Monday, March 06, 2006

BB&T's John Allison on the AP wire

Another John Allison story got caught in the filters:

On its face, it appeared an odd decision for a banker: to turn down business on a principle that most people don’t think much about.

And so far, the banking giants haven’t seen fit to follow the lead of BB&T Corp.’s John Allison, who declared in January that the nation’s ninth-largest bank would no longer make loans to developers who planned to build commercial projects on land seized from private citizens through the power of eminent domain.

“We happen to believe in the fundamental concept of individual rights, and one of those is property rights,” Allison said. “If that is jeopardized, our entire financial system is also in jeopardy.”

The prospect of losing out on a few loans, or taking a stand alone, hasn’t shaken Allison’s resolve, and has only added to his reputation as a banker whose thoughts routinely stray to the philosophical.

Colleagues probably should have seen it coming from an executive known to quote Aristotle during board meetings.

“John is a student,” said Dick Janeway, the retired head of Wake Forest University’s medical school, who served as a board member at Winston-Salem-based BB&T for years. “He’s a living example of continuing education.”

While often overlooked in a state that’s home to the nation’s second- and fourth-largest banks — Charlotte-based Bank of America Corp. and Wachovia Corp. — BB&T has grown from its 1872 founding in rural Wilson into a bank with $109 billion in assets and 1,400 branches in 11 states and Washington, D.C.

The 57-year-old Allison has led the firm as chairman and chief executive since 1989.
“I just celebrated my 35th year with the bank,” he said during a recent interview with The Associated Press. “I made a lot of loans in eastern North Carolina to farmers and I can remember praying some years for it to rain more and others for it to rain less.”

Such low-profile loans and BB&T’s focus on consumer banking had long kept it in the shadow of the bigger banks. Then came last year’s decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 that a local government in Connecticut had the power to seize private property for a private development project. A few months later, Allison said publicly that his bank would forgo any business connected to such taking of private land.

“John has a pretty unshakable moral compass, and frankly I think he is right on this,” said Charles Moyer, dean of the business school at the University of Louisville. “The potential for abuse is great and someone needs to stand up for it. I was not surprised it was John and BB&T.”

Allison is an executive who mixes in re-readings of the works of Thomas Aquinas and John Locke into a book-a-month habit. “My absolute favorite writer is Ayn Rand,” he said of the Russian-American philosopher and advocate of capitalism. His reasoning against eminent domain is based in part on a strong belief in property rights, one of Locke’s cornerstone values, and one shared by the farmers in rural North Carolina.

“To these people, property rights are the single most important thing,” he said. “It’s the basis of economic freedom in this country, so they take it very seriously.” [Paul Nowell, The Associated Press]
Great story. And I have to admit, Allison has made a brilliant play, getting repeated positive national news coverage for a stand that cost him little more than whatever the fee is to send out a press release. I wish more of our political battles were like that . . .

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