The morning that Wells Fargo unbolted the last Wachovia sign in North Carolina, Stan Kelly sat at his desk and thought of the people who’d sat there before.
Handmade out of mahogany more than 200 years ago, the desk belonged to Wachovia’s first president, Francis Fries. It was then passed down the line to Wachovia’s most senior executive in its original hometown of Winston-Salem.
“I was sitting at that desk, looking west and thinking, ‘You know, all those former leaders of our company dreamed of the day of having this bank across America,” Kelly recounted. “I’m sure it was always a dream. To be at that desk and looking out there was just kind of a moment for me.”
Wachovia’s acquisition by San Francisco-based Wells Fargo created a coast-to-coast bank, and it brought Kelly back to community banking in his home state.
He began his career inside a Wachovia bank branch 34 years ago. He’s since held more than a dozen positions with the company and helped bring the bank through its merger into First Union and later Wells Fargo. He’ll retire at the end of July as the bank’s head of community banking in the Carolinas.
Kelly, 56, sat down with the Observer in his office on the 40th floor of One Wells Fargo to talk about his career, the financial crisis, the state of the industry and what comes next personally.
Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did you get into banking?
A: I would just say luck. I had one interview from N.C. State; the career placement department said, ‘Here’s an interview with Wachovia.’ I interviewed with Wachovia on a Thursday, on Monday they offered me a job, and the following Monday I went to work. It wasn’t so much about banking; it was about a company there locally that was willing to hire me. It’s as simple as that.
My first job wasn’t such a grandiose job, but it actually turned out really well. I was collecting past due accounts and repossessing cars. They probably couldn’t find a lot of people that wanted that job.
I started there, and here I am 34 years later having worked for the same company the entire time. I have often said to people I wouldn’t trade one day of it.
Q: What have been your favorite positions in your career?
A: The jobs that I’ve enjoyed the most, that have really caught my fire, are the jobs where I’ve had the chance to work with lots of different people and customers. Leading the Carolinas has been a very fun job because it’s my home. Running the wealth management business was clearly another highlight of my career.
I always said during the first 10 years of my career, I used to come to work and say, ‘Gosh, they’re paying me to do this?’
Customers of Wachovia, when you said to them, ‘I work for Wachovia,’ they would go ‘Wow.’ That said something about me, that I was part of this brand, this culture. It was a very fulfilling company to work with in those early days. It has continued, and I would say today it feels that way again. When you introduce yourself as working for Wells Fargo, it means something. And it means something good.
Q: It had to sting a little to lose the Wachovia name after working for the company for so long.
A: You know, in the early days it did. Personally, you lost part of your soul. But I would say today, and this surprises me equally, as tough as that was then, today to say that I’m retiring from Wells Fargo is a big point of pride for me. That’s a big deal for me to say that.
I’m pleased and proud to have Wells Fargo on my resume. Some people, when the Wachovia thing happened, they had a hard time ever getting over that. And I know some of those people. But they would say, ‘Wow, this thing has landed on its feet, and it’s better than Wachovia.’
Q: Was it a similar feeling after Wachovia was acquired by Charlotte-based First Union? (First Union acquired Wachovia in 2001 and kept the Wachovia name.)
A: In the early days of that merger, there were some who were uncertain about how it would go. When we got two, three, four, five, six years into the new company, it exceeded people’s expectations on many, many fronts. The company was growing, very successful financially, very successful from a market cap perspective, very successful from a customer service perspective. It was rocking, and then we hit 2008, and you know that story.
Q: You were running Wachovia’s wealth management business by that time. What was it like being a senior executive during the financial crisis?
A: The wealth management business was doing quite well. My main job was focused on making sure we stayed the course and were taking care of our clients. Even though there was all this distraction, we were enjoying a fair amount of success. Then as the distraction grew and amplified ...
My No. 1 strength is belief. I believe things will work out. It was a very unusual time; it was very surreal to be on this floor. I personally believed things would be OK. Somehow, this, too, would pass.
I’m not going to suggest that it wasn’t the most cataclysmic time in my professional life. It was. It was unimaginable what was going on. It was unimaginable. Having said that, I’m still here, I’m a survivor, I saw my way through it personally, my team saw its way through it.
Q: Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf said after the acquisition you were one of the first people that he met. How was that experience and what was your charge?
A: It was right in this office. I spent an hour with John. This was after we had been through the Citi dance. (In 2008, Wachovia was in a deal to be sold to Citigroup, before Wells Fargo made its offer.) It was a couple weeks later. That was a time when you were like ‘I don’t know where this is going.’
John Stumpf came into this office and he connected with me in a way that I hadn’t been connected with in many years, on a personal, emotional and a, ‘Wow, you’re talking about the kind of culture of a company that I have worked for in my career, and I just haven’t been there in a while.’
I actually had a physical reaction, in a good way. I had forgotten how it feels to think about running a bank the way John and I talked about running this bank. We connected like we had been brothers.
After, I called my wife and said, ‘I just had the coolest experience with John Stumpf.’ After that meeting, if they wanted me to be a part of this company, I was in, all the way.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Decompress. Go to Wrightsville Beach. That’s kind of the balance of this year. Then, as the planner that I am, I have a list of dreams, of 80 things I want to do by the time I’m 80. A written list. Right here in this book.
Some of them are really little things; some of them are big dreams.
Q: Give me a few examples.
A: A small one is my wife and I are going to take a CPR course. I’m getting into biking, so I want to ride my bike from the mountains to the coast. I may do a chunk of it this year. I like to cook, and I like the water. I want to cruise the Intracoastal Waterway, stuff like that. So they’re not goals, they’re dreams.
Then I want to help people. That’s broadly defined at this point, and I’ll figure out what that means. Whether that’s philanthropy or community service or teaching kids or being an adjunct professor somewhere, I don’t know exactly what a lot of that will look like, but it’s going to be giving back.