Wells Fargo’s Carlos Evans, retiring after 41 years, said yes to big challenges

Carlos Evans, who is retiring as a Wells Fargo executive at the end of this month, had front-row seats to two pivotal moments in Charlotte history. And they both came at him at once.

It was late summer 2008, and the U.S. financial system was unraveling. Evans’ employer, Wachovia, was in trouble.

Then Evans got the news that the chairman of United Way of Central Carolinas was resigning amid the controversy over compensation for the organization’s CEO.

That meant Evans, a United Way board member, was suddenly next up to chair the organization.

He gave serious thought to declining the volunteer post. His own professional fate was uncertain as concerns about Wachovia’s financial stability began to mount.

“My first reaction was, ‘You can’t do this. You’ve got everything going on at the bank,’ ” he said. “But then I sort of realized that I was copping out.”

Evans said yes, becoming chairman of United Way just weeks before San Francisco-based Wells Fargo agreed to buy Wachovia.

Evans, 62, who now oversees commercial banking in the Eastern U.S. for Wells Fargo, is retiring after a 41-year career in banking across the Carolinas. His operation serves middle-market businesses, those with annual sales between about $20 million and about $1 billion. He also oversees government and institutional banking for Wells Fargo nationally.

He said no challenge he’s faced can match the Wachovia and United Way crises, which he calls the most difficult moment of his career.

“I lost weight. I was sick – sick – with what was going on at Wachovia, what was going on at United Way. But it was my responsibility to do both.”

Wachovia had been hurt by loan losses from its 2006 acquisition of mortgage lender Golden West Financial. “I didn’t know about the Golden West merger until after it happened,” Evans said. “I was not involved in any way, shape or form in the due diligence. ... There is nothing I could have done.”

“I was doing everything I could do to save Wachovia,” he said.

Saying yes, taking a risk

Evans’ journey to Charlotte began in his native city of Florence in northeast South Carolina.

A self-described “country boy,” he went to Newberry College in South Carolina, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics. His first banking job was with Bankers Trust of South Carolina, a predecessor to Bank of America, as a management trainee.

“Which meant that I washed cars, ran errands,” he said. “Back then a management trainee was the lowest of the low.”

In 1973, he was asked to coordinate completion of interior construction for Bankers Trust’s new headquarters and plan and manage the move to a tower in Columbia. He was only 22, had only been on the job for a handful of months and had no experience overseeing such a project.

Evans wondered whether he had done the right thing. Working on the headquarters project felt like a detour, and he was distressed watching his peers in the company advance to jobs as branch managers and commercial bankers. But he met the bank’s chairman, Hootie Johnson, while working on the project, which he thinks helped create other opportunities in the company for him.

In 1980, he was asked to run Bankers Trust’s operations in the Hilton Head Island region. It would mean relocating from the Columbia area and moving his wife of then just two years, Lisa, away from their friends and family. Again, he said yes.

“If you’re from a small town in South Carolina, that was like going to a foreign country,” he said. “Almost didn’t do it.”

Evans said the job allowed him to show that he could boost the bank’s business in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.

“We grew exponentially, and that caught people’s attention,” he said. “We built six branches while I was there.”

Accepting that job was an example of a risk that paid off, said Evans, who encourages people to take risks in their career paths.

“I can think about the major inflection points in my career, and they were all tied to situations where I was willing to take risks that other people weren’t willing to take.”

After other relocations and promotions, he made his way to Charlotte around 1990 to head Carolinas commerical lending for North Carolina National Bank, which would become NationsBank in 1991 and Bank of America in 1998.

‘Total blur’

By late summer 2008, as the U.S. financial system’s troubles were escalating, uncertainty was growing for Wachovia.

The lender was posting billions of dollars in losses stemming from its Golden West Financial acquisition as well as complex securities sold by its investment bank. There was talk of thousands of jobs being cut, and by fall 2008 regulators were looking for a buyer for Wachovia.

At the time, Evans was over commercial banking, business banking and the auto finance business for Wachovia. On Sept. 3, the chairman of United Way of Central Carolinas resigned amid the fallout of the $1.2 million in salary and benefits paid to its former CEO.

Evans now had to become chairman months before he was scheduled to take the role. He accepted the post even though he had doubts about whether he should, considering the unfolding crisis at Wachovia.

“In my heart of hearts, I knew it was my responsibility,” he said. “It just became a total blur.” Evans said he had not been on the United Way board when the CEO’s pension, known as a Supplemental Executive Retirement Plan, or SERP, was approved.

Jane McIntyre, who became executive director of United Way of Central Carolinas in 2009, said Evans had to chair the organization as its annual fundraising campaign was in full swing. The organization found itself trying to raise funds not only at a challenging time for the U.S. economy but also as the reputation of the local United Way was suffering.

“Carlos really had to have full oversight for the operations and at the same time try to keep the campaign going. It had to be hard,” McIntyre said.

Evans recalls doing a lot of traveling at that time to reassure customers and clients concerned about the bank. When he’d return to Charlotte, he’d also have to deal with the crisis at United Way.

At the time, Evans was working on the 20th floor in One Wells Fargo, the same building he works in today. Three to four times a week, he said, he would walk the three or so blocks from his building to the United Way to help out the organization.

“If you can imagine the highest years of your earning life all tied up in Wachovia stock, and to see all that go down the drain, pretty disconcerting, to say the least,” he said. “It wasn’t just United Way. It wasn’t just the bank. It was a combination of those things, along with my own personal situation, given the loss of a significant portion of everything that I had worked for through the years.”

He declined to disclose his salary, which is not among those the bank must report in public regulatory filings.

Evans said he’s proud of being able to help retain employees and clients as Wachovia was being integrated into Wells Fargo. Looking back at his chairing at United Way, Evans said he’s proud that the organization was able to survive through a combination of cost-cutting and using reserves to continue funding the agencies that receive United Way dollars.

“There were so many decisions that were being made in rapid succession,” he said. “As board chair I had to lead every one of those changes. I had to be the principal person for gathering input and leading the board to consensus on every one of those things.”

Evans served on United Way’s board until the end of 2009.

A more mellow banker

Evans said he’s not exactly the same banker he was when he started his career.

Joel Smith, a banking colleague and mentor who began working with Evans in the 1970s, said Evans sometimes became frustrated when waiting for approvals from within the bank to close deals he had put together for commercial clients.

“There is a healthy tension inside of banks between the people who produce business and the people who underwrite,” Smith said. “The only place I ever saw him really show that he was impatient were times when he was so sure that something was done right and he had to keep going back to the well to get approval. And that is common with a lot of bankers.

“He’s as good a banker at what he does as I’ve ever seen,” said Smith, who last worked with Evans 14 years ago. “I can understand why it would be frustrating. He did a lot of deals. He was less patient than most, but he overcame it.”

Evans admits that he would get frustrated while waiting for loan approvals for his clients.

“I would like to think that I’m still as impatient and moving in a positive way to get things done,” he said. “But I have mellowed, and I have learned to not put as much pressure on myself as well as the people around me as I probably did earlier in my career.”

Evans, who owns a home in Charleston, said his home in Charlotte’s Eastover community will remain his primary residence. He said he plans to be active in retirement.

“I would like to serve on some public company and private company boards, which I couldn’t do as an employee of Wells Fargo.

“I will not be one of those people who retires and goes and plays golf every day. Not that I have anything against that. I’m just not built that way.”