Business Monday

Gateway City/Who’s Here: Wells Fargo: South Florida ‘an incredibly dynamic market’

Joe Atkinson, Wells Fargo’s South Florida region president, at one of the bank’s offices in Fort Lauderdale.
Joe Atkinson, Wells Fargo’s South Florida region president, at one of the bank’s offices in Fort Lauderdale. For the Miami Herald

While the Wells Fargo brand is familiar to most Florida residents, the company name did not begin to appear on local bank offices until about 2010, two years after the San Francisco-based financial giant took over Wachovia and converted its branches to Wells Fargo.

But its roots in the state go back much further, according to the company. Wells Fargo began selling American Express money orders, then a novelty, for the American Express company in 1903, and these travelers checks were carried by people arriving in Florida from other parts of the country.

Moreover, through bank mergers and acquisitions over many decades, Wells Fargo has acquired other Florida banks, including one that originally was started in the Keys in 1891.

Founded in 1852 to provide customers with banking and express services during the California gold rush, Wells Fargo never established an express office in Florida. Nonetheless, it partnered with other express companies to serve customers in Florida and other southeastern states by railroad, sending goods, money and other valuables here.

Wells Fargo today is one of the two top banks in Florida. As of June 30, Wells Fargo had 645 offices in the state, topping Bank of America’s 582, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. However, Bank of America was No. 1 in deposits for the state, with more than $97.9 billion, compared to $75.1 billion for Wells Fargo. The bank also competes with over 200 other financial institutions based in Florida.

In Wells Fargo’s South Florida region (which includes Miami-Dade and Broward counties, Boca Raton and the Keys), the bank has about 4,000 employees, 150 branches (the company calls them stores) and more than 240 ATMs. Aside from its branches, Wells Fargo also has separate offices for wealth management and financial advisory services, mortgage centers that work with builders and developers, and a global finance center in Miami that handles banking only for international clients.

“South Florida is an incredibly dynamic market,” said Miami-based Joe Atkinson, who took over as Well Fargo’s South Florida region president at the beginning of 2014. “It’s one of the fastest growing regions in the U.S. and is attracting new residents from this country, Latin America and Europe,” he said.

Wells Fargo does not release figures on its South Florida revenues.

The bank has 90 business lines. It offers a full range of consumer retail banking services at its branches and online. It also handles commercial loans to small and large companies (with a focus on small business), home and business mortgages, provides credit cards, sells insurance, offers investment advisory, brokerage and wealth management services and supplies specialized services like payroll management.

How does Wells Fargo compete effectively with legions of other banks in Florida? By paying attention to customers and trying to help them. “Our 4,000 people make the difference,” said Atkinson. “There are three things: Our product is our service, our value added is financial advice, and our company is our people. Our goal is to help our customers succeed. Our business is built on trust.”

One advantage for customers, he said, is that Wells Fargo local managers have the authority to make decisions on most transactions. “That means clients don’t have to wait for a decision from a home office somewhere else,” Atkinson said.

Increasing loans to small business is a key goal for Atkinson. “These small companies are the most important creators of new jobs,” he said. “They produce new goods and services and the people they employ can spend money that has an impact on the communities all around them.”

Born in Brownsville, Texas, Atkinson and his family worked at harvesting crops when he was young. He has been a banker since he was 18, starting as a teller at a regional bank in 1984 and working while he went to college. The bank where he began his financial career was, after some mergers, eventually absorbed by Wells Fargo. Atkinson studied business at Texas Southmost College (now part of the University of Texas system). Prior to taking over the South Florida region, Atkinson was the Community Bank President for the Greater Georgia North Region at Wells Fargo.

For Atkinson, community work is fundamental for Wells Fargo. In addition to more than $2.3 million the bank donated to 300 community organizations last year in South Florida, volunteer work by employees plays an important role. Bank employees visit schools to talk to students about money and handling finances. Atkinson himself will speak to an eighth-grade class in Little Havana about where money comes from, how ATMs work and how people manage their money.

Last year Wells Fargo employees spent more than 5,000 hours volunteering on community projects. Recently, employees worked on 48 projects — cleaning parks, helping veterans and doing repair and construction work.

“One of the most important things for us is to help our communities so that their quality of life improves, so that they can become stronger and so that they have access to new opportunities,” Atkinson said.

“We don’t want to just live and work and enjoy where we are. We want to be part of our community.”

The writer can be reached at josephmannjr@gmail.com.

Wells Fargo & Company

Business: A diversified financial services holding company with operations throughout the U.S. and overseas. Its largest subsidiary, Well Fargo Bank N.A., has 90 business lines, including banking, insurance, investment and mortgage services, as well as consumer and commercial financing. One of the country’s largest commercial banks, it has 8,700 locations, more than 12,800 ATMs and conducts business over the Internet and via mobile devices. In Florida, Wells Fargo signs began appearing on banks after it took over Wachovia at the end of 2008 and subsequently converted Wachovia branches to the Wells Fargo brand. But its roots in the state go back much further: Wells Fargo began selling American Express money orders, then a novelty, for the American Express company in 1903, and these were used by new residents arriving in Florida. Moreover, through a series of mergers, Wells Fargo acquired a bank that originally was started in the Keys in 1891, as well as other banks throughout the state.

Founded: 1852 in San Francisco.

Corporate headquarters: San Francisco

South Florida headquarters: 333 SE Second Ave., Miami. Wells Fargo’s South Florida region includes Miami-Dade and Broward counties, Boca Raton and the Keys.

President of the South Florida region: Joe A. Atkinson, since January 2014.

Employees: More than 4,000 in the bank’s South Florida region, more than 14,000 statewide, about 266,000 worldwide.

Ownership: Traded on the NYSE (symbol: WFC).

Revenues: $84.3 billion in 2014.

Website: wellsfargo.com

Source: Wells Fargo

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