Nordquist part of Wells Fargo’s push to mend its reputation

Laurie Nordquist

There are roughly 3,300 Wells Fargo employees working inside retail branches across Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Dakotas and Montana — what the bank now considers its Midwestern region — and Laurie Nordquist assures us that none of them have sales goals. Not one. Likewise, there are no sales goals for managers at Wells Fargo’s 289 branches, which it calls “community banks.”

What’s in place of sales goals? “A lot of positivity,” said Nordquist, CEO of Wells Fargo Minnesota, and Community Banking Upper Midwest Lead Region President, a role she assumed last August. “We really have put in place a culture that says the customer is at the center of everything we do.”

It’s a message of redemption delivered with a dollop of Minnesota Nice. Nordquist is an industry veteran who spent the bulk of her career working inside Wells Fargo’s institutional retirement business, which it sold in 2018. “We stubbed our toe pretty big the last few years,” Nordquist said, a pithy characterization of sales practices the Fed called “pervasive and persistent misconduct,” which led to fines, lawsuits, a Congressional call to account, and limits placed on the institution’s ability to grow.

Its behavior also cost two consecutive CEOs their jobs. And yet the company continues to make money. It earned net income of $5.9 billion in the first quarter of this year and $22.4 billion in all of 2018.

The 59-year-old Nordquist, a product of tiny Elbow Lake, Minn., who studied social work at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., wants to put the bank’s reputational challenges in the past. She’s been engaged in somewhat of a listening tour throughout her region, which until recently included Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. The bank exited those markets (in a deal with Michigan’s Flagstar Financial) because market saturation in those states didn’t meet company objectives.

Her charge as head of community banking has been to re-establish trust with customers and to give employees a reason to be proud of an employer that has, of late, been reduced to a punchline. “I actually view one of our roles on the retail side is to be a feeder of talent to some of the other lines of business,” Nordquist said. In Minnesota, Wells Fargo employees have 55 businesses providing opportunities to grow or advance in their careers. Team development — which includes formal development action plans that ask employees to set forth personal, financial and professional goals, with built-in accountability — is the path for entry-level employees to build a career that keeps them in the wagon.

The approach has had effect. Turnover at the branch level has dropped to 20 percent from 40 percent since news of its sales practices first made headlines. Nordquist called it a key indicator on culture, which is one of a few “soft” metrics used to assess branch success. The other is the decidedly intangible “customer experience.”

To gauge that, Nordquist relies on customer surveys for data and her own ears and eyes as she visits branches from Missoula to Milwaukee. This is where that liberal arts education pays dividends. “With recruiting but also with customers, it is one interaction at a time,” Nordquist said. New hires, predominantly millennials, want to feel a higher purpose in their work. As evidence that employees are finding that purpose at Wells Fargo, Nordquist said the majority of the bank’s new hires come from current employee referrals. “We can say we’ve changed and it’s a different culture, but they’re much more apt to believe it when it’s a friend or relative that says ‘I really like working at Wells Fargo.’”

All other Wells Fargo commentary, whether coming from competitors, the media or pundits, Nordquist dismisses as “noise.”

Nordquist, a product of a small town, said she’s been quite comfortable visiting the branches in her community banking network. She joins the pre-opening team huddle, logs observation time with tellers and personal bankers, chats up the occasional military veteran in for a transaction, and has been pleased with what she’s seen. “We’re hiring more for customer service and financial acumen than around any kind of sales skills,” she said.

When considering Wells Fargo’s “community bank” in towns across the Upper Midwest compared to the locally-owned banks against which they compete, Nordquist said: “There’s a lot more in common than there is different.”