Carl Reichardt is going out on top.

Having returned Wells Fargo & Co. to its strength, the straight-talking Texan is retiring at yearend just as his bank recovers from troubles brought on by the Golden State's Depression-like downturn.

Indeed, the bank's recovery from loan problems have only confirmed his place as one of the nation's smartest, most disciplined bank chairmen and chief executives. It also confirmed his reputation as the businessman banker who puts shareholders first.

That point is best made by the San Francisco-based bank's notable absence from the frenzied mergers and acquisition scene. Despite a surplus of capital and one of the strongest stock prices in the industry, Mr. Reichardt made it clear he would not buy other banks unless his shareholders benefit.

"You can get caught up in the fervor," he said this fall. "Some years ago, we were involved in a bidding war. We had one of those investment bankers with his suspenders and greased-back hair, Rolex, Hermes tie. He said, 'We can get it if we go $1 more per share.' I said, 'No, we aren't going to go $1 more per share. We are not going to go 25 cents. This is it.' "

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