National News

Joseph Rice, Bank Chief Who Fought Hostile Takeover, Dies at 93

Posted January 16, 2018 10:47 p.m. EST

Joseph A. Rice, who, as the head of a New York bank in the 1980s, played a leading role in a corporate battle that shook up an industry that had mostly avoided such fights, died on Jan. 8 at his home in New Paltz, New York. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by his son Philip.

Joseph Rice was the chairman and chief executive of the Irving Bank Corp. in 1987 when a regional rival, the Bank of New York, made a hostile takeover offer, a startling move in an industry known at the time for its genteel business codes. Throughout the 1980s, as corporate raiders used consolidations to refashion the industrial landscape, the banking sector had stayed out of the fray.

Rice, mild-mannered by nature, fought the deal and warned of the destruction that such aggressive tactics could cause. “The prospect of a Wild West shooting spree is not an admirable one in our business,” he said in an interview.

But Bank of New York refused to take no for an answer. The battle lasted for more than a year, becoming the longest-running takeover fight in American business history to that point. Irving Bank drew on every resistance tool in the corporate armory, culminating in a close proxy fight.

In the end, the prey succumbed. Irving Bank’s board agreed to sell in 1988, striking a deal that made Bank of New York the nation’s 12th-largest bank.

The corporate fight took a personal toll on Rice, who retired after the acquisition, his son Philip said.

“When you consider the roots of Irving Trust, going back to the 19th century — to be the last guy presiding over a bank with that kind of history was quite sad for him,” Philip Rice said.

Joseph Albert Rice was born in Cranford, New Jersey, on Oct. 11, 1924, to Louis Rice, a teacher, and the former Elizabeth Michael. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, New York, in 1948 and two master’s degrees, in industrial engineering and government, from New York University.

Rice began his professional life as an aeronautical engineer. Seeking management experience, he took a job at IBM, where he ran an operations division at the start of the mainframe era.

His banking career was something of a reinvention. He moved into the financial field after striking up a friendship with Irving Bank’s chairman at the time, Gordon T. Wallis, during their train commutes between Manhattan and Westchester County. Wallis persuaded Rice to join the bank, and later turned the leadership reins over to him.

Rice remained active in business after his retirement and continued commuting into New York City nearly every day, his son said. He served on the boards of several public companies, including Avon Products and Apache Corp., and was the chairman of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation’s board of trustees from 1997 to 2013.

His business career took him to 57 countries. He was often accompanied on those trips by his wife, Katharine Wolfe Rice, whom he married in 1948 and who was known as Kay. She died in 2013.

In addition to his son Philip, Rice is survived by two other sons, Walter and Alan; a daughter, Carol Rice; a grandson; and two step-grandsons.

Bank of New York, now known as BNY Mellon, remains one of America’s biggest banks. Had the dice fallen slightly differently, Irving Bank might have been the surviving entity. A few years before Bank of New York made its unsolicited bid, Irving’s management had floated the idea of acquiring its rival.

“My father was a gentleman,” Philip Rice said. “When they weren’t interested, he just said ‘OK,’ and let it go.”