A contrite Edward E. Crutchfield went to Wall Street on Wednesday to reiterate revenue goals for First Union Corp. and ask for time to correct mistakes.
"I know we have disappointed you this year with our downward revisions of earnings," the First Union chairman and chief executive officer told banking analysts in New York. "I can assure you we have disappointed ourselves even more. I ask you to focus on the future rather than the past."
The meeting came six days after the Charlotte, N.C., banking company announced that John R. Georgius, its president and chief operating officer, would leave at yearend. Wall Street, which had been expecting a more sweeping management shake-up last week, was disappointed again.
Many analysts said they were unimpressed by the meeting and were surprised by the amount of time executives spent touting the Future Bank initiative, an effort to emphasize electronic banking and product sales over traditional teller transactions. All six executives who made presentations during the three-hour meeting touched on the topic.
First Union stock dropped $1.6875 on Wednesday, including a 50-cent decline before the meeting. It closed at $44.5625, down 3.65%.
Ronald I. Mandle, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein in New York, called the conference "much ado about nothing."
But, he added, "First Union is too cheap to be negative on. It's not a table pounder. If they put together a few quarters of earnings growth, (then) at this point, the stock looks very interesting."
During the briefing, Mr. Crutchfield and other top executives stressed objectives for the next three years: a 15% annual gain in top-line growth; boosting revenue from nontraditional businesses to 50% of total revenues; and ramping up the contribution from investment banking to 38% of capital markets revenues compared with 16% last year.
Analysts continue to voice doubts about the Future Bank initiative. Katrina Blecher of Brown Brothers Harriman said the $230 billion-asset company was not alone in its drive to replace costly branches with technology, but like other firms that have embraced automated service, she said, First Union may have been too ambitious.
"It is very difficult to change consumer behavior. To shift them to a phone bank ... it takes employee training and time for consumers to become comfortable with the new method," Ms. Blecher said. "Some banks have been hoping for too much too soon."
During his presentation, Mr. Crutchfield sounded alternately hopeful and defiant as he addressed the problems that have arisen with the integration of CoreStates Financial Corp. and Money Store.
"I'm not one who likes to go to bed looking back at the things I've done wrong," Mr. Crutchfield said during a question-and-answer session.
But when pressed by analysts on the impact of integration issues and earnings revisions at the bank, he squarely took the blame.
"I take accountability and responsibility for it," he said. "We had a whole lot on our plate in 1998: our future bank initiative, our acquisition of CoreStates ... and yet we had hopes in 1998 of a very aggressive number- that we'd be up 10% on top of that."
Mr. Crutchfield said integration problems were chiefly to blame for two earnings revisions earlier this year. Those problems, he said, were "once in a lifetime" events.
Nevertheless, analysts said they were still in the dark as to how earnings were so badly misjudged and how the company would manage to turn itself around.
They also suggested that the appointment of capital markets chief G. Kennedy Thompson to Mr. Georgius' job as the No. 2 executive may not be enough to restore confidence in the bank.
"If you haven't seen any movement in the stock at this point, any movement regarding this promotion has played itself out," said Ms. Blecher.
In an interview after the presentation, Mr. Thompson conceded that Future Bank may have been rushed.
He said that the retail revamping was a 24-month project that the company attempted to complete in only 12 months. "It resulted in some problems," he said. "But ... we're already wrestling service issues to the ground. We're not wedded to any strategy. We are willing to make changes."
As for his new role, Mr. Thompson promised "the first thing I'm going to do is continue the strategies we have in place.
"We fully expect to meet projections we put out. I plan on spending a lot of time in every unit in our company as we go through the budget."
During the presentation, Mr. Georgius said he had been asked by Mr. Crutchfield to ready the company for the future. "During the last 18 years we didn't have it exactly where we wanted it," he said.