Local leaders praise CEO hire

By hiring a new chief executive, Wachovia appears committed to staying in Charlotte and remaining a key contributor to community projects, local business and government leaders said Wednesday night.

While the banking industry still faces myriad challenges, executives and elected officials said the announcement of Robert Steel as the next CEO should ease some of the anxiety of recent weeks, including fears of a takeover by another bank and the loss of thousands of the company's roughly 21,000 jobs in Charlotte.

“It's obviously a positive thing to have the uncertainty behind us and be able to move forward,” said Mac Everett, chairman of the Wachovia Championship golf tournament and a retired Wachovia executive.

Jennifer Roberts, chairman of the Mecklenburg County commissioners, said she has “heard a lot of worried people about a takeover, which of course would mean loss of jobs. When you have one sector that's troubled, it really ripples quickly to other sectors.”

Although many didn't know Steel personally or professionally, his selection brought praise from some civic leaders.

“I am thrilled that a person of that stature is coming in,” said Pat Riley, president of Allen Tate Co. and chairman of the Charlotte Chamber.

Riley also liked that Wachovia veteran Ben Jenkins would continue as vice chairman and president of Wachovia's retail bank after his recent stint as interim chief operating officer. “That will bring tradition along with new energy,” Riley said.

“We need to bring the confidence back,” he added. “It starts with leadership.”

Mecklenburg commissioner Dan Bishop also called Steel “a terrific pick,” citing his experience and N.C. connections. But another commissioner, Dan Ramirez, said he had favored another candidate: Al de Molina, former chief financial officer of Bank of America Corp.

“Of course, I realize that Wachovia is a worldwide bank, and they have to have someone with a worldwide presence,” Ramirez said.

“At least now it's going to civilize the situation with Wachovia and the employees in this community,” he said. “I'm just hoping that it doesn't come with the idea of taking the bank somewhere else.”

Most business and government leaders contacted Wednesday night thought that wouldn't happen.

“I don't think he would be coming to Charlotte if they were selling the bank,” said Felix Sabates, whose business interests range from ownership in a NASCAR team and the Charlotte Bobcats to a Mercedes dealership. “It seems to me the board is committed to keeping the bank here.”

Michael Smith, president of Charlotte Center City Partners, said “we've remained confident that Wachovia's board was looking to be strong and independent.”

Now leaders say they will be watching Steel's first moves at CEO.

“The financial and housing markets are in turmoil,” said Dumont Clarke, a Mecklenburg County commissioner. “Figuring out how to sail in waters that are having 30-foot waves coming at you and over you is a challenge.”

City Council member Susan Burgess noted the leadership of previous CEO Ken Thompson in such efforts as developing the cultural campus on South Tryon Street. “My hope is Mr. Steel will have the same commitment,” she said.

Bishop said Steel should focus first on turning Wachovia around, “and the rest will take care of itself.”