By Rey Mashayekhi
April 4, 2019

Depending who you ask, ex-Wells Fargo CEO Tim Sloan was either fair game to be fired—or unfairly faced a firing squad.

Sloan, who took over at the scandal-plagued bank from John Stumpf three years ago, announced last Thursday that he was retiring as Wells Fargo CEO and president, effective immediately. It was the culmination of months of pressure on the 31-year company veteran who recently faced a brutal four-hour grilling on Capital Hill by the House Financial Services Committee, was widely derided for receiving total compensation in excess of $18 million in 2018, and was dogged by reports that his board of directors was looking elsewhere for a new CEO.

Those cheering his departure did not hold back. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tweeted that it was “about damn time,” and called on the Securities and Exchange Commission and Department of Justice to investigate Sloan “for his role in all the Wells Fargo scams.” She followed with an op-ed in the Washington Post excoriating CEOs like Sloan and proposing legislation that would make it easier to criminally charge and jail “negligent” corporate executives for wrongdoing. “If top executives knew they would be hauled out in handcuffs for failing to reasonably oversee the companies they run, they would have a real incentive to better monitor their operations and snuff out any wrongdoing before it got out of hand,” she wrote.

Others, however, feel that Sloan was unfairly scapegoated by politicians who, buoyed by a new election cycle, are overstepping their bounds and shortsightedly interfering with the affairs of corporate America. “I do see [Sloan] very much as a sacrificial lamb for Elizabeth Warren’s crusade,” says Renny Ponvert, the CEO of independent research firm Management CV, which analyzes executives teams for institutional investors. In Ponvert’s view, the lawmakers who targeted Sloan have been “very reactive about stuff that really should be properly blamed on John Stumpf.”

He notes that the bank’s 110-page independent investigation into its retail sales practices found that Sloan “was not aware of the magnitude of the issues [at Wells Fargo] or of their potential to cause customer harm.” And, in Ponvert’s view, Sloan had done well in his attempts to get Wells Fargo back on track after its avalanche of issues—having pursued a number of changes to the bank’s corporate culture and risk profile that put it on “a very solid trajectory” moving forward.

Sloan also looked to alter Wells Fargo’s organizational structure, bringing in outsiders like chief compliance officer Mike Roemer, from Barclays, and chief risk officer Mandy Norton, from JPMorgan Chase, to reform “arguably the most sensitive parts of his organization,” Ponvert says. “You’ve got to be careful not to penalize the people who are put in the role of fixing their predecessors’ problems,” he adds. “If you do that, it starts to look like the political system, where it’s a big blame game and whoever’s in charge gets pilloried for what happened previously.”

A Culture Issue

Part of the issue, say observers, is that Sloan has been inside the bank for so long. David Tawil, the co-founder and president of corporate turnaround-focused hedge fund Maglan Capital, says that the “multiple instances of failure” that have emerged at the bank in recent years—including activities that took place under Sloan’s leadership—were simply too much to ignore. “Frankly, I think he should have been taken out a lot earlier,” Tawil says. “Someone has to change the culture there, because there’s clearly something wrong.”

He adds that in a post-recession world where “no [Wall Street] executives were criminally indicted” for their role in the financial crisis, there is still a great deal of “pent-up anger against the financial sector in terms of accountability—especially at the top.”

Despite Sloan being largely exonerated by Wells Fargo’s independent investigation into the fake accounts scandal, he was still “viewed as part of the problem” given his three-decade tenure at the institution, says Robert R. Johnson, a professor of finance at Creighton University’s Heider College of Business. “He was part of the management team that was in place when the bank’s problems began.” (Neither Sloan nor representatives for Wells Fargo returned requests for comment for this story.)

One thing all observers can agree on is that Wells Fargo desperately needs an outsider to fill the CEO role—but it’s not clear that it’s a job any prime candidate wants. Regardless, with the search process expected to take months—and a new chief executive needing months more to assess the situation and implement their vision—it’s clear that this is yet another major setback for the San Francisco-based bank. “This is going to set [Wells Fargo] back something like nine-to-12 months in terms of its operating progress,” Ponvert notes.

It may not be jail time, but it’s still a sentence.

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