He is best known as former chairman and chief executive officer of the Bank of America, but Dick Rosenberg credits his five years as a young naval officer for instilling him with the self-confidence he needed later to climb the corporate ladder. “I never again had as much responsibility as I did as officer of the deck (OOD) of the USS Mountrail (APA-213), steaming in darkened-ship conditions 1,000 yards from the flagship,” he recalls. And he’s used other lessons from his Navy days throughout his career.
Listen to men and women who have spent even a few years in uniform, and it’s not unusual to hear them say it changed their lives. That certainly was true in my case. I essentially “found myself” during the years I spent on active duty. And indirectly I found what was to become my civilian career.
Not a bad outcome for a five-year hitch on active duty.
My father had lost his job during the Great Depression, and with it went our house and his spirit, as well. I grew up feeling out of place, living with my grandparents in a reasonably affluent neighborhood, and I never acquired much self-confidence. After college, I applied for and was accepted at the Navy officer candidate school.
I underestimated the challenges—and the payback. Commissioned in early 1953, I spent five weeks in training at the Naval Amphibious Warfare Base at Coronado, California, then reported aboard the USS Mountrail (APA-213) as assistant communications officer, with a collateral duty as a cryptology officer and a boat wave commander during operations. I felt challenged every day.
Shortly after I joined the ship, we left for Asia as part of Task Force 90 in WestPac. We took part in amphibious exercises in Korea; carried Marines to Japan; ferried Filipino soldiers back from Vietnam; and helped evacuate some French troops, who had just lost at Dien Bien Phu and, along with them, thousands of Vietnamese refugees fleeing from Ho Chi Minh. Within a year, I qualified as officer of the deck under way—something I still count as one of my life’s big achievements.
Returning from my two-year tour on board the Mountrail, I applied for destroyer duty in the Mediterranean. Instead, I received orders to the USS Catamount (LSD-17) to serve as operations officer. It seems that the executive officer of the Mountrail was getting his first command, and knowing my work on that ship, he got the Bureau of Personnel to cancel any destroyer assignment and send me to the Catamount as his operations officer.
Eight months later, with my three-and-a-half-year obligation almost up, I was re-assigned again because the ship was headed to Bikini for the H-bomb tests and the Navy did not want to have anyone there whom they would have to send back to the United States because his commitment was over. This time I was sent to a shore-duty slot at the headquarters of the Eastern Sea Frontier and the Atlantic Reserve Fleet to wait out my remaining months on active duty.
That was when the letter came. To retain junior officers, the Navy was promising to send you anywhere in the world if you extended your service for another two years. I’d never been to Europe, but my wife was a teacher and couldn’t leave until June. To our surprise, the Navy said that would be okay. Then the shuffle began.
My first assignment—on paper, at least—was as assistant naval attaché in the U.S. embassy in Oslo, Norway. Six weeks later, that was changed to instructor at the French Naval War College. Two weeks after that, another set of orders had me going to Heidelberg, Germany, as Navy liaison to the Army. Then the Navy disestablished that job and sent me new orders for Bordeaux, France.
The admiral at the Eastern Sea Frontier who had hoped that an overseas assignment would persuade me to go regular Navy sent me to the highest levels of BuPers to get things straightened out. As it turned out, I received a final assignment—with the Military Sea Transportation Service—that later launched my civilian career.
The assignment was as aide to the admiral who ran MSTS’s Pacific regional office in San Francisco. The command had 20 Navy people and 500 civilians. The result was that I ended up staying on active duty in the Navy for another two years. But it was a fascinating stint, and I learned a lot about the business community in the San Francisco Bay Area.
When I left active duty in 1959, it was without any financial cushion. My wife was pregnant, and, according to the conventions of the day, she had to leave her teaching position, so we were going from two people with two jobs to two and a half people with none. Although I had no thought of becoming a banker, I needed a job and I joined Wells Fargo Bank, which, conveniently, had headquarters in San Francisco.
For our family, the rest is history. We’ve stayed in San Francisco, while I went from Wells Fargo, where I eventually served as vice chairman, to Seattle-First Bank as president, and in 1987 to Bank of America. I became chairman and chief executive officer there in 1990 and retired in 1996.
But my time in the Navy still stands out as an extraordinary experience in my life. First, it forced me to find myself, to stake out a set of goals, objectives, and values that I wanted to follow. It imbued me with some guiding principles. And most important, it gave me the self-confidence to pursue a career and a life I have loved.
Being thrust out there as a junior officer is an experience that stays with you the rest of your life. Even after I’d become a senior officer at Bank of America—with thousands of people working for me in 36 countries—I often thought that I never again had as much responsibility as I did as officer of the deck of the Mountrail (APA-213), steaming in darkened-ship conditions 1,000 yards from the flagship.
My experience in the Navy influenced the way I operated in the business world, as well. To me, the Navy was the first true meritocracy I’d ever encountered, and I tried to carry that view into my corporate life, promoting people because they had earned it rather than on the basis of their connections or office politicking. It also has been the only major organization in which I have been involved that lives by the principles of meritocracy and does not just pay lip-service to that concept.
I copied the Navy’s system for filing fitness reports, requiring supervisors to disclose on each report how many 4.0s they had given in their divisions so we could evaluate the evaluators and determine whether they were easy or tough as graders. So many of the Navy’s personnel practices were superior to those of private business back then. The Navy was far ahead.
My time in uniform also taught me to respect the people I worked with at every level and how to motivate them to achieve a common objective. Being a boat wave commander, with the expectation that you hit the beach within 30 seconds of the designated time, clearly prodded me to be punctual in the corporate world. Whenever I ran a meeting at the bank, I insisted that everyone be on time; anyone who arrived late found the door to the meeting-room shut and locked.
And I never forgot the Navy practice of requiring division officers to eat in the galley once a week to make sure their Sailors are being well-fed. You can read dozens of executive training manuals these days about the need to visit your branches and outposts to see what’s actually happening. A whole industry has grown up by writing about the concept of “Managing by Walking Around.” The Navy was doing that decades ago.
I stayed in the Naval Reserve for 15 years after active duty, retiring as a commander. And I’ve continued to keep in touch with my former shipmates. I’m a trustee of the Naval War College now. There’s no question that I owe much of my success in life to what I learned from my days as a naval officer.