Since he joined Norwest Corp. as vice chairman in 1986, Richard M. Kovacevich has never considered it a priority to join the ranks of top corporate banks.
The Norwest retail bias could become even more pronounced as the Minneapolis company combines with Wells Fargo & Co., which has similarly favored the consumer and middle markets over corporate finance.
Unlike the products of other recent megamerger agreements, the new Wells Fargo would have more than half its loans in the consumer sector. And that is just fine with Mr. Kovacevich, chairman of Norwest and designated president and chief executive officer of the post-merger Wells Fargo.
"We're going to be a financial services provider," Mr. Kovacevich said in an interview Tuesday. "That includes commercial banking, but a very, very, very small part of it will be investment banking.
"Just because you don't underwrite equity doesn't mean you can't be a commercial lender," he said.
The emphasis on retail banking would make the new Wells a breed apart. Banc One Corp. when combined with First Chicago NBD Corp., and BankAmerica Corp. with NationsBank Corp., would have more corporate than consumer loans on their books.
The same is true for the recently merged First Union Corp. and CoreStates Financial Corp.
Each has moved or is moving aggressively to add sophisticated corporate finance services, ranging from syndicated lending to securities underwriting. Executives at these institutions say the broader services are necessary to secure relationships with corporate clients.
Citicorp, for years considered the consummate retail bank, would go down that road as it joins forces with Travelers Corp., parent of Salomon Smith Barney. When announcing that deal in April, Citicorp chairman John S. Reed- who had long resisted moving into investment banking-said Salomon's underwriting prowess "would solidify the bank franchise."
The new Wells Fargo, however, will probably stick to what has brought both itself and Norwest the most success: retail banking, consumer finance, and mortgage lending.
"If Wells and Norwest continue to focus on what they do well, they don't need capital markets, corporate finance, or investment banking capabilities," said Charles B. Wendel, president of Financial Institutions Consulting in New York. "They aren't going to stick their toe into something and do a suboptimal job in an area where they don't have expertise."
Some disagree, saying the corporate side should not get short shrift at a banking company that would have $191 billion of assets, one million small-business customers, 23,000 midsize business customers, and 2,700 large corporate customers.
As business clients grow, they will demand the same Wall Street-style services their larger brethren employ, observers said.
"Sophisticated financing and risk management skills will become increasingly relevant to the middle market," said James McCormick, president of First Manhattan Consulting Group, New York. "Banks without those arrows in their quiver will be disadvantaged to some degree."
Companies that earn $10 million to $100 million in annual revenue will look to their banks for such services as merger and acquisition advice, mezzanine financing, and initial public offerings, Mr. McCormick said. If their banks cannot help, they will look elsewhere, he said.
In an interview last week, Mr. Kovacevich said he would like to apply Norwest's vaunted cross-selling skills to commercial as well as retail customers. On average, Norwest sells three products to each commercial customer, but Mr. Kovacevich said he would like to increase that number to nine.
"We found out the other day that only 4% of our commercial customers have 401(k)s with us," he said. "Well, that's shameful."
Selling investment banking services is not part of the game plan.
"The culture of the business is such that it would be very difficult to integrate," Mr. Kovacevich said. "We are relationship oriented-not transaction oriented."
Investment banking is "a business that conceivably you either do something for somebody, or you don't do something for somebody and you disappoint them, then it can hurt your other relationships."
San Francisco-based Wells has also shied from large corporate finance and focused on more traditional lending to midsize and small businesses. It is the only banking company among the top 25 that has not asked the Federal Reserve Board for section 20 underwriting powers.
Norwest and Wells Fargo have not offered the full panoply of corporate finance services because customers have not demanded it, say people who know the companies. And the new Wells is not likely to suddenly change course.
"You have to have a lot of pieces in place before you move into this area," said R. Jay Tejera, an analyst at Dain Rauscher Inc., Minneapolis.
Frank Barkocy, an analyst at Josephthal & Co., said Mr. Kovacevich transformed a traditional commercial bank into one that acts more like a national retailer. As a result, Norwest does not "really need to compete in perhaps one of the most competitive markets-going after big loans."