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Wells Fargo Will Take Over 116-Year-Old Bank This Week : Crocker Nearly Gone but Not Forgotten

May 27, 1986|JOHN M. BRODER | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Crocker National Bank had but three weeks to live, and its employees were not about to let it die without a proper send-off.

So they organized a wake at a downtown San Francisco hotel two weeks ago, complete with miniature Lucite tombstones as party favors and the consecration of a Crocker "time capsule" to carry the bank's memory into the vault of history.

The several hundred employees attending filled the capsule, a borrowed coffin, with precious bits of Crocker history--long-forgotten policy manuals, pens and paperweights, dusty photographs and old promotional gimmicks such as stuffed toy "Crocker spaniels."

They drank and they danced, they reminisced and they cried, and at the end of the evening they bade good night to a 116-year-old institution that was born with the transcontinental railway and died in the age of electronic banking and mega-mergers.

Crocker will cease to exist Friday when its acquisition by Wells Fargo & Co. is completed. It will be missed.

"It will be a disappointment to many people to see the Crocker name disappear," Crocker Chairman Frank V. Cahouet said in an interview last week. "But it really won't be forgotten by the old guard in the state, because it has contributed to the success of a lot of companies.

"I'm sorry to see it happen. But that's progress, the change that goes on all the time."

The $1.07-billion merger, the largest in U.S. commercial bank history, joins two banks rich in California history but with very different identities and cultures.

From its founding in 1870 by railroad baron Charles Crocker, Crocker Bank was a conservative institution associated with the elite of California businesses and individuals. It expanded statewide by acquiring 70 smaller banks but for most of its life remained, in essence, a provincial bank.

Crocker changed dramatically in the early 1970s under Chairman Thomas Wilcox, who wanted to make it a major player in global markets. It lent aggressively across the United States and in the Third World to meet Wilcox's goal of a 15% annual growth of assets.

Many observers today say the ultimate failure of that strategy led first to Crocker's 1980 acquisition by London's Midland Bank and then to its recent sale to Wells Fargo.

Wells Fargo Bank is a direct descendant of the Wells Fargo stagecoach and freight-forwarding firm created in 1852 to serve the prospectors and suppliers of the California gold rush.

Under its iron-willed current chairman, Carl E. Reichardt, Wells Fargo has become a highly profitable bank with a tight focus on its core business in California and a passion for efficiency. It is more feared and respected than loved.

Preparing for the melding of the two companies has been the chief challenge that has faced both Crocker and Wells Fargo since the merger was announced Feb. 7. Reichardt has said the merger will be successful only if expensive duplication can be eliminated.

That means closing dozens of branches where service areas overlap and laying off thousands of workers--virtually all Crocker workers--whose jobs will be redundant in the combined company.

Wells Fargo has tightly guarded the locations of the branches to be shuttered--though most of them are expected to be in Northern California--and the number of jobs to be eliminated. Earlier this month, it acknowledged that it would fire two-thirds of Crocker's top 70 executives shortly after the merger is completed.

The bank will reveal the size and shape of the new combined institution on Friday, although it will be months before all of the branches are closed, the workers laid off and the signs changed.

The bank hopes to complete the changeover of customer accounts by the end of the year, including distribution of new checks, credit cards and loan documents. In the interim, Wells Fargo will ask most of its Crocker customers to continue dealing with their old branches.

One knowledgeable California bank analyst said he expects about 100 of the combined bank's 630 branches to be closed. And, in private, Wells Fargo officials do not dispute estimates that as many as 5,000 of the new bank's 26,000 employees will ultimately be fired.

It is clear, too, that the majority of the staff-support jobs at Crocker will disappear. Workers are bracing for the wholesale elimination of departments that provide such support functions as accounting, auditing, legal and governmental relations, personnel, planning and communications.

Branch workers and loan officers, especially in Southern California, are expected to fare better. The chief rationale for the Crocker deal was to expand Wells Fargo's relatively weak presence in the rich Southland banking market.

Suppliers Will Suffer

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