In a move that alarmed Wall Street, William F. Zuendt, Wells Fargo & Co.'s president and well-regarded retail strategist, said Wednesday he would retire this year.
Mr. Zuendt, 50, a 24-year veteran of the bank, has been a vice chairman since 1986. He was considered the most likely successor to chief executive officer Paul Hazen, 55.
He plans to resign from the board of directors in July and stay on as president as long as necessary, probably leaving before yearend, Mr. Zuendt said in an interview Wednesday.
"I look at the decision as being five years late," Mr. Zuendt said. "I had originally planned to retire at the age of 45."
The stock market reacted negatively to the news; Wells' share price dropped $7.625 Wednesday, to $258. That decline came on top of a 5% plunge Monday, after investor Warren Buffett cut back his stake in the company.
Mr. Zuendt's departure was described as "a loss" by bank analysts. Raphael Soifer of Brown Brothers, Harriman & Co. called Mr. Zuendt "one of the most insightful, strategic figures in the industry, and Wells' success over all these years reflected that."
Speculation focused on whether the so far unsuccessful integration of First Interstate Bancorp, acquired last year, had prompted the move. Mr. Zuendt was in charge of the integration.
"Did Hazen want to chop somebody's head off and make him the fall guy for their problems with First Interstate?" asked Thomas Theurkauf, analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. "Clearly, there's a temptation to draw some linkage here, but we don't know that. What we do know is that Wells has its hands full with this merger."
Mr. Zuendt dismissed such speculation. He said he had put off his retirement due to events at the bank, including coping with the commercial real estate crash in the early 1990s, becoming president in 1995, and then the First Interstate deal.
"Yes, there were problems with First Interstate, as there inevitably are when you try to move something that big that fast," he said. "But that's been done for several months now, so, no, that is not an issue."
Analysts also said that Mr. Zuendt may have concluded that he has risen as far as possible within the bank. Though he is the No. 2 official, he is considered in many ways Mr. Hazen's peer. They are only five years apart in age, and Mr. Hazen has no plan to retire any time soon, analysts said.
Mr. Zuendt said he has harbored no aspiration to run the bank, stating again that he had hoped to retire five years ago.
"I don't think that Wells gains anything by Bill Zuendt leaving," said Mr. Soifer. "Quite the contrary, in fact, and I think Paul (Hazen) would agree with that."
Mr. Hazen also announced Wednesday a new senior management structure, whose main feature is the creation of a four-member team called the office of the chairman.
The structure is organized along four customer segments:
Consumer and small-business banking, headed by vice chairman Terri Dial.
Investment groups, headed by vice chairman Clyde Ostler.
Wholesale banking, headed by vice chairman Charles Johnson.
Finance and operations, headed by vice chairman and chief financial officer Rodney Jacobs.
Ms. Dial, who became a vice chairman about a year ago, was considered the big winner in the shake-up, analysts said, because the retail business will now report to her.
"We need to have a strong management team at the top of the company, working together to provide direction," Mr. Hazen wrote in a memo to employees, explaining the changes.
In addition, Joseph Stiglitz, executive vice president in charge of retail, was promoted to vice chairman and will report to Ms. Dial.
Another executive vice president, David Hoyt, was also promoted to vice chairman. He is in charge of real estate, international, and capital markets and will report to Mr. Johnson.
Mr. Zuendt joined the bank in 1973, in the computer systems and operations department, fresh from getting a master's degree in business administration at Stanford University.
In 1980 he became executive vice president of retail banking, and six years later he was promoted to vice chairman. He was named president in January 1995.
Analysts said he should get most of the credit for shaping the bank's retail approach, considered the most innovative in the industry because of its aggressive use of supermarket branches and ATMs.
After retiring, Mr. Zuendt and his wife plan to buy a Volkswagen camper and tour all the country's national parks, a trip that should take about a year, he said.
He may eventually consider a second career but not in banking, he said, probably in technology.