ATLANTA — Wachovia customer Susan Crisler lavished praise on the bank's staff and service when she encountered market president Jerome Byers at a branch in Atlanta last week. But asked about the coming switch to Wells Fargo, she reserved judgment.
"It's fine . . . as long as you don't mess up my account," said Crisler, who runs an interior-decorating business.
It'll be another year before Wachovia branches in North Carolina get Wells Fargo signs and systems, but in Atlanta, the bank's employees and customers are gearing up for the biggest changeover to date in the mega-merger. The conversion of 278 branches in Georgia this weekend is a key milestone for a San Francisco-based bank absorbing a Southern institution that touted its service.
To some customers, it will be the first cue their bank has changed hands, and competitors are eager to capitalize on their unease. Wells Fargo & Co. officials say they have taken all the necessary steps for a seamless transition, informing customers of the coming change, testing computer systems, training employees and planning community donations.
Byers, president of Wells' Atlanta region, said he originally would have favored a quicker shift, like the ones First Union used to do when it was stitching together the financial behemoth that would become Charlotte-based Wachovia. But now he's glad the bank took its time getting ready."Normally, I would think 'Let's get going,'" he said. "Timing and pacing helps you do it right."
Wells snapped up Wachovia two years ago at the peak of the financial crisis for $15 billion. The bank has changed signs and systems in the Western U.S. and three states in the East — Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. After Georgia, it will tackle the rest of the East Coast next year, concluding with the Carolinas.
Inside Georgia branches — "stores" in Wells lingo — the nation's No. 2 bank by deposits has already installed murals highlighting Wells and local history, painted the walls yellow, planted red chairs in waiting areas and hung a quote from co-founder Henry Wells behind the tellers. Playing off Wells' omnipresent stagecoach logo, the banker who greets you is known as a "stage director." The teller supervisor is known as a "stage coach."
The bank has ripped out service counters once located near the front door of branches, allowing managers to stroll the floor. It has deployed online banking kiosks and devices that allow customers to swipe debit cards to verify their information. Specialists in mortgage banking and other fields fill additional desks, looking to "cross-sell" customers multiple financial products.
The final steps will come this weekend. Starting Saturday, branches will run on Wells Fargo computer systems, and by Monday, more than 1,000 red-and-yellow signs will be unveiled.
Apart from its size, the switch is momentous because the Peach State was a historic battleground for three North Carolina banks that broke out of their home-state confines three decades ago.
In 1985, Winston-Salem-based Wachovia scored a coup when it landed local mainstay First Atlanta Corp. Charlotte's big banks — First Union Corp. and Bank of America predecessor North Carolina National Bank — soon chimed in with their own deals. Later, in 2001, First Union outdueled Atlanta-based SunTrust Banks to buy Wachovia.
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