Can Charlotte’s Mary Mack fix Wells Fargo’s retail bank?

Mary Mack, a Charlotte-based former Wachovia executive, has been charged with repairing Wells Fargo’s tarnished retail bank.
Mary Mack, a Charlotte-based former Wachovia executive, has been charged with repairing Wells Fargo’s tarnished retail bank.

After three decades scaling the corporate ladder, Mary Mack this summer claimed the top job in Wells Fargo’s retail bank – right before the bottom dropped out.

This September, the San Francisco-based bank became embroiled in a massive fake accounts scandal that spurred bipartisan outrage on Capitol Hill and claimed the CEO’s job. Now the Charlotte-based Mack must win back angry customers, reinvent the sales culture for 94,000 employees and help restore a tarnished brand that once had been an industry gold standard.

It will be the latest test for a 32-year company veteran who has accepted challenging positions around the country, navigated rocky times during mergers and suffered the loss of a daughter a little more than two years ago.

“Mary is not intimidated by a challenge,” said retired Wells Fargo executive John Tate, who hired her into a position at Charlotte-based First Union in the 1980s. “She will meet it head on.”

Just weeks ago, San Francisco-based Wells Fargo was the Teflon bank that avoided almost all of the mistakes made by its peers leading up to the financial crisis. But the bank’s image took a dramatic hit on Sept. 8 when it agreed to pay $185 million in fines to settle claims that its employees may have opened 2 million unauthorized customer accounts to meet aggressive sales goals. That led to congressional hearings, new investigations and the departure of CEO John Stumpf last week.

Wells last week said its retail business is already suffering in the fallout, with fewer customers visiting with bankers, applying for credit cards and opening checking accounts.

Mack, 54, officially began her new role July 31, after Carrie Tolstedt announced plans to retire, and since the scandal erupted has spent her time criss-crossing the country holding “listening sessions” with employees.

She brings deep Charlotte-area ties to the new post. She graduated from Davidson College, and her husband, Barry Mack, is the Fort Mill town attorney. Her father-in-law, Bayles Mack, is a former long-time member of the South Carolina Highway Commission who has a stretch of Interstate 77 in York County named for him.

As a Wachovia veteran, Mack comes from a bank that built a sterling customer service reputation. But over the years, including her most recent stop as head of the bank’s brokerage division, she has been heavily involved in efforts to cross-sell multiple products to customers, a tactic that helped drive Wells’ problems. In recent weeks, the bank has eliminated sales goals and is revamping compensation for branch employees.

Mack has a “gigantic job” ahead of her, said Paul Miller, a bank analyst at FBR & Co. He said the job will be even more challenging because Mack is an insider charged with fixing the bank’s own culture.

“I am not critical of Mary Mack at all, but she is still part of that culture,” Miller said. “It would be a lot easier for somebody coming from the outside to make the tough decisions.”

Mack, however, said she brings a “fresh perspective” to the position, having previously worked in other parts of the company.

“I have been on the brokerage side of our business,” she said in an interview Wednesday, “and that is really focused on client relationships and a deep understanding of what clients need.”

Growing up in Augusta

Mack was born and raised in Augusta, Ga., the home of the Masters golf tournament. In a first-person piece for “On Wall Street” magazine, she said everyone in town either played or talked about golf, but she never picked up the sport.

After high school, she went to Davidson, where she studied international politics and economics. For a summer job, she worked in the check-processing department at Georgia Railroad Bank, which later became part of Charlotte-based First Union.

After graduating, she took a job offer in 1984 at First Union, where she started in the training program as a commercial lender. She eventually managed commercial banking for the East Coast and then managed the health care banking group in the capital markets side of the business.

When First Union agreed to buy Winston-Salem-based Wachovia in 2001, she was a regional president in the community bank. At the time of the merger, she wasn’t sure if she would have a job, she wrote in the piece, but agreed to promote the deal by speaking with chambers of commerce and other groups.

