Maine Bar Journal
Winter 2005 #3.
Growing a $31 billion banking empire: an interview with Banknorth's general counsel
Maine Bar JournalWinter 2005GROWING A $31 BILLION BANKING EMPIRE: AN INTERVIEW WITH BANKNORTH'S GENERAL COUNSELinterview and photograph by A.J. HungerfordIf you were Carol Mitchell, you would know the intimate details of the emergence of a $31 billion banking empire based in the heart of Portland, Maine; you would have first-hand experience complying with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act enacted in 2002 in the aftermath of the Enron scandal; and you would be working with your old tax professor from law school. Mitchell is the executive vice president and general counsel of Banknorth Group Inc., which has sixty-seven hundred employees in branches stretching from Maine to Vermont to New York. She oversees approximately 250 people in her organization, consisting of human resources and compensation, general services administration, and legal. In the general counsel and legal departments there are a total of eight lawyers and five paralegals.
A Portland lawyer who has worked with Carol Mitchell, had this to say: "Her years of experience at the highest level of one of the most dynamic business organizations in New England have refined to a high degree her ability to 'cut to the chase' on legal issues confronting the Banknorth family of companies."
As I thought about what questions to ask her, I recalled a stockbroker years ago urging me to buy People's Heritage (now Banknorth) stock when it was very cheap. I didn't do it. The October 2004 issue of Portland Magazine listed Banknorth as the top business headquartered in Maine in terms of 2003 total gross revenues as reported by Dun & Bradstreet: $1,560,128,000. That's a lot of money, especially in Maine. The magazine notes that in 2005, Banknorth Group Inc. will fall into the honorable mention category of the Maine 100 list, because by then Canada's Toronto Dominion Bank will have acquired the company. I wish that I had taken the stockbroker's advice and held on for the ride.
On December 6, 2004, I met with Carol at her office in 2 Portland Square, overlooking Portland's Old Port.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Waterville, Maine. I was educated in Boston: I graduated from Boston College. I moved back here in 1983 and then graduated from the University of Maine School of Law.
Why did you decide to move back to Maine instead of moving out into the greater world?
Because Maine is the absolute best place to live. I actually lived in Boston for ten years and worked for the Bank of Boston for about four years in the active base lending division before I moved back here. At that time Portland was going through a huge renaissance.
What was your favorite subject in law school?
Probably tax and corporate law. Although I didn't opt for a career in tax, going with a public accounting firm or anything like that, I took a lot of tax courses. I enjoyed the professor a lot, currently the dean, Colleen Khoury. I had her for corporations and advanced tax classes. She was a great teacher.
She's a director at Banknorth, isn't she?
She is indeed. She joined the board about two years ago. It's been a great relationship.
Are there any attorneys in your family?
Let's see. My uncle is an attorney: George Mitchell [former U.S. senator, currently chairman of the board of the Walt Disney Company]. My sister, Mary Mitchell Freidman, is an attorney. She used to practice with Preti Flaherty, and she also was with the Justice Department for a little while. That's about it for attorneys in my family, along with myself.
Did George Mitchell inspire you to go to law school?
Not necessarily. Obviously, his career had a different bent than mine, much more in the public service arena and the political arena. My interest was always more on the corporate side and being involved in boards, mergers and acquisitions, tax law, and everything really that related to a corporate law environment versus the public sector.
You worked in the banking industry after you graduated from Maine Law?
Following graduation from the University of Maine School of Law, I worked for a little under two years for Maine Savings Bank with Bill Saufley, the general counsel. Then from there I actually started the legal department at Banknorth.
When you joined People's Heritage, could you envision the magnitude of the company's growth?
No. I've been here since August of 1990. When I joined the company we were only about $2 billion in size. Now we are about a $31 billion company. The growth strategy has been a result of a vision and leadership of Bill Ryan.
The people at Banknorth are very dedicated and hard working and also had a vision that we could do it, that we could expand and get through all of the issues that we had in the late eighties and early nineties with respect to credit quality. It's really a tribute to their hard work that we made it through that period of time and were able to expand: first into the state of New Hampshire, from there into Massachusetts, into Vermont, upstate New York, and finally to Connecticut.
We had the vision to do it, the people...