Inside Financial Services

A Banker For The Ages

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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!

9 Responses to “A Banker For The Ages”

  1. bjarvis

    back in the 80′s there was a bank analyst on Wall St Week (Ruykeyser) who said he would own only 2 banks, one was NBD (later absorbed , into what is Chase now I think) the other was Wachovia. The reason for his call was the credit culture of these firms and their skills @ growing revenue w/in that discipline. Just one of those things that stuck in my mind.

  2. Ed

    Tom, there are bankers like him today but they are in the community banks and don’t populate mahogany row at the giants. We lost something when the players in our industry got so big that the bosses lost touch with the public and the rank and file employees. There’s also something wrong when the pay packages at these places created a lifestyle that is light years removed from those who are paying a few bucks a month to maintain their checking accounts to those same banks.

  3. BC

    I had the great fortune to work for Wachovia under John’s leadership and everything you state above is so true. He was an incredible leader and an incredible man. His wisdom is surely missed in our banking industry today!

  4. Geoffrey de Sibert

    Congratulations for taking the time to write such an excellent article!

    I too was 28 in 1987 working in Banking in London and the day of the October Crash, my boss deserted the ship. You were lucky to have Medlin to talk to…

  5. Tarheel Banker

    I only wish Bud Baker had heeded John Medlin’s mantra of “soundness, profitability and growth” in that order and Wachovia wouldn’t have sold out to First Union for Ken Thompson’s promise of “an enhanced stock value down the road” for the shareholders and Bud Baker would still be working on the profitability part of the equation.

  6. Bill Shumadine

    Tom – You were so accurate in your description of John, a great man who was probably the best banker of modern times. I recall when I was president of the Virginia Bankers Association in 1991, that John participated in a panel of CEO’s at our annual convention. After I sent John a “thank you” letter for being with us, he sent ME a note of thanks for including him on the program; perhaps a small gesture, but a great example of what a class act John Medlin was as a person.

  7. George Hayworth

    Dick Roberts shares many of your writings with me. You have characterized John Medlin perfectly. I was affiliated with Wachovia Mortgage Company. Even though we were a sub of the corp and an affiliate of the bank, he was always available and very aware, without getting in our face, of the successes and failures of the mortgage company. Every person in WMC had the highest respect and regard for him. Many of us cued our own management style and communications after John’s standards of expectations. In summary, we all were proud to represent Wachovia and have the benefit of the leadership and presence of John Medlin.

  8. GaBanker

    Too bad his acumen did not extend to picking his successor and having to give away the bank to First Union. It also appears a large ego was involved in selecting First Union in order to keep the Wachovia name and NC address as opposed to say Wells Fargo who more closely exhibited the values he held for banking standards. Those disastrous decisions have resulted in huge losses for Wachovia shareholders.

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