WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- When John G. Medlin Jr. speaks, even the President of the United States listens.

Wachovia Corp.'s chairman and chief executive was among the select group of bankers President Bush summoned last year to discuss how to make credit more readily available. Mr. Medlin advised the president to stop referring to a "credi crunch" and Mr. Bush obliged -- at least for a while.

To say that Mr. Medlin commands respect is an understatement. He is consistently ranked as the nation's top banker by business magazines and corporate treasurers. Even George Salem, an analyst renowened for his harsh criticisms of the banking industry, admires the man, referring to him as "my idol."

But Wachovia, with $32.2 billion in assets, cannot count on Mr. Medlin's wisdom and leadership to guide the company into the 21st century. The 58-year-old executive is scheduled to retire in four years, and he hints that he may step down even before then.

"Organizations like this probably need to be run by people who are going to be around in the next century," Mr. Medlin says. "They've got a longer horizon that drives them in the decisions they make."

Mr. Medlin says a succession plan is in place but declines to name his replacement. The leading candidate is considered to be L.M. "Bud" Baker Jr., 50, the president and chief executive officer of Wachovia's North Carolina bank.

There are at least three other strong contenders among the nine top executives reporting directly to Mr. Medlin, and all are in their 50s or late 40s.

Tough Shoes to Fill

But none of these candidates are considered of equal stature to Mr. Medlin.

"It'll be like Johnny Carson stepping down," Mr. Salem says.

Mr. Medlin insists he is still very much in command. In fact, he's still willing to make acquisitions.

"If there's time to do [a deal] and there's one that ought to be done, we'll do it," he says. "My leaving or staying wouldn't have any impact on that."

Of interest to Mr. Medlin are banking companies in neighboring Virginia, Alabama, and Tennessee. He says he would also consider entering Florida, but it ranks low on his list of priorities.

"In Florida, you'd have to think about the prospect of competing with three or four 800-pound gorillas," Mr. Medlin says. "It's the only place in the Southeast that you encounter all your major competitors."

Asked about speculation that Wachovia might make a bid for Barnett Banks Inc., Florida's biggest bank, Mr. Medlin replies: "Barnett would be probably more than we ought to undertake."

Keeping Up with the Pack

Wachovia, like its peers, must grapple with a period of unprecedented industry consolidation. Since last year, mergers have multiplied at a dizzying rate as the dominant regionals stake out their territorial claims.

Wachovia has taken a more conservative approach to growth than the other two large North Carolina banks -- NationsBank Corp. and First Union Corp.

But even Wachovia has felt the competitive pressure to keep up with the pack. Last year, it purchased a $7.1 billion-asset banking company in South Carolina.

But Mr. Medlin vows he will never sacrifice quality for growth.

"I learned long ago that one of the few ways you can distinguish yourself in banking is quality," Mr. Medlin says.

No Interest in 'Being Average'

"Being average is to be as close to the bottom as the top, so you want to be in the upper quartile if you really want to distinguish yourself."

There's no question Wachovia outshines its competitors by most indices of quality and financial strength. During the past five years, it earned a 1.04% average return on assets, a key gauge of profitability, compared with an average 0.66% at the nation's 25 largest banks and an average 0.90% at the five top southeastern superregionals.

Its ratio of nonperforming assets to total loans and foreclosed real estate was 1.50% at yearend, the best performance among the top 25. It ranked No. 8 in market capitalization, even though it was only No. 19 in asset size.

Keeper of the Flame

To be sure, Wachovia already was a stellar performer when Mr. Medlin took over as chief executive. His predecessors had already built the company into North Carolina's strongest financial institution. Mr. Medlin's job was to maintain the quality edge while expanding into neighboring states.

"He basically absorbed the culture of the organization and perpetuated it," said retired chief financial officer H. Jack Runnion.

The culture begins in the executive suite. Mr. Medlin, who is only the fourth CEO since Wachovia Bank & Trust Co. was formed in 1911, still uses the dark mahogany desk originally occupied by Francis Fries, the company's first leader.

"It's a good-luck piece. We're afraid now to change desks," says Mr. Medlin, displaying his characteristic dry humor.

Decades on the Job

Raised on a farm in eastern North Carolina, Mr. Medlin has spent virtually his entire career at Wachovia.

After graduating in 1956 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a bachelor's degree in business administration, he spent three years in the Navy as a supply officer on a submarine tender and destroyer. Three years later, he joined Wachovia as management trainee.

Working his way up through the ranks, Mr. Medlin was named CEO in 1977 and chairman 10 years later.

Co-workers say Mr. Medlin climbed to the top by dint of his relentless hard work and self-discipline. "He's usually the kind of guy who's the first one to work and the last one to leave," says Mr. Runnion.

Compassion to the Limits

If Mr. Medlin has any fault, Mr. Runnion adds, it's a tendency to spread himself too thin and give subordinates too much slack. "If he has a weak department head or something, out of compassion he'll probably go longer than would be good for remedying the situation," Mr. Runnion says.

The later years of Mr. Medlin's tenure coincided with the falling of barriers to interstate banking in the southeast.

In 1985, Wachovia made the greatest strategic move in its history by leapfrogging South Carolina to acquire First Atlanta Corp., which added $7.8 billion in assets.

Late last year, Wachovia filled in the gap by purchasing South Carolina National Corp.

The deliberate approach is typical of Mr. Medlin. The executive has never aspired to extend the Wachovia retail franchise outside the Southeast, although the company does offer corporate lending, cash management, trust services, and student loan services nationwide.

Mr. Medlin says building a national bank is a job "for the next generation. I don't think it's possible to get there expanding from this base."

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