Wriston, Walter Bigelow

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Wriston, Walter Bigelow

(b. 3 August 1919 in Middletown, Connecticut; d. 19 January 2005 in New York City), influential and innovative banker who built Citigroup into the world’s largest and most powerful financial services company.

The only son of Ruth Colton (Bigelow) Wriston, a physics teacher, and Henry Merritt Wriston, a history professor at Wesleyan University, Wriston spent his early childhood in Middletown, Connecticut. With Wriston’s father’s election in 1925 as president of Lawrence College, the family moved to Appleton, Wisconsin. Life on campus for Wriston and his older sister was frugal and intellectually rigorous. Drinking and smoking, among other vices, were forbidden in the family’s staunchly Methodist household. By age fifteen Wriston had already distinguished himself by becoming the nation’s youngest Eagle Scout.

In 1937 Wriston matriculated at Wesleyan, where he majored in history and played basketball. Standing six feet, four inches tall, the gangly Wriston emerged as a campus leader and in his junior year was elected editor of the school’s newspaper. He considered careers in journalism and law but abandoned plans to enroll at Yale Law School after his father, who was then president of Brown University, warned him that war was imminent and that he would never finish. Instead, after earning a BA with distinction from Wesleyan in 1941, Wriston pursued an MA at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. After completing the one-year program, he joined the State Department as a junior foreign service officer, to be assigned to a unit that negotiated for the return of prisoners held by the Japanese. On 24 October 1942 he married his college sweetheart, Barbara Brengle, with whom he would have one daughter. Wriston’s State Department career ended when he was drafted into the army; he reported for duty in February 1943 as a private. He was assigned to the Signal Corps on the island of Cebu, in the Philippines, and was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1945, near the end of World War II.

After being discharged, Wriston contemplated resuming his State Department career, since he aspired to become secretary of state. Yet, with his mother on her deathbed in Providence, he did not want to return to Washington. A family physician suggested a career in banking, and through a family friend he landed an unglamorous job as a junior inspector in the comptroller’s department of the National City Bank of New York. Wriston later remarked, “I came in looking for a job so I could eat. If I were to sit up at night making a list of everything dull, banking would come out on top.”

In June 1946 banking was among the nation’s most highly regulated industries. Following Depression-era failures and scandals, Congress imposed severe restrictions on banks’ activities and services. Interest rates were dictated by regulation, and risk taking and innovation were unheard of. Wriston later noted, “Banking was a nice club. You had your inventories under control because the government told you how much you could pay on deposits.”

After about two years of auditing loans and branches, Wriston was assigned to the credit division, where he soon became the protégé of George S. Moore, an energetic vice president on the executive fast track. Wriston’s career accelerated with his assignment to manage the account of the Greek shipowner Aristotle Onassis. In that role, he financed the expansion of Onassis’s fleet and the construction of his supertankers. As a reward, Wriston was placed in charge of the transportation unit, where he distinguished himself by finding creative ways to finance jet airplanes, railroads, and ships.

In the mid-1950s, one major backwater in the newly merged First National City Bank of New York was the overseas division, which was run like a colonial fiefdom. Wriston was tapped to head the European unit, which Moore himself took over in 1957. Moore and Wriston quickly embarked on an aggressive expansion drive, hiring top graduates from the leading business schools, modernizing branches around the world, and prospecting for new opportunities. Their approach was to “inventory” the best young talent they could find, including women and minorities, even if no specific posts were immediately available.

In June 1960 Wriston was appointed as executive vice president in charge of the overseas division. Less than a year later, the bank introduced the negotiable certificate of deposit, an innovative funding instrument promoted largely by Wriston that expanded the bank’s ability to raise capital globally. While his career was skyrocketing, Wriston saw his personal life take a tragic turn in June 1966, when his wife died suddenly of an apparent heart attack. On 14 March 1968 he married the lawyer Kathryn Dineen, twenty years his junior; the couple had no children.

By 1967, when Moore succeeded James Stillman Rockefeller as chairman but not as chief executive officer (CEO), Wriston was the obvious choice to become the bank’s president and de facto CEO. Over the next three years Wriston and Moore ushered in the era of the financial supermarket, fully reorganizing and diversifying the bank. They transformed the industry by creating a one-bank holding company so as to acquire nontraditional businesses that were off limits to banks. In another seminal move, Wriston assigned a young technocrat named John S. Reed to automate the bank’s archaic back-office operations, burnishing his reputation as a technological innovator. In late 1968, Wriston’s accomplishments apparently came to the attention of President-elect Richard M. Nixon. A lifelong conservative Republican, Wriston was invited to serve as Treasury secretary, but he turned the job down at least in part because Nixon himself didn’t make the call. Later, as a member of a presidential productivity panel, Wriston influenced national policy by advising Nixon to end the wage-price controls he had imposed in 1971.

