William Couper

The Opportunity of Change

“Go make this happen.”

Those were the words American Security Bank’s CEO posed to William (Bill) Couper and his boss, who had been helping the company formulate the first formal strategies it had ever had.  Bill was only 12 years into his career in commercial banking, but he had already cultivated enough wisdom and foresight to know that the banking environment was transforming around them.  To keep up, American Security would need to follow a new plan—one the old, change-averse leadership wasn’t ready to execute.

“We were convinced of the logic of what needed to happen, but we were faced with this fairly large collection of people who had 20 years or more of evidence that the world worked a certain way,” Bill remembers.  “When we tried to tell them it didn’t work that way anymore and that we needed to change, we were met with such tremendous resistance that my boss ended up leaving the company.”

With that, the reigns to make it happen were left firmly in Bill’s hands, so he decided to start over and try to execute the plan a little differently.  “The need to explain fundamental shifts in a business to people who might not be very receptive to the need for change, and to do it in terms that are intelligible to them, was a real shift for me,” he remarks.  “We essentially broke our pick on that first attempt, but once I figured out the formula for engaging people, helping them understand why we needed to change and why it was personally in their best interest to help, it formed the basis for everything else I did.  You can’t just tell people to do things; you have to help them understand why it’s needed and why they ought to play real hard to make it happen.”

That defining moment, when Bill faced failure but then had a second opportunity and found a way to succeed, has shaped his approach to leadership ever since.  It has seen him through numerous mergers, defying the odds and keeping him in the game as American Security Bank was acquired by Maryland National Bank, survived a near death experience by the skin of its teeth, acquired several other banks, and was then itself acquired by Nations Bank.  Nations Bank, in turn, bought several other banks before going coast-to-coast, acquiring Bank of America and rebranding its entire sweeping enterprise as such.

Embracing the constant change that accompanied this series of transitions and maintaining a flexible yet uncompromising approach to leadership that is underpinned by an unflagging integrity, Bill’s 40-year career reached its pinnacle as President of the Mid-Atlantic Region of Bank of America.  And though he’s now retired, his work continues in his continuing commitment to give back to the community around him.

Bill was born in New York City, where he lived there through the end of first grade.  In the years immediately following World War II, however, the city’s magic faded into somewhat dangerous undertones, and the Coupers wanted their children to grow up in a safer environment.  With that, they moved across the Hudson into a northern New Jersey town.  His father was an anesthesiologist, and his mother stayed home to raise the family while remaining a consummate volunteer, especially passionate about Junior League.

Before medical school, his father had attended the Virginia Military Institute, where his own father had worked for thirty years.  He also served in the Army during World War II, and he passed onto his son a set of military values that highlighted honor, discipline, and dependability—qualities that won Bill titles like President of his sixth grade class.  He also played the trombone in his high school’s bands and orchestra, as well as ice hockey.

While his professional career was spent at one institution that went through a number of complicated and escalating iterations, his youth was a patchwork of jobs that spanned the gamut.  He made his first buck mowing the lawns of his parents’ friends, and he later worked waiting tables and washing dishes.  He was the junior counselor at the summer camp he attended as a child.  In college, he packed books for a textbook publisher for one summer and worked in the parts department of a Chevrolet dealership for another.  “I did a little bit of everything,” he laughs.

Bill graduated high school and enrolled at the University of Virginia (UVA), which was still relatively traditional.  “People wore coats and ties to class, and there were no undergraduate women except for nursing school and transfer students,” he recalls.

As a child, he had been riveted by the Sputnik launch, which compelled him later to take all the science and math courses his high school had to offer.  “I started at UVA thinking I would become a chemist, but in retrospect, I don’t think I had a clear picture of what that meant,” he reflects.  Once that picture sharpened and he realized it wasn’t for him, he promptly applied to UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce instead.

Along with its rigorous academics, college expanded Bill’s horizons by connecting him to a geographically diverse population of students.  “I knew precisely one person when I started school, and everyone was looking to make friends,” he remembers.  “Though students came to UVA from all over, it was easy to connect with people, and I ended up joining a fraternity.”  Apart from the fraternity, he also worked at the university’s radio station, and with a number of other affiliations as well, he made widespread and lasting friendships during his college years.

Bill served as president of his fraternity and secretary of the Commerce School’s academic fraternity, both of which afforded unique leadership opportunities.  “With shoestring budgets, we had to pay for a house, cooks, and repairs, while also keeping dues manageable for the people involved,” Bill remembers.  “It was an interesting financial challenge.”

Bill would not go directly into banking after graduation, however.  “A crucial moment in the Vietnam War known as the Tet Offensive had recently taken place, and it meant that everyone coming out of school at that time was going to have to get involved in the military, so I enlisted in the Navy,” Bill remembers.  While undergoing basic training just outside of Chicago, his tests revealed an exceptional language aptitude, so he became a Portuguese linguist, as the Navy’s last group of such linguists had been compromised when a ship, The Liberty, was attacked in the Middle East.  “It wasn’t my favorite time of life, but compared to the alternative, I was incredibly fortunate,” Bill remarks.  “I never actually had to go overseas.”

