John Grimes Medlin Jr., an icon of North Carolina banking who guided Wachovia Corp. to national prominence as its fourth CEO, died Thursday at the age of 78.
During his tenure, the Winston-Salem bank grew from a regional player to the 20th-largest bank in the country while earning a reputation for sound banking and profitability.
"This is a sad day for North Carolina, as well as Winston-Salem, Wachovia and me, said Stan Kelly, Carolinas regional president at Wells Fargo, in a statement. Not only was John a legendary banker and an icon in the business community, but he represented the heart and soul of our company for many of us who grew up with Wachovia. "
Medlin was born in 1933 on a farm near Benson. He graduated from the business school at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1956, and then served in the U.S. Navy. He joined Wachovia, then based in Winston-Salem, in 1959.
He eventually became its chief executive in 1977, taking over the $3.3 billion-in-asset bank as banks in the Southeast were dealing with a real estate downturn.
In the 1980s, as regulations relaxed to allow banks to expand across state lines, Medlin shepherded Wachovias expansion into Georgia and, in 1991, South Carolina.
Along the way, he became known as a conservative banker who avoided the industrywide decline in lending standards.
He had such an incredible mind for banking. He understood demographics. He understood economics. He understood banking fundamentals, said Jim Cherry, current CEO of Charlotte-based Park Sterling Corp., who worked for Medlin at Wachovia for much of his career. He literally pioneered relationship banking and risk management in the industry.
But Medlin also was a popular figure who garnered the respect of his employees. Eschewing the corporate dining room, Medlin grabbed a tray in the Winston-Salem cafeteria every day to eat with his co-workers.
He would rotate around and sit down with employees, find out what was on their mind and what they were doing, Cherry said. Anybody who ever worked with him has such a high regard for him.
Medlin stepped down as CEO in 1993, when the bank had about $35 billion in assets. He remained on the banks board chairman until 1998.
Three years later, Medlin was one of the most vocal supporters of his banks merger with First Union, which brought the bank to Charlotte. His opinion was crucial for employees and shareholders.
"I don't think anyone would quibble with the John Medlin era at Wachovia, " said Keefe, Bruyette & Woods analyst Marni Pont O'Doherty told the Observer at the time.
He was inducted into the N.C. Business Hall of Fame in 1995. He also received a lifetime achievement award from American Banker.
Medlin kept an office at Wells Fargos office in Winston-Salem and was known to work there nearly every day.
Staff writer Kirsten Pittman contributed.