Wachovia's silent search for a new boss

Who's the boss?

That's the big question hanging over Wachovia Corp., as the Charlotte bank's search for a new chief executive extends beyond a month.

The uncertainty is weighing on employees as well as investors. The stock is down nearly 35 percent since the board ousted Ken Thompson on June 1, closing up nearly 12 percent Tuesday at $15.54.

Chairman and interim CEO Lanty Smith has said the search will proceed with “alacrity” but hasn't provided a timeline. The board has hired recruiting firm Spencer Stuart to help with the hunt.

“Our immediate priorities are to recruit a world-class executive to assume the role of chief executive and, at the same time, to work diligently to move our business forward with a stronger sense of urgency,” Smith said in a brief letter introducing himself to shareholders last month.

Recruiters have said the search could take six weeks to six months. The bank has been silent on the process, but at least one analyst has said the bank may want to land a CEO “sooner rather than later” to improve credibility with investors. A bank spokeswoman declined to comment.

A possible complication, of course, is a takeover by another bank. If Wachovia gets snapped up, it wouldn't need a new leader. Smith has said the board wants to move ahead as an independent company.

Recruiters say there is only a small pool of executives capable of doing the job. And only a few are untarnished by the credit crunch that has whacked most financial institutions. Although Smith has said the search includes internal candidates, analysts expect the post will go to an outsider because the board didn't immediately pick a current executive.

From interviews, analyst reports and other publications, the Observer has gathered a list of 13 names, ranging from insiders to former big-name CEOs, that have received speculation as possible candidates. Of course, there could be other possibilities that haven't yet received public attention.

A favorite among analysts is former Bank of America Corp. chief financial officer Al de Molina, but it's also hard to imagine a former cross-town rival at Wachovia's helm. Staff Writer Christina Rexrode contributed.