Wells Fargo & Co. said Chairman Richard Kovacevich will step down at the end of this year, making way for chief executive John Stumpf to take over as chairman.

Stumpf, 56 years old, had succeeded Kovacevich two years ago as chief executive of the third-largest U.S. bank in stock-market value, behind JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Bank of America Corp.

Kovacevich, who will be 66 years old next month, will officially retire early next year after 23 years with the company.

Last year, he agreed to continue as chairman for an interim period to focus on the Wells Fargo-Wachovia Corp. merger integration as well as other issues facing the industry. Wells Fargo's size and importance ballooned with its takeover of Wachovia for $12.7 billion in December. Wells Fargo bought Wachovia without any financial assistance from the U.S. government and has since raised all the capital required of it after the government's stress tests earlier this year.

Lead director Phil Quigley praised Kovacevich for overseeing the acquisition of more than 300 financial institutions, including Norwest Corp.'s acquisition of Wells Fargo in 1998, and for pushing for federal laws that made banking more competitive.

Wells Fargo's shares recently traded at $29.47, up 4.2%. The stock is down 16% in the past year.

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