In a ballroom at the Phoenix Hilton in July, Mary Mack gripped a microphone and listened intently as Wells Fargo managers asked difficult questions about the phony-accounts scandal at the nation’s third-largest bank.
“Will senior leadership really support a change away from aggressive sales?”
“Will regional presidents be consistent in rolling out the new turnaround plan?”
“How can the retail branches regain the trust of customers?”
The questions cut to the heart of the challenges facing Mack.
She became head of community banking at Wells in July 2016, just weeks before regulators disclosed that thousands of employees opened more than 2 million fake accounts in order to hit sales targets set by management.
In late August this year, Wells said that it had uncovered as many as 1.4 million more fake accounts dating to 2009, an increase of 67% from its original estimate.
It has fallen on Mack, a 33-year banking veteran who previously served as head of the brokerage unit, to convince front-line employees — along with customers and regulators — that Wells is a changed company.
Over the past year, Mack has headlined 54 town hall meetings in 30 cities. She has crisscrossed the country from Sacramento to Grand Prairie, Tex., and Minneapolis to Miami, on a “listening tour,” to hear employees’ ideas on how to move forward from a scandal that resulted in $190 million in penalties, cost former Chairman and Chief Executive John Stumpf his job and decimated Wells’ once-sterling reputation.
“I came in at a really difficult time for the institution,” said Mack.
“We knew we had broken trust with customers and team members. So I started immediately doing what I knew how to do, which was to listen to team members, to show them we were on their side.”
Many of those employees resent that executives and managers for years raked in huge bonuses tied to strong cross-selling and benefited from the company’s rising stock price.
At the same time, lower-level employees were threatened with losing their jobs for falling short of sales targets. More than 5,300 front-line employees were fired for opening phony accounts — often under pressure from their bosses — as were some of the hundreds of whistleblowers who reported the fraud.
David Carroll, Mack’s former boss who retired this year as head of wealth and investment management at Wells, said that sometimes “bad things can happen to good companies.”
But even he acknowledged that Wells’ transgressions seemed particularly egregious due to the level of deception. “People will forgive monumentally bad business decisions, but this one was different because of ethics,” he said.
Still, Carroll and other current and former Wells officials said that if anyone within the company can fix what ails its retail bank and rebuild morale among the 75,000 employees, it’s Mack. “She is one of the most charming people; she puts others at ease,” said Carroll. “But she’s also eerily smart and extremely quick.”
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“Taking action is so critical to who she is,” added David Kowach, who replaced Mack last year as the head of Wells Fargo Advisors. “She has a good way about her of being able to listen, show care and concern, and rally people around her.”
The most tangible action Mack has taken has been dismantling a sales culture that had defined Wells and its predecessor, Norwest, for decades.
Last fall she eliminated Wells’ controversial sales goals and created a new rewards program based on what customers tell the bank about their experiences in weekly surveys. More recently, she rolled out an initiative called “Change for the Better” that involves simplifying basic bank tasks such as how fees are refunded, how service issues are handled at branches, and how tellers and bankers have financial conversations with customers.
Mack also has improved the lines of communication between upper management and front-line employees.
She posts monthly videos on the bank’s intranet, started an internal communications campaign, #TellMeSomethingGood, and created an app so that employees could send her questions to answer in meetings on her cross-country tours.
“Change of this magnitude is hard,” said Laurey Cosentino, a 19-year industry veteran who is now customer and branch experience executive, one of several new positions Mack created within the retail bank. “The culture is changing and these are the strategies to ensure this change sticks.”
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Mack got her start in banking after graduating from Davidson College in North Carolina. She worked her way up from a training program at First Union National Bank, first as a commercial banker, then as managing director of health care corporate banking. When First Union merged with Wachovia in 2001, Mack was a regional president.
She had a variety of roles at Wachovia, at one point serving as senior ombudsman, before joining the leadership of the brokerage business in 2006. Among her key initiatives in that role was fostering greater collaboration with the retail bank in an effort to encourage more cross-selling of brokerage services.
By 2008, when the financial crisis hit and Wachovia was teetering on the brink of failure, Wells swooped in at the last second to buy it for $15.1 billion, and Mack became head of brokerage services for Wells’ new Eastern region.
In 2014, Carroll tapped Mack to take over Wells’ broker-dealer business, which was shifting from a focus on sales to one based on customer relationships, a change similar to the current shift in its retail bank. It was a fairly radical change, and much as she did when she became head of the retail bank, she communicated directly with and sought feedback from the rank-and-file staffers.
“She won plaudits from a pretty cranky group of people,” Carroll said. “She won people over personally first, which then gave her the street cred to get a line on strategy.”
One of Mack’s biggest tasks in her new role is overcoming doubts that a longtime Wells insider such as herself could bring about the change necessary to rebuild the bank’s reputation.
“It’s a fair question and one I thought a lot about when they asked me to take on this challenge,” she said in online forum last year. Her decision to take the job was motivated by a desire “to leave this place — whether in my professional life or personal life — a better place than I found it,” she said.
Michelle Lee, a direct report of Mack’s who over the summer joined her boss for a meeting with 850 district managers, said that, in her view, Mack was the perfect choice to motivate the workforce and lead the transformation of the bank.
“I have tremendous respect and regard for her,” said Lee, Wells’ Eastern regional banking executive, who oversees 32,000 employees.
“I’m inspired to run through a brick wall.”