In my 32 years as a bank analyst, no other bank CEO enjoyed more respect from investors and fellow bankers as did Wachovia’s John Medlin, who died last Thursday at 78. He was a giant. Bankers looking for a way forward in today’s industry environment would do well to study Medlin’s legacy. They might start with the mantra he never failed to include in every presentation I ever saw him give. Wachovia’s strategic priorities, he told us again and again, were “soundness, profitability, and growth-in that order.” If more big banks had shared that view and those priorities in recent years, a lot of trouble might have been avoided.
But Medlin was more than a great banker; he was an outstanding person. The day after the market crashed in October, 1987, I was as shaken as everyone else by the collapse and sought out two people in particular for insight and advice. One was Bill Hellman, our senior strategist at Smith Barney, where I was working. The other was John Medlin. He’d been talking for a long time about the about the excesses he saw building up in the economy. When I called him, I wasn’t surprised that he picked up his own phone. (It was his standard practice.) Nor was I surprised when he didn’t say, “I told you so.” While much of Wall Street (me included) was panicked that the market’s collapse might throw the economy into recession or worse, Medlin, characteristically, stayed clear-eyed and clear-headed. “Tom, all that has happened in the market has given up the gains it had made this year,” he told me. He then spent the next 45 minutes talking to a 28-year-old bank analyst about the economy, the stock market, and the world in general. He was very generous man with his time.
That conversation was typical example of John Medlin’s m.o. Even when he was CEO, for instance, when lunchtime arrived he’d usually head to the company cafeteria, grab a tray, and stand in line like all the other employees. Then he’d go sit with a random group and listen to what they had to say and find out what was on their minds. He was both one of the smartest bank CEOs I have known, and one of the most humble.
As a banker, meanwhile, Medlin was a visionary. On the one hand, he was a pioneer in developing relationship banking as a means to generate steady growth. But on the other, he kept the company focused and he wasn’t afraid to avoid faddish lines of business if they meant Wachovia would have to change its credit standards. As a result, under Medlin’s watch Wachovia avoided the LDC debt problems of the 1980s.
“We should all emulate him,” Thad Woodard, president and CEO of the North Carolina Bankers Association, told the Winston-Salem Journal this week. “His example should be a guide to everyone in business, not just banking.” I agree. John Medlin lived a life that everyone, in business or not, should try to emulate. I will miss him a great deal.
What do you think? Let me know!