In 1970 Wriston took over the reins of First National City Bank, which had overtaken Chase Manhattan at the head of the industry. Though a free marketeer who opposed government bailouts, Wriston was also a pragmatist who played a pivotal role in resolving virtually all of the major domestic and global financial crises of the next fourteen years. One of Wriston’s early moves as chairman and CEO was to publicly articulate his aggressive goal of achieving 15 percent annual earnings growth. Perhaps more than any other initiative, this showed employees and investors that he regarded his institution as a business, not a utility. It also unleashed a competitive frenzy that caused some financial institutions to overextend themselves and eventually fail. Wriston butted heads with bank regulators, particularly Federal Reserve Board chairmen, over his view that well-run banks did not need capital.

Wriston was confronted with a monumental challenge in 1973, when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an oil embargo that sent prices skyrocketing. Wriston calmed the waters with his widely reported comments that global banking institutions, notably his own, were up to the task of “recycling” the billions of “petrodollars” flowing into OPEC’s coffers. Upon Wriston’s assurance that “countries don’t go bankrupt,” the world’s largest banks, led by his own, extended enormous loans to Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, the Philippines, and other hard-pressed and often poorly managed countries. In April 1974 Wriston once again was offered and declined the post of Treasury secretary. Meanwhile, New York City was teetering close to bankruptcy, the victim of profligate spending and budgetary gimmickry. Here, Wriston pressured city officials to reform financial practices and promoted city bond offerings.

Wriston believed in diversification, technology, and the importance of the consumer; in what was perhaps his boldest stroke, he invested hundreds of millions of dollars to install twenty-four-hour automated teller machines (ATMs) in every New York City branch, at a time when most other big banks doubted that ATMs would gain widespread acceptance. Thus, Wriston revolutionized the way Americans managed their money and in the process built a veritable money machine for his own bank, renamed Citibank in 1976. As part of its strategy, Citibank also expanded its credit-card business with mass mailings to potential customers throughout the United States. By 1980, with interest rates approaching 20 percent, this business was gushing red ink because New York State usury ceilings were too low. For relief, Wriston looked westward to South Dakota, which had higher usury caps. After persuading the South Dakota legislature to pass a law welcoming out-of-state banks, Citibank shifted its credit-card operations there. Other big banks quickly followed, transforming South Dakota into the nation’s credit-card capital.

As a vociferous anti-Communist and an opponent of the government regulation of banking, Wriston found a kindred spirit in the 1980 Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, and he soon joined Reagan’s inner circle of economic advisors. In 1982 Wriston was named chairman of the President’s Economic Policy Advisory Board, a blue-ribbon panel that functioned as a sounding board. Wriston was thus afforded the opportunity to assure the president that the Third World debt crisis, which began in mid-1982 with the de facto default of Mexico, was not the end of civilization. Nonetheless, it was to become a decade-long burden for the world’s banks. Because Citibank was the single largest lender to many of the debtor countries, Wriston and Citibank assumed a leadership role in keeping Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina afloat by restructuring their massive debt—an albatross Wriston would bequeath to his successor.

One of Wriston’s most controversial moves was his decision to orchestrate a long and destructive three-way horse race for his job. Just months before he reached the mandatory retirement age of sixty-five—which he dubbed “statutory senility”—in August 1984, Wriston crowned the winner, the technocrat Reed, who had built the consumer business into a highly profitable operation.

After retiring, Wriston continued to serve as a director of several large companies, including General Electric and Pfizer, and joined the boards of several entrepreneurial high-tech firms. He wrote two well-received books, Risk & Other Four-Letter Words (1986), a celebration of the risk-taking spirit, and The Twilight of Sovereignty: How the Information Revolution is Transforming Our World (1992), which argued persuasively that national borders would become irrelevant with the expansion of information technology. He was a low-key philanthropist who eschewed high society, but he was a devoted trustee and fund-raiser for New York–Presbyterian Hospital and a cofounder and trustee of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative think tank. In 2004 President George W. Bush awarded Wriston the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the highest civilian awards granted by the U.S. government. The following January, Wriston died of pancreatic cancer in New York–Presbyterian Hospital. He was buried in Sherman, Connecticut, near Deer Pond Farm, his beloved weekend retreat.

Along with the financier J. P. Morgan and the Bank of America founder A. P. Giannini, Wriston ranked as one of the three most important bankers of the twentieth century. Unlike Giannini and Morgan, Wriston did not build Citibank and its parent, Citigroup, from scratch. Nevertheless, he was a visionary, innovator, and risk taker who ushered the banking industry into the modern era by betting on youth, intellect, and technology. More than anyone else, he was responsible for deregulating the financial services industry and transforming it into a highly competitive business. By the time of his retirement, he had created the only truly global financial services institution, with an infrastructure no competitor could match.

For a full-length treatment of Wriston’s life, see Phillip L. Zweig, Wriston: Walter Wriston, Citibank and the Rise and Fall of American Financial Supremacy (1995). Noteworthy articles include Cary Reich, “Walt’s Triumphant Farewell,” Institutional Investor (July 1983); and an interview by Thomas A. Bass, “The Future of Money,” Wired (Oct. 1996). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 21 Jan. 2005).

Phillip L. Zweig