On The Hot Seat

State strong, but has way to go

(Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Robert Gavin
Globe Staff / May 9, 2010

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Robert Gallery

Bank of America’s Massachusetts president

Robert Gallery, Bank of America’s Massachusetts president, was inaugurated last week as the chairman of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. He spoke with Globe reporter Robert Gavin.

What’s your sense of the Massachusetts economy, based on activity at Bank of America?

In some respects, Massachusetts held up better than other parts of the country. We didn’t have the same degree of residential overbuild or stress on commercial real estate. It’s not booming, but we’re certainly feeling better than a year ago.

You’re the new chairman of the Chamber of Commerce. What are the key issues facing Massachusetts businesses?

Many regions would love to have what we have, the educational infrastructure, health care, financial services, biotech, high tech. But operating costs have always been high in this region and we’re not always seen as the most competitive place. As we come out of the economic challenges, we want to make sure Massachusetts is positioned to be more competitive.

We’ve seen the emergence of a new group of business executives advocating for economic development policies and job-creation ideas called the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership. Has there been a lack of civic engagement by business that has made this group necessary?

I don’t think there’s been a lack of engagement. The chamber plays a strong role in fostering a collaborative effort between the private sector, government, and not-for-profits.

What’s your view on financial reform? Do we need it? Do you have concerns?

Reforms are going to be done, and we at Bank of America have been very public in saying that they should be done. We have no problem with more consumer friendly rules.

Is Bank of America too big?

No. We don’t think size is the issue. We’re big because we serve consumers, businesses, and investors. Bank of America, having the role we play in the economy, intends to be leading the way forward.

A lot of people think the economy is struggling because of reduced lending. Is it a question of banks not wanting to lend, or people not wanting to borrow?

Demand is not strong. For example, we have lines of credit out to customers. Typically, usage on those lines might be 60 percent. It’s hovering around 40 percent. Demand has just not come back.

Is there any role for Bank of America to help restart projects, like Downtown Crossing, that have stalled because of financing problems?

In any project, you want to go through the same kind of underwriting that you’ve always gone through, such as does the building have tenants lined up? Financial institutions can’t, in and of themselves, make that happen. As things recover, we’ll be as active as we’ve always been in financing this market.

What about small businesses and their credit crunch?

Every quarter, over the last year, we’ve continued to make significant loans to small businesses. They’re a major part of how we’re going to come out of this recession.

You mentioned taxes. Do you want lower taxes? Fairer taxes?

Based on research that the chamber has done, the Commonwealth has the eighth highest [business] tax burden in the country. The chamber has proposals that would make us more competitive, without significantly increasing the state’s budget challenges. They’re oriented around encouraging investment.

Any other issues?

I go back to where we started. We have so many great assets here. So how do we constantly push ourselves to stay at the forefront of innovation and developing talent to create new businesses and jobs here?