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Printed from the Charlotte Observer - www.CharlotteObserver.com
Posted: Wednesday, Oct. 01, 2008

One went down with ship, the other sunk it

Published in: Mark Washburn

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I just can't get a definitive winner through the Weasel-O-Meter, so we're going with a show of hands.

Who is more reviled right now in this town?


That SUV driver who pretends not to notice you, then butts into your gas line.

Or


Bob Steel.

Wow. Not even close. Poor Bob.

When Steel came to town, he seemed like the man of the moment.

He had big-time connections on Wall Street and at the Treasury. He knew the banking game inside out. He even plunked down a considerable packet for Wachovia stock. Agreed to a no-severance deal.

He kept up appearances. Even as some of the biggest players in finance vaporized into a mist of red ink, he said Wachovia would be OK.

“We have a great future as an independent company,” he told James Cramer on CNBC's “Mad Money.” That was two weeks ago.

Now he's going down in history as Bob “Buck-a-Share” Steel. If he ever gets a statue on Tryon Street, expect it to be a gargoyle.

Not to rub it in, but I think if I were running Wachovia, I could sell it for more than a buck a share and, follow me closely here, when it comes to running banks I am an absolute moron.

Speaking of Ken Thompson, let's give credit where credit is due.

It was Thompson, not Steel, who steered Wachovia into the abyss.

In the Navy, which doesn't have a sense of humor, they do this thing whenever a ship has a collision at sea or winds up sitting jauntily atop a reef – they relieve the captain of command.

Wachovia did just that with Thompson, sending him packing with about $1.5 million in cash and uncertain career prospects.

By the time Steel took the helm, Wachovia was on the edge of the whirlpool, and by last weekend it was circling the drain.

Blame Steel for the sinking, but he didn't rip the hole in the helm. That was Thompson, who lusted for a shimmering mirage called Golden West Financial.

That turned out to be like one of those women who tell you you're so smart, you're so clever, you're so hot, then wind up with your house.

Even with people warning internally that Goldie didn't seem like a good marriage prospect, Thompson paid a dowry of $25 billion.

It turns out that's a lot of money to bet on a losing proposition.

That's enough money to bury the venerable Wachovia name in only two years. That's enough money to poison its stock. That's enough money to cost its employees much of their savings, their stability, their jobs.

That's enough money to earn someone the name villain. But be careful where you sling it.

See, the credit for Wachovia's demise goes not to Steel but Thompson. And Monday, the credit came due.

Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007; mwashburn@charlotteobserver.com

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