January 26, 2014 7:02 pm

Wells Fargo chief’s rise to the top

John Stumpf, chief executive of Wells Fargo©Jamie Kingham

As chief executive of Wells Fargo, John Stumpf is in charge of the world’s biggest bank by stock market value at a time when the financial services industry is still struggling to repair its image in the wake of the financial crisis. But he has a knack for evoking a time when banking was an altogether more innocent pastime.

The world he conjures up – one of struggling up from rural poverty, where family and a strong Catholic faith prevail, and where sound personal values trump financial engineering – sounds like the plot of a Frank Capra movie starring James Stewart.

More

On this story

IN MBA

This, for instance, is Stumpf’s explanation of why he arrives at his desk by 5.30am: “I get up at 4.30, because that’s what you do on the farm.” He adds: “I don’t think you need to get up early in life, but most people I know who are successful get up early.”

The farm in question is the 125 acres in Minnesota where he grew up as the second of 11 children. The girls slept in one bedroom, the boys in another. “We were very, very poor,” he says, and bankruptcy was often a threat.

He credits his parents for instilling a work ethic and a propensity for self-effacement that have had a formative influence on his management style: “We never used personal pronouns when I grew up – I, me, mine. They were shunned … We learnt the value of sharing success, and also sharing disappointment.”

Stumpf’s journey from a Minnesota dairy and poultry farm to the Wells Fargo executive suite in San Francisco at times sounds like a Depression-era fairytale. But he has imbibed the message of the internet age. “More than anything else, we’re in the information business,” he says. He lists Apple, Google and Amazon as the companies he admires most, “because of what they’re doing to influence how our customers think about retail services”.

He adds: “If Google can give them information anywhere in the world in three nanoseconds, why can’t I tell them what’s going on? If Apple builds things for dummies, why can’t we? Why aren’t our products as obvious and intuitive?”

Yet he brushes off suggestions that the banking industry may face the same sort of digital disruption that has swept through other information-based industries, such as the media. He reports a conversation from soon after his move to San Francisco in 2002, when “a very well-known leader in tech” – whom he refuses to name – told him “that in five years we’d be gone”. Stumpf says now: “The prediction of our death was overrated and overstated.”

With his silver hair and easy patrician style, Stumpf, who became chief executive six years ago, seems born to the corner office. But his rise to the top of the banking industry was far from ordained. After leaving school at 17 with poor grades and few prospects, he worked for a year in a bakery. He later joined the Minneapolis-based Norwest, which rode a wave of acquisitions – including those of Wells Fargo (whose name it took) in 1998 and Wachovia at the depths of the financial crisis a decade later – to reach the top of the US banking industry.

the original Wells Fargo office on Montgomery Street, San Francisco, near the site of the current headquarters, c.1853

Western roots: the original Wells Fargo office on Montgomery Street, San Francisco, near the site of the current headquarters, c.1853

For much of that time he was a lieutenant to Dick Kovacevich, the former Norwest chief executive who used tight operational discipline and effective dealmaking to turn a small regional institution into a national leader. Of his former boss, Stumpf says: “I would say he was the best our industry produced in his generation.”

It would not have happened had it not been for a “light-bulb” moment when, says Stumpf, he “fell in love with the idea of education”. It began with a finance degree at state college in nearby St Cloud – making him the only one of six brothers to get a college education. After moving into banking, he went on to take an MBA at the University of Minnesota.

It was a gruelling three years at night school, with most evenings, weekends and holidays spent studying, though Stumpf recalls it as an inspiring mix that students on full-time MBA programmes miss. “It was an intellectual framework, and the coalescence of academic theory and day-to-day practical application. It’s probably not for everyone; it surely was for me – it changed my life,” he says.

It is the practical, more than the theoretical, that has stayed with Stumpf. He credits a tutor from his MBA days with an insight that still “rings at the back of my head” and helped to shape Stumpf’s own approach to management: “In trying to understand the framework of a problem, too many of us want to get to the solving part too early and you don’t spend enough time understanding the framework the problem is set in.”

When applied to business meetings, he says, the personal lesson he learnt is not to go in with a preconceived view. “Frame it, understand it, bring other people’s points of view in, and have the courage to be unbiased – to be opinionated but unbiased,” he says.

Stumpf is complimentary about the training today’s business schools dispense in areas such as technical proficiency and ethics. But he sees graduates as raw material, of value only if they fit into the strong group culture he calls the “Wells Fargo tribe”.

“It only works if the elements of the person are consistent with our culture. We like to say that when we hire people, we don’t care what you know till we know that you care,” he says.

. . .

In the modern banking industry, Stumpf’s career path almost looks like an anachronism. It was not until 10 years after finishing his MBA that he and his wife – whom he met in elementary school and married while at college – left Minneapolis for a role in Colorado. And when he moved on to Texas to set up a new operation for the bank, it was only the second time he had ever been to the state.

Stumpf’s personal brand of folksy wisdom and smooth assurance seems perfectly tailored for the post-crisis financial world. He describes his job as chief executive as “keeper of the culture”, and the art of good leadership as inspiring trust in the bank’s 270,000 employees – whom he insists on calling “team members”.

“People want to work for people who have a realistic but optimistic view of the world,” he says. For personal inspiration, he looks to books about figures such as Thomas Aquinas, George Washington and Margaret Thatcher, rather than modern business leaders.

A glimpse of the significance of Stumpf’s affable and accommodating manner comes as he discusses the demands of working in a highly regulated industry: “It takes a lot of skill, and patience – and understanding, and collaboration with the regulatory [bodies]. We have a lot of regulators.”

In this context, he explains why technology giants such as Google and Apple will never take the plunge into the financial industry. “They are looking for pieces of the value chain,” he says. “What they will never want to be is a financial services company. It’s a regulatory burden. Never – they’ll stay far away from it, in my view.”

For relaxation, Stumpf plays around 100 hands of bridge a week on OKbridge, an online network where membership costs $99 a year. With typical self-effacement, he dismisses his bridge skills, saying he “should be better.” But he is good enough for an occasional online game with investor Warren Buffett, his bank’s biggest shareholder.

Like Buffett, Stumpf also likes to carve out time during his day to think. “I think when I walk,” he says, fishing behind his desk for the black Nike trainers he wears for six to seven miles of pavement-pounding on a typical day.

But he is anxious not to come across as the figurehead, and is eager to put himself in the background: “This is never about the CEO; it’s about the team – the star of the team is the team – if there is a star.”

It is a formula that has worked, as Wells Fargo has risen to the top of the US banking industry. With nearly five years to go before Stumpf reaches the bank’s retirement age of 65, the next question will be when, and how, he takes that formula into international markets.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

Enter job search