Wells Fargo C.E.O. Could Be Banking’s Worst Job. It’s Open.
April 1, 2019 | The New York Times
Wanted: New chief executive to clean up radioactive mess. Hazmat suit not provided.
Wells Fargo is searching for a new leader after its chief executive, Timothy J. Sloan, abruptly resigned on Thursday, having been hounded by politicians, regulators, customers and employees about the halting efforts to overhaul the scandal-tarred bank.
Wells Fargo, the country’s fourth-largest bank, is starting its chief executive search from scratch. The chairwoman, Betsy Duke, said on Thursday that the board would try to recruit an executive from outside, someone without the baggage of being a Wells Fargo veteran.
Identifying a qualified candidate — a person with extensive banking and management experience, the credibility to pacify regulators and the skill to shepherd a company with 260,000 restive employees — will be a challenge. Persuading that person to take the job is likely to be even harder.
While Wells Fargo’s finances are fundamentally sound, the bank faces a daunting list of problems: litigation, with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line; more than a dozen restrictions imposed by federal regulators; a largely demoralized work force that is chafing under the bank’s leadership; and rigorous scrutiny of the bank’s next leader from high-profile members of Congress.
Mr. Sloan resigned barely two weeks after he was lashed by congressional lawmakers about a New York Times article detailing the bank’s persistent problems, including how many employees remain under pressure to hit sales targets. The board of directors has an executive-search committee that will run the recruitment process. The committee was holding its first meeting Friday. An outside adviser to the bank said the search was likely to take at least three months, perhaps much longer.
In the meantime, Wells Fargo will be run by C. Allen Parker, the general counsel. His job will largely entail trying to douse brush fires as they flare up. Most are products of a sales-obsessed Wells Fargo culture, which led employees to open fake accounts for customers, charge them unnecessary fees and sell them unwanted products.
“It’s been like Whac-a-Mole at the bank,” said Nancy Bush, a longtime industry analyst. “The minute one problem gets nailed down, another pops up. Whoever takes over has a whole lot of challenges they’re going to have to get their hands around very fast.”
One emerging problem is a federal class-action lawsuit in California that claims Wells Fargo needs to repay more fees that were charged to some customers who took out auto loans. The fees were for a product called “guaranteed auto protection,” a type of insurance on their car purchases, which some customers have said they were forced to buy in order to get a loan.
Regulators have ordered Wells Fargo to return between $200 and $800 to thousands of borrowers in 11 states, but the California lawsuit claims that the bank should have to repay customers in the other 39 states, too. Many of the customers are low income and do not even know they are owed money, according to the lawsuit. By some estimates, Wells Fargo could still have to shell out more than $500 million in additional penalties and customer refunds.
The bank is fighting the lawsuit and denies having required any borrowers to buy the auto-protection policy before giving them auto loans.
United States regulators, including the Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, have 14 legal agreements restricting Wells Fargo’s activities. The most stringent of those is from the Fed, which early last year took the unusual step of barring the bank from expanding until it improved its culture and strengthened its internal safeguards against fraud and other wrongdoing.
Mr. Sloan repeatedly proved too optimistic about his ability to get the Fed’s order lifted — a task that will now fall to his replacement.
The bank also remains under federal investigation, including for the sales practices in its wealth-management division. This month, Wells Fargo was one of numerous banks to settle claims by the Securities and Exchange Commission that it had tricked clients into buying more expensive investment products.
The bank and its leader are almost certain to remain popular political punching bags, especially as Democrats jostle for publicity in the run-up to the 2020 presidential primaries. When Mr. Sloan’s resignation was announced late Thursday, prominent Democrats, including Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, pounced within minutes.
Representative Katie Porter, a Democrat from California and a member of the House Financial Services Committee, said in an interview on Thursday night that she planned to scrutinize Wells Fargo’s choice to replace Mr. Sloan.
“What I want to hear is that they are using the fresh set of eyes to take an honest look at where Wells Fargo needs to change,” Ms. Porter said. “It’s not going to be quick to change things. I think we’ve seen that some of the pressure on employees, the nickel-and-diming of consumers, goes very deep.”
Would anyone want a job like this?
The banking industry is brimming with self-confident executives. “It would be the capstone of someone’s career — and they can make a lot of money,” said Bert Ely, a banking consultant.
Some of Wells Fargo’s aggrieved customers have strong opinions on the bank’s new leadership.
Shemeeka Beckham, 36, is part of the California lawsuit seeking repayment of the auto-protection fees. Six years ago, when she was buying a Dodge Charger with a loan from Wells Fargo, the bank pushed her to accept extra fees and products that raised her costs to $14,532 from $10,500.
“The bank was telling me I didn’t have an option,” said Ms. Beckham, who lives in Columbus, Ohio.
“I would advise the new C.E.O. — he or she — basically to just be more considerate of people.”