The abrupt retirement announcement of William F. Zuendt, Wells Fargo & Co.'s technology czar-turned-president, marks not only a changing of the guard at the San Francisco-based bank, but also arguably signals an incoming wave of tough times for a bank that has grown accustomed to smooth sailing.

Until its merger with First Interstate, many U.S. banks suffered from what could be termed "Wells Envy." No surprise; for years, Wells Fargo appeared to be in a class all its own, outperforming other banks by dramatic margins. Stringent cost-cutting initiatives, aggressive investment in technology (overly ambitious, by some accounts) and an almost militaristic approach to the marketplace translated into tremendous shareholder value. So much so that the institution came to epitomize banking's most powerful-and profitable-force.

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