While in the Navy, Bill married a young woman named Lisa, and after serving for four years, he was discharged and landed a position at American Security Bank, a predecessor bank of Bank of America in Washington, D.C.  In that capacity, he worked in a branch that dealt entirely with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.  “These people were the elite of their home countries and were very sophisticated, financially speaking,” he says.  “It was an interesting first assignment.”

Before long, he was promoted to the bank’s main branch, were he became branch manager and then regional manager.  He then worked several years in planning before taking over the retail bank, where he underwent his first merger when the bank became part of MNC Financial.  “I took advantage of the opportunities that came from larger and larger institutions to keep putting one foot in front of the other,” he says.  “Each merger made for a fundamentally different experience, but I enjoyed it.  I never thought I’d stay with one institution for my entire career, and in a sense, I didn’t.”

Now that he has forty years of experience in the banking industry under his belt, Bill has perhaps most enjoyed the variety of experiences he’s encountered, as well as the characters of the colleagues he’s worked with.  “It was fairly consistent with the way I was brought up and with my experience at UVA, in a way,” he says.  “I’ve done a lot of work with small and medium-sized business, and the variety there is remarkable as you get to know the people involved.  You find a number of different ways to view the world, and I find that diversity of perspective very fascinating.”

Even more rewarding for Bill, however, has been the unique leadership role his position has allowed him to assume in the community.  When MNC Financial became Nations Bank, he was named President of the Baltimore Region, and before long, he heard about an effort by the University of Maryland to redevelop the “West Side” of Baltimore.  “The campus and medical system, which bordered the seam of town in question, had done a lot of planning with the Weinberg Foundation, which owned property within that seam,” Bill explains.  They hadn’t succeeded in redeveloping it yet, but we noticed that, with all the graduate, professional, and medical schools in the area, there was a built-in demand for market rate residential development, which is the underpinning of any vibrant urban environment.”

With that in mind, Bill marshaled the resources within Nations Bank to finance $100 million of the project, which led them to bid on the redevelopment of an entire block of the city themselves.  “It wasn’t easy, but we pulled it off and demonstrated that it was doable,” Bill affirms.  This tremendous effort was recently capped off by the restoration of a historic theater in the area that had gone through several iterations since its construction before World War I but had remained unoccupied for a long time.  Bill and his team had come across a theater group in need of a bigger home, so they raised $17 million for the building—now set to open in January of 2013.

“As a demonstration of a pooling of resources that didn’t exist in any of the predecessor companies and can now make a big difference, that stands out,” says Bill.  “It is my hope that the people who succeed me will continue to get other members of the team engaged in the community, from serving on boards to doing volunteer instructions.  I hope they will dive deeply into the fabric of the community.  The banking business is at such a pivot point right now, and it’s hard to predict what will come next, but there’s an expectation of people in the banking business that you’re going to assume a leadership role in the community.  Having been through the ups and downs over the years, I know that a bank can’t be any better than the community it’s serving—that’s just a fundamental truth.  So you need to be sure that the economy operates, that people have jobs, that there’s a safety net for people who fall out of the mainstream, and that the education and transportation systems work.  Banks have a vested interest in all of that, so they have to play philanthropically and from a sponsorship standpoint.”

Now that Bill has retired, he’s busier than ever.  “There are places I’d like to go, things I’d like to see, and a lot of books sitting on the shelf that I’d like to read,” he remarks.  “I also want to spend some time looking back at these last five years, reflecting on the questions of the financial crisis and synthesizing some concrete answers of my own.”  He plans to continue his tenure on the board of Goucher College, the liberal arts school that educated one of his three brilliant daughters.  He’s also president of a foundation within U.S. Trust and is finishing out his term as the immediate past chair of the Virginia Bankers Association, which has an educational foundation focused on promoting financial literacy.  Lisa joins in promoting the Couper philanthropic legacy through her untiring commitment to teaching English as a second language, tutoring people in health-related professions and training teachers in the field.

In advising young entrepreneurs entering the business world today, Bill reminds us to be open to the possibilities.  “Coming out of school, it’s hard to know exactly what you want to do, so try to find experiences that will give you the opportunity to take a taste of a lot of things,” he says.  “That will help you confirm impressions or put them to the side.  Know that the world is always changing, and be open to that change, because it’s in change that we find our greatest opportunities to grow and give back.”

William Couper

Gordon J Bernhardt


President and founder of Bernhardt Wealth Management and author of Profiles in Success: Inspiration from Executive Leaders in the Washington D.C. Area. Gordon provides financial planning and wealth management services to affluent individuals, families and business owners throughout the Washington, DC area. Since establishing his firm in 1994, he and his team have been focused on providing high quality service and independent financial advice to help clients make informed decisions about their money.

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