Soon after, Wachovia CEO Ken Thompson appointed her to a position that aimed to promote referrals among different business units at the bank. For instance, commercial bankers could be trained to ask business owners to do their personal banking with the company’s wealth management group.

Wachovia uncertainty

By 2006, Mack was running the brokerage business that was based inside bank branches. This was a chance to get regular banking customers to open retirement accounts and invest in mutual funds, another example of cross-selling.

Two years later, she faced a major challenge when Wachovia verged on failure during the financial crisis. In late September 2008, the government brokered a deal to sell Wachovia to Citigroup, but the brokerage business would stay behind as a stand-alone business.

The fate of her group was uncertain until Wells Fargo came to the rescue days later when it made a more favorable offer to buy the whole company, including the brokerage. During the turmoil, Mack held “open mic” conference calls every afternoon with her brokers.

“The one thing I know that people need in times of uncertainty is communication,” Mack told the Observer. “They need to hear what we know and don’t know.”

She compares those calls to the listening sessions she’s holding now in the retail bank. She aims to visit 20 cities by the end of the month, including a stop this week in Los Angeles.

In the newly combined company, Mack continued to oversee the brokers in the bank branches before taking charge in September 2013 of all of St. Louis-based Wells Fargo Advisors, the third-largest brokerage in the nation with more than 15,000 financial advisers.

Only months after the promotion, her family was struck by tragedy in the summer of 2014. She and her husband’s oldest of three daughters died suddenly from meningitis.

Mary Warner Mack was a Clemson graduate who worked at Bank of America and was getting ready to move to Atlanta to attend the Georgia Tech Sam Nunn School of International Affairs. In her memory, a dog park at the Anne Springs Close Greenway in Fort Mill is now named for her.

Mack took a leave of absence before returning to work. In a story posted on Wells Fargo’s website this spring, Mack wrote about her daughter’s death, and tied it to her role at Wells Fargo.

“We are a close-knit family, but a loss like that sends even the most functional family reeling,” she wrote. “We didn’t know how we would cope. And in those early days, our friends and family didn’t quite know what to say to us.”

The family’s financial adviser was the one person who wasn’t afraid to sit down with the family and “help us get our heads on straight,” she wrote.

“It took a lot of courage on her part,” Mack wrote, “and took a tremendous burden off me and my husband.”

‘Very focused, very driven’

In her new role, Mack is one of the top executives at the company, answering directly to new CEO Tim Sloan. Former co-workers say they’re not surprised to see her rise through the ranks.

“When I was working with her, the clients that she handled inevitably … would praise her at every opportunity,” Tate, the retired Wells executive, said. “And when she moved on to the next job, the sort of comments that would inevitably be made were, ‘How are you going to replace her?’ 

Another executive who worked with her said Mack is a positive, hard-working person who gets results.

“She had the ability of getting a lot done and getting through a lot of corporate bureaucracy, which is a rare talent these days,” said the executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect business relationships.

Another executive said she was a charismatic leader, but also a good soldier who would carry out initiatives laid out by higher-ups. “She is very determined, very focused, very driven,” said the former Wachovia executive, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

In recent weeks, Mack, who has moved back to Fort Mill from St. Louis, has named a Charlotte-based executive as community banking change leader. Laurey Cosentino, who came from Wells’ commercial bank, is tasked with surveying employees and helping to develop ways to change the unit’s sales culture. Mack has made changes to employee compensation plans for this year but is still working on next year’s program.

“Our team members, our customers, our communities and our shareholders want us to get it right, but I think we have to get it right relatively quickly,” she said of the time frame for changes in the unit.

So far, Mack has the support of one key person: her new boss. During the bank’s earnings conference call last week, an analyst asked Sloan why the bank picked Mack to run the retail bank, wondering whether it was a “big ask” for an insider to shift the culture. Sloan said Mack was “the best person for the job,” citing her decades of experience.

“Boy, I’m very optimistic about the leadership of Mary Mack,” he added.

Rick Rothacker: 704-358-5170, @rickrothacker