Thousands of employees of Wells Fargo, the San Francisco-based bank, created fake accounts to meet sales goals. More than 2 million deposits and credit card accounts may have been created without customer authorization. And Wells Fargo said it fired 5,300 employees in response to these actions.
How could this massive scam have happened? The financial and reputational ramifications are staggering, and they seem to be just beginning.
The bank must pay $100 million to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a federal consumer watchdog. It also must pay $50 million to the city and county of Los Angeles, along with a $35 million penalty to the office of the Comptroller of the Currency.
Moreover, in a Senate hearing on Capitol Hill last week, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat from Massachusetts, ripped into Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf along with other senators. She accused him of exhibiting “gutless leadership,” demanded that he step down, and contended that he should give up his compensation from last year ($19 million). And on Sept. 27 it was announced that Wells Fargo would claw back compensation from him valued at $41 million.
Even with this chain of events, Stumpf has not shown any sign that he will resign or return any further money to the bank. And no executives have been fired in the bank’s compliance division.
My Experience with Wells Fargo
At the beginning of this year, I got a call from my financial adviser, Chris, at Wells Fargo. Chris informed me that he would be leaving the bank after working there for several years.
I was surprised and curious about what may have prompted this decision, so I arranged to meet up with him for lunch to find out more about his transition.
When we met, he explained that that Wells Fargo’s corporate culture had turned into a business that no longer aligned with his own values. He also suggested that I move my funds to his new bank.
I always have had faith in Chris. In the past, I found that there were more than a few occasions when he could have taken advantage of the market’s chaos to lead me to an action for his own profit, but he never did. And in many other ways he consistently showed the integrity that I value the most in a person I do business with.
I wondered, however, if a move to a different bank would be worth my trouble. I started thinking of all the paperwork involved with transferring funds and the time it would take to get used to a new bank. Also, the bank he was going to was another mega bank that appeared to be no different from Wells Fargo. So what was the point?
After a month of thinking this through, I finally decided that I should go with him. To my surprise, I started seeing articles on Wells Fargo about a harsh culture with extremely high sales pressure just a few months after I withdrew my funds from the bank.
3 Reasons for the Bank’s Fall
My personal experience with Wells Fargo gave me an opportunity to really think about banks. What criteria should I look for in my bank? What’s the value of a financial adviser? Furthermore, with banks’ changing role and value, how much importance would they even have in the near future?
These questions also led me to think on the real reasons why Wells Fargo’s fall happened. As a former customer of Wells Fargo and a professional specializing in building sustainable organizations, I have developed three perspectives on this fall.
Reason 1. Lack of Accountability
Consumers must be able to trust their banks, and a healthy economy must be built upon a strong foundation of banking. In order to maintain this, there should be a system in place to monitor and penalize misconduct against customers being violated and taken advantage of by their banks.
According to Wells Fargo’s vision and values, one of its five primary values is ethics. Apparently, though, it’s not a value that is respected. A recent CNN Money report documents that there are a handful of employees who did flag improper sales tactics, but they ultimately ended up being fired.
This retaliation is shameful. Wells Fargo has set up an ethics hotline and implemented various training on ethics. The bank, however, punished the employees who did the right thing and reported wrongdoing in the company. The bank also drove away employees, like my financial adviser, who had had enough of the bank’s seemingly harsh and unfair practices.
When I considered changing my bank, what eventually made me decide was my adviser’s integrity. Without the sense of trust I had in him, I would not have moved my account. We all should have this trust in our financial institution when we are depending on them to safeguard our hard-earned money.
Reason 2. Lack of Vision
As with the transformation of other business sectors, massive technology advancement has played a major role in driving new products and business models over the last decade, and this has also been the case in banking.
We have seen how “fintech” start-ups have begun to disrupt the old way of doing business and bring about much needed efficiency in banking. This has been spotlighted in such reports as McKinsey’s “The Bank of the Future” report, which explores how digitization is challenging the fundamental ways that banks operate.
Innovation, in fact, is seen as one of the single most important factors driving sustainable growth in banking in the near future. In a PriceWaterhouse report titled “Retail Banking 2020,” innovation within the banking industry is considered to be somewhat or very important by 87% of the respondents who were surveyed. However, only 11% said that banks are prepared for this. Apparently, there is a considerable gap between consumers’ expectations in this area and banking leaders’ progress in bringing innovation to the future of banking.
Wells Fargo’s leadership could have nurtured an environment where innovation and new ideas are appreciated, and where they created the foundation for new products and services. Instead, Wells Fargo’s leadership focused on cross-selling and drove thousands of employees to engage in “inappropriate sales conduct” with their customers.
Reason 3. Lack of Awareness
As discussed for Reason 1, the root cause of this scandal goes back to a lack of accountability within the organization. But I would also like to make the point that the accountability of Wells Fargo’s external stakeholders, such as customers and investors like you and me, has been extremely lacking.
According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, Wells Fargo is the king of consumer cross-selling among big American banks. But why you may ask does Wells Fargo’s leadership have this focus on cross-selling?
One reason is because their focus seems too concentrated on short-term gain. In cross-selling, customer acquisition is quicker, and acquisition costs are lower. With these kinds of results, the bank was able to report to investors that it was profitable because its cross-selling strategy had been successful.
Carrie Tolstedt, a former head of the company’s community banking unit, received more than $20 million in annual bonuses from 2010 to 2015 based upon “strong cross-sell ratios.” She was about to walk away with $124 million while 5,300 employees were fired and their careers jeopardized under her leadership. On Sept. 27, though, it was announced that she would have to surrender stock grants valued at about $19 million.
As customers and investors, we need to demand more transparency from banks or any other companies that we associate with. We need to know if their metrics for success are based upon not only on a short-term vision but long-term one. We need to see how they are evaluating their success and if there are any mechanisms to capture them.
We also need to raise the bar for the organization’s corporate governance. This has become more important than ever before when we invest. One of Wells Fargo’s six priorities is “living our vision and values” but, we need to see how they are monitoring this and how internal policies are set.
Finally I wonder what Warren Buffett is thinking of all this right now. His company, Berkshire Hathaway, is the bank’s single largest shareholder, with 9.4% of the company, and he lost $1.4 billion when Wells Fargo’s shares dipped 3.3% last week.
This is not a small loss for him to make sense of, and the whole scandal is not a small matter for all of us try to understand.