It was a year ago last month that then-Wells Fargo employee Tyrel Oates went from obscurity to national headlines thanks to a letter he wrote asking CEO John Stumpf to give every Wells employee a raise.
I got the chance to ask Stumpf about that letter last week while he was in town to visit with employees and customers of the San Francisco-based bank. The CEO since 2007 defended the bank’s compensation practices.
“To get the best team, you have to be competitive in your compensation, your benefits, in the work that people do, in their advancement opportunities,” Stumpf said. “And we think we do all of that. In fact, when we open jobs up and look for team members, we are oversubscribed in a big way.”
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Oates, who left the company earlier this year, thought Wells Fargo should be doing more.
He had called on Stumpf to help reduce income inequality in the U.S. by giving each Wells Fargo employee a $10,000 raise. And Oates didn’t stop there – he said he emailed the letter to about 200,000 Wells Fargo employees.
Oates said he made just more than $15 an hour as a full-time Wells Fargo employee working 40 hours a week, five days a week, not counting mandatory overtime. His job was to process requests from Wells customers seeking to stop debt-collection calls.
An online petition for his proposal has drawn more than 4,500 signatures. Oates, meanwhile, told the Observer this spring he was leaving the bank so he could devote more time to studying for a planned career in agriculture.
Stumpf told me he encourages Wells Fargo employees to submit suggestions to him.
“It’s part of our culture,” Stumpf said. “Not every suggestion makes sense. Not every one is a good idea. But they’re all appreciated.”
When it comes to pay, Wells Fargo already takes steps to be competitive, he said, noting that the bank monitors what other financial services companies pay in salaries. Last year, 40,000 Wells employees received promotions of various types that came with increased compensation and responsibilities, he said.
“We think that makes sense, as opposed to a carte blanche deal where it’s unrelated to performance, merit and really not keeping with our comp policies and paying for market rates for people,” Stumpf said.
Wells Fargo employs about 23,600 in the Charlotte metropolitan area, its biggest employment hub.
I also asked Stumpf to discuss rising income inequality, a subject that concerns economists and policymakers. Last year, Stumpf had total compensation of $21.4 million, up about 11 percent from the year before, according to a securities filing.
Stumpf responded by pointing out that he was one of 11 children who grew up on his family’s Minnesota dairy farm.
“I am not naive to the challenges that working families have,” he said.
“We teetered between bankruptcy and failure till I left home after high school. I don’t need to go do a focus group to find out what’s happening in America. I just go to a family reunion, because I have family members on every rung of the economic ladder.”