2007 Business Leader of the Year
The Voice of the Customer
Bank of America's Barbara Desoer, MBA 77, makes banking more accessible.
By Diane Anderson
Barbara Desoer, MBA 77, directs the integration of a vast array of technologies and operations capabilities at Bank of America, harnessing powerful networks to put those services at the fingertips of the bank's tens of millions of customers. As Desoer sets about those seemingly Herculean tasks, she remains passionate about using the "voice of the customer" to guide her every decision.
For her vision and for her leadership at Bank of America, Desoer is this year's recipient of the Haas School's Business Leader of the Year Award. Business Leaders are selected for their career accomplishments, their dedication to and involvement with the school, and for their stature as role models for alumni and students. The school presented the Business Leader award to Desoer during the Haas School Gala at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco on November 2.
"Honest, wise, and kind, Barbara Desoer is a model leader and is an example for all of our students here at Haas," says Dean Tom Campbell. "We are fortunate to count Barbara as an active and very giving member of our community."
A pillar of the Haas School community, Desoer is chief technology and operations officer at Bank of America and a member of CEO Ken Lewis' management team. Desoer is at the nexus of technology and bank operations, where she is accountable for the quality of some 400 customer transactions per second – literally billions of customer interactions yearly at the core of the customers' brand experience. In this role, Desoer leads more than 35,000 associates across 29 US states and around the world.
Under Desoer's watch, Bank of America enhanced a check-processing system that handles 15 million checks per day, an online-banking system that draws 2.3 billion visits per year, and a network that connects 6,100 banking centers and 18,500 ATMs. Desoer is also directing a strategy for a payments system that handles one-quarter of all transactions in the US.
"I constantly have the opportunity to meet new leaders, and to engage their hearts and minds," says Desoer. "I love painting a vision and getting others excited about being a part of it."
The first member of her family to complete college, Desoer has worked hard for her success. "My dad worked hard to ensure we could attend college," she says. "My finishing was a huge deal."
After graduating from Mount Holyoke College in 1974 with a degree in mathematics, Desoer enrolled in the Full-time MBA Program at the Haas School. Desoer recalls that she picked Haas for its strong analytical training and for its classroom environment.
"The MBA program provided me with a foundation of technical skills that I have applied in various roles throughout my career," she says. "Team projects in the program helped me understand group dynamics such as leadership, compromise, and how to more effectively work as a member of a team."
Armed with her Berkeley MBA and a love of analytics, Desoer went to work for a company that she thought would provide opportunities for career growth. In 1977, Desoer joined Bank of America as a commercial lending officer. From there, Desoer served as executive assistant to two CEOs, where she essentially served as "chief of staff." In 1996, Desoer was named group executive vice president for the company's California retail banking. Two years later, she was promoted to president of Northern California banking. From 1999 to 2001, Desoer was the bank's marketing executive. Then from July 2001 until 2004, Desoer served as president for consumer products. In 2004, Desoer was appointed to her current post.
"In banking there are a lot of paths," says Tom Clausen, a former chairman and CEO of BankAmerica Corporation and one of Desoer's mentors. "I told Barbara that she had a future ahead of her in whatever path she took."
Desoer also enjoys the prestige of being one of the highest-ranking women in banking. She was just named the third most powerful woman in banking by US Banker magazine. In 2005, Fortune magazine named Desoer one of the 50 most powerful women in business. But being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated profession has not fazed her in the slightest.
"The only time being a woman has been a problem is when I let it be," Desoer laughs. "Many times I'm the only woman at a conference table, but the challenges are the social aspects of being the only woman in the room and the awareness of that. The only problem is thinking about it too much."
Focused on the needs of her customers from early in her career, Desoer would stand in a bank lobby and talk to them to learn what was important to them. To this day, she emphasizes the importance of serving the bank's clients, as well as training and educating employees. "It is all about people," Desoer says.
One ongoing challenge in Desoer's current role is leading the company's merger and integration efforts. Bank of America, which now has assets of $1.5 trillion, has acquired a number of companies over the past three years. In 2004, they bought the $1.4 billion National Processing Company, as well as the $47 billion Fleet Boston Financial; and in 2005, Desoer's company acquired MBNA for $35 billion. This year, Desoer is working on two other merger integrations: US Trust, which was acquired for more than $3 billion, and LaSalle Bank, which Bank of America just bought from Netherlands-based ABN-AMRO for $21 billion.
Desoer is also responsible for the company's Corporate Workplace group, which manages more than 9,000 separate facilities and more than 90 million square feet of space. Desoer's group is currently developing the Bank of America Tower in New York City. Upon completion in 2008, the $1 billion project will result in the world's most environmentally responsible office building, and it likely will be the first high-rise office building to achieve the US Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) platinum designation.
"There's plenty going on right now; it is a busy time," Desoer says. "But it has been fun."
Tom Clausen thinks Desoer's wisdom has helped her thrive at the bank. "Barbara has an uncanny sense of what's right," he says. Long-time friend Kathleen Correia, BS 76, agrees.
"Barbara is unassuming, observant, and pragmatic," says Correia. Correia, who founded and later sold her company, Accounting Solutions, has known Desoer for 20 years. "She is pretty unflappable. She also is very calm and respectful, and people really respond to that."
Desoer thinks one of her strengths is hiring talented, bright individuals. She often recruits new hires from the Haas School and from the greater UC Berkeley community. "We want to attract and retain the best talent we can," she says.
Desoer's husband, Marc, MBA 76, is also a Haas School alumnus. He also received his undergraduate degree in economics from UC Berkeley in 1974. The couple is passionate about education. Marc is a trustee for the UC Berkeley Foundation, and was also on the board of the Cal Business Alumni Association and on the Haas School Development Council. Barbara is on the Haas School Board, as well as on the board of Mount Holyoke. She is also on the board of Providence Day School in Charlotte, NC, where their 14-year-old daughter attends middle school.
Although she continues to streamline very complex systems, to watch foreign competition, and to listen to her customers, Desoer still finds time to indulge in her love of foreign travel and manages to attend an occasional UC Berkeley basketball game with Marc (despite living in Charlotte). Whatever Desoer does, however, it is clear she knows who she is and where she has come from.
"I'm very ambitious and optimistic – I believe things are possible, and I can visualize success and get people engaged," Desoer says. "But the best thing is being myself; I can't be anyone but myself. My family instilled in me to be aware of strengths and where I could grow. I have never faked anything. I've stayed true to myself."
"I constantly have the opportunity to meet new leaders, and to engage their hearts and minds. I love painting a vision and getting others excited about being a part of it."