With Wachovia, Wells Fargo finds new hitching post in East

Looking across a glistening Biscayne Bay on a recent chilly morning, Wells Fargo & Co. Chairman and Chief Executive John Stumpf pointed east and asked, "What's that, over there?"

It was South Beach.

"Never been there," said Stumpf, a lean, silvery-haired man with leading-man good looks.

It's not surprising that Stumpf had a little trouble getting his bearings. He and his San-Francisco-based bank are among the newcomers that are changing the face of Florida banking as the financial upheaval of the past two years spawns mergers and acquisitions here and nationwide.

Stumpf was in town to preside over Wells Fargo's first board meeting in Miami. The choice of location was a testament to the bank's new focus on Florida now that it owns Wachovia Corp.

The Wachovia acquisition — hurriedly forged during the financial meltdown in October 2008 — doubled Wells Fargo's size and gave it a mirror image banking network in the East to match its muscle out West. It also transformed Wells Fargo overnight from a nobody in Florida banking to a dominant force, with the second-largest share of deposits behind Bank of America.

Florida is now Wells Fargo's second-largest market behind California. Wells Fargo has the largest branch network of any Florida bank, with 705 stores, as Stumpf calls branches.

"We're so excited about this part of the market and the business, even though it's going through a lot of challenges today," said Stumpf, who grew up on a Minnesota farm, one of 11 children. "If you bet against Florida and Miami, over the long period, you're going to lose."

The arrival of Wells Fargo — which has long been a favorite investment of Warren Buffett, its largest shareholder — points to a new group of powerful players in Florida banking.

The newcomers include private equity firms as owners, newly combined financial institutions and a string of Spanish banks that bought up Miami-based institutions, looking to diversify into the strongly Hispanic state.

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