world you've got different dynamics. You've got an entrepreneur who builds up the business and loves the business the way it is, but knows he can't take it to the next step. Or he wants to take some chips off the table. The hardest thing for an entrepreneur to accept is that you really are selling your company, and if you try to control it past its sale, it will cost you in dollars. You have to understand that when you sell. Otherwise, don't sell.

Besides the investment banks, you have three other businesses.

One is my first love, which is art. I had it in my head to have a fine-art gallery. I spent almost six months looking. Finally found an old post office built in the 1950s. Wonderful building. Ten thousand square feet. Gutted it and redid it. Poured quite a lot of capital into it because I wanted to, about $3 million. Price range of the paintings is $50,000 to $500,000. It's starting to get traction. We've made connections with major galleries in New York that send us work to display here, and we have big shows. Have I let my capital work for me? My son, who's a money manager, would certainly think not. But it's a fun business. You get to look at pretty things. And you get to be excited when you buy something and excited when you sell something.

Is the gallery profitable?

Not really. I've learned some hard lessons in that business. One is, if you get off on the wrong foot in retail and get an image that is not the one you want, it's really hard to overcome it. Some people think it's a museum. They think you can't actually go in there and buy anything.

I have another gallery in New York with two partners, two very talented, capable women whom I had gotten to know through buying art. They came to me with a business plan, to see if I'd back 'em, and I have. They've done a fabulous job, and we're bigtime in the black, and the reason is, instead of being on commission, they own half the business.

And your last venture?

I have a small cattle herd down in South Texas where I hunt. I'm raising purebred longhorns. That's another capital-intensive business. You have to invest in the best breeding stock, but then you get nature working for you. If you get the right sire and the right mother, then you produce a great calf. If it's a female that's like gold, and if it's a male that's like silver. None of 'em become hamburger. Purebred longhorns really are to look at, like fine art. But you need to know what you're breeding for. I'm particularly interested in horn width.

Do you ever think you missed your true calling?

It's not clear to me at this stage that I would have been as successful as an entrepreneur. I know what I'm good at, which is leading people. I know that for a fact. Something I was born with. That's not a complicated subject. All you have to do to be a good leader is to actually care about the people. They follow you because they believe you will make decisions in their interest. You don't ask anybody to do anything you wouldn't do yourself, and you are fair and equitable about the division of the spoils of victory. We had a lot of victories, and victory is a tremendous drug. [Pausing at the corner of Providence Road and Queens Road.] I'm trying to decide which way to go.

I'll follow, you lead.

Well I haven't really got a plan right this second. [Walking again.] There was a culture in our company, which was to survive and prosper, and you couldn't survive if you didn't prosper. Our goal was always to retain ownership, keep control, be in charge of our future. All my life I wanted to be free from anyone else having any power over me. But it doesn't work like you think it does. If you become large, powerful, rich, then you get all these people depending on you, and you get boards of directors and stockholders, so you're not free. I was captive to my own machine, the one that I created at Bank of America. Today I'm free.