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Fleet’s Bundy: Called a Token, She Took Power

August 22, 1995

As a high-powered lawyer in Washington, D.C., Agnes Bundy often found herself under the gun. But it is her current job in Providence, R.I., that has put her in the crossfire of race, politics and money.

Last year, Fleet Financial Group Inc., based in Providence, hired Ms. Bundy to ensure that the bank complied with fair lending laws and to serve as Fleet’s ambassador to community groups. In recent years, Fleet has been accused of discriminatory lending practices, and critics initially chided Ms. Bundy, who is black, as a figurehead in the company. (There are no minority-group members on Fleet’s 15-member board.)

But Ms. Bundy has emerged as a key figure in Fleet’s efforts to buy longtime New England rival Shawmut National Corp. The 37-year-old Ms. Bundy _ plus Fleet Chairman Terrence Murray and Shawmut Chairman Joel B. Alvord _ will testify this Saturday when the Federal Reserve Board in Boston convenes the first of three unusual public meetings about the Shawmut acquisition. The Fed can deny a merger if it believes that it will damage certain communities or finds evidence that either bank engages in racial discrimination.

If approved by regulators, the combination of Fleet and Shawmut, which is based in Hartford, Conn., will transform Fleet into an $80 billion regional powerhouse. But some local activists fear the merger could result in massive branch closings and reduced availability of credit, and they are pressuring Fleet for greater commitments to low-income and minority borrowers.

Seeking to head off a confrontation, Ms. Bundy has been Fleet’s lead negotiator with several neighborhood groups. She has struck preliminary agreements with the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance and the Home Buyers Union in Boston, calling for Fleet to allocate $43.5 million in loans over three years to a low-income home-buyers’ program in Boston, compared with a $31 million commitment the two banks previously had.

``At first I thought she was a token, but she seems to have real power,″ says Florence Hagins, a co-chairwoman of the Home Buyers Union. Efficiency, a poker face and a brisk (some might say brusque) manner are Ms. Bundy’s trademarks. ``I haven’t seen her smile in three months, and she begins some meetings without saying hello,″ says a participant.

By Ms. Bundy’s own admission, niceties do not come naturally to her. A fan of Shakespeare, she was once asked which of his characters she most resembles. Her answer: ``King Lear _ not how he ends, but a crusty character.″

Of her operating style at Fleet, she says: ``This is a business, and I try not to let extraneous issues come in.″ She notes that as a Georgetown University law student she would read case studies in grocery-store lines. ``I don’t like to waste time, she explains.″

As Fleet’s highest ranking black female, Ms. Bundy is the most visible indication of the bank’s efforts to repair ties with minorities.

Two years ago, Fleet agreed to lend $70 million at reduced rates and pay $30 million in other concessions to settle the Georgia attorney general’s allegations that a subsidiary charged blacks usurious interest rates. Last year, Fleet pledged $8 billion in loans over three years to low-income borrowers and minority-owned and small businesses after the bank financed second-mortgage companies that allegedly preyed upon black residents in Boston. (In both cases, Fleet admitted no wrongdoing.)

The bank increased its mortgage loans to minorities in Boston to $37 million last year, compared with $3.3 million in 1992, according to city statistics. ``Fleet has done it not only on paper but in reality,″ says Bruce Marks, executive director of the Union Neighborhood Assistance Corp., a union-affiliated housing advocacy organization that administers a $140 million Fleet mortgage program for low-income borrowers _ part of the $8 billion package. Prior to Fleet’s commitment to his group, Mr. Marks had been the bank’s most strident detractor.

Fleet still has its critics, who say the bank is throwing bones to neighborhoods so it can complete its multibillion-dollar merger. They also say that Fleet still lacks a presence _ branches, signs, automatic teller machines _ in many low-income areas. ``They need to be seen as the friend of the little people, but for some reason they haven’t taken that tack,″ says Willie Jones, a director of the Roxbury-North Dorchester Neighborhood Revitalization Corp. in Boston, a neighborhood group.

Another critic is Dwight Miller, president of the Community Homeowners Association, a Boston nonprofit group. Mr. Miller says of Ms. Bundy: ``She’s the only black female up there, but I think she’s caught up in merger mania.″ Mr. Miller sent Ms. Bundy a letter requesting a meeting regarding Fleet’s financial contribution to the organization, but Ms. Bundy turned him down, she says, because his requests were couched as demands that left no room for compromise. Says Ms. Bundy: ``That’s not how I function in life.″

Ms. Bundy has long followed an independent course, dismaying her Quaker parents when she worked as a Washington lobbyist for a defense contractor. As former general counsel for the U.S. Senate Budget Committee, she has argued on the Senate floor with Sen. Robert Dole and has faced down heads of federal agencies over spending issues. ``She had to tell people information they didn’t like to hear,″ says Bill Dauster, the Democratic chief of staff on the Senate Budget Committee.

Her current job, she says, lets her develop partnerships with communities; race, she says, is not a factor. ``People look at me for what I can get done,″ she says.

But race is a factor with inner-city groups, who note that in the past they have negotiated only with white men. ``I’m a black woman, so is she, and that’s important,″ says Ms. Hagins of the Home Buyers Union. ``Sometimes you go to banks and feel you don’t work in their world. But with (Ms. Bundy), there was a different air.″

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