SAN FRANCISCO -- Carl E. Reichardt's announcement that he will step down at yearend as Wells Fargo & Co.'s chairman and chief executive caps the career of a man who epitomized what it took to succeed in an era when banking got tough.

"Carl was clearly a pivotal figure in the banking business," said BankAmerica Corp. vice chairman Lewis W. Coleman, who worked with Mr. Reichardt at Wells.

The Texas native joined Wells in 1970 to manage its real estate investment trust. He took the top job 13 years later, when banking still had a patrician air and most executives believed the rules of the game were fixed and their markets protected.

But change was washing over the industry. Interest rate deregulation, interstate expansion, and the breakdown of barriers between banking-and other financial services were generating unprecedented levels of competition.

Carl Reichardt was the right executive for such a time.

Unsentimental, unmoved by precedent, tradition or status, and with his eyes glued to the bottom line, Mr. Reichardt coolly reexamined the industry's most basic assumptions. Nothing was sacred, not even Wells' status as a bank company: Last year, he explored converting Wells to a thrift charter to see if such a move would let him sell more products to customers.

"He put a discipline in the industry. that had largely been missing," said CS First Boston's Thomas H. Hanley.

The principles that Mr. Reichardt championed are not complicated; most are basic, sound business practices.

"I've never been a banker - I'm a businessman," Wells' chief declared in a conversation with reporters on Tuesday.

Lean, Mean, and Ugly

Mr. Reichardt was not an easy boss. He demanded results and those who did not produce could count on being shown the exit. "I don't apologize for my shareholder approach," he said.

He made Wells Fargo the lowest-cost banking institution in its market by slashing jobs, automating and centralizing operations, and setting strict spending limits. While other banks built soaring and expensive office towers, he bragged that Wells had the ugliest headquarters in San Francisco.

His 1986 purchase of crosstown rival Crocker National Corp. is viewed as the model for effective in-market mergers.

Under his command, Wells has gone as far as any bank in the business in turning its branches into stripped-down sales platforms wholly dedicated to producing revenue.

Mr. Reichardt's credit philosophy, learned as a real estate lender with Union Bank in Los Angeles during the 1960s, was not to chase deals, but to do business with the best people.

That's not to say Mr.. ReiChardt hasn't occasionally blundered. He got caught up in industry crazes such as lending to developing countries and financing leveraged deals.

And he admits that at the beginning of the 1990s Wells was too heavily concentrated in commercial real estate lending for investors or regulators to accept, though he insists the underlying credits were sound.

Wells' exposure to California real estate forced huge reserves, virtually wiping out profits at the beginning of the decade. Analysts raised questions about Mr. Reichardt's judgment, and short-sellers made Wells their favorite banking target.

But in the final analysis Wells' real estate losses were relatively small. The bank has come roaring back stronger and more profitable than ever, its stock tripling in value over three years.

Mr. Reichardt has been vindicated. At age 63, he can retire a few years early with his reputation fully restored and his portfolio enriched by high-flying Wells stock.

"Carl has always had marvelous timing," commented. Wells president Paul Hazen, the long-time colleague who will succeed Mr. Reichardt at the end of December.

For his part, Mr. Reichardt said he detests the idea of becoming the kind of CEO who hangs on past his time.

"I've accomplished what I thought should be accomplished," he reflected. "There is not a whole lot left for me."

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