[Paleopsych] NYT: Walter B. Wriston, Banking Innovator as Chairman of Citicorp, Dies at 85
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Fri Jan 21 14:56:58 UTC 2005
Walter B. Wriston, Banking Innovator as Chairman of Citicorp, Dies at 85
NYT January 21, 2005
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Walter B. Wriston, the former chairman of Citicorp who
became the most influential banker of his generation by
making his bank into the world's largest through a barrage
of innovations, including the automated teller machine,
died on Wednesday at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in
Manhattan. He was 85.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, his brother-in-law, Robert
When he started at what was then First National City Bank
in 1946, Mr. Wriston sat at a roll-top desk waiting for
customers and feared that he would be bored to death by the
stodgy banking world.
By the time he retired in 1984, he had dazzled the industry
through aggressive international expansion, computerization
and diversification that seemed dizzying except when
compared with the changes that followed.
Mr. Wriston redefined banking as he erased rules that had
long constrained banks, from operating across state lines
to competing with Wall Street investment firms to paying
small savers the same interest rates as large investors. By
pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into automated
teller machines and other technological improvements, he
revolutionized the way Americans handle their money. The
company, now named Citigroup, also came to dominate the
credit card business.
>From the fiscal crisis of New York City in the 1970's to
the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980's, Mr. Wriston
was at the forefront. He led the way in creating the
financial supermarkets of today - offering insurance,
brokerage services and even data-processing and real estate
His final positions were chairman and chief executive of
both Citibank and its holding company, then Citicorp.
Previously, holding companies had been more common among
smaller banks; Mr. Wriston was instrumental in adopting
them to the needs of larger banks, allowing them to offer
Under Mr. Wriston's 17 years of leadership, Citicorp's
assets grew by 761 percent, to $150.6 billion; its net
income by 764 percent, to $890 million; and its loans by
937 percent, to $102.7 billion. But he also left the
company with hundreds of millions of bad loans to poor
countries, a hole that took the better part of a decade to
dig out of. Ultimately, the company prospered and in 1998
merged with Travelers Group Inc. in a $84 billion deal to
become the world's largest financial company. It was
John F. McGillicuddy, the former chairman of the
Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company, said yesterday that
Mr. Wriston was "the acknowledged leader of our generation
of bankers." Mr. McGillicuddy said that Citibank was the
first to make profitability its principal goal rather than
simply having a good balance sheet.
"He changed banking from a relatively slow-moving
institution to a fast-moving institution," Mr. McGillicuddy
Paul A. Volcker, who as chairman of the Federal Reserve
System, sparred with Mr. Wriston over banking regulations,
said that he believed that the Citicorp chairman saw
himself "as a rival of the Federal Reserve in terms of his
influence on the banking system."
When asked to describe Mr. Wriston, Mr. Volcker said, "The
word aggressive keeps coming back."
In particular, the two clashed over Mr. Wriston's
contention that banks no longer needed high levels of
capital as long as they were profitable, well managed and
growing. In the end, Mr. Wriston won out: capital
restrictions today are much lower.
One of his early innovations, developed with another First
National City executive in 1961, was a revolutionary
financial instrument - the negotiable certificate of
deposit, or C.D. The bank proposed to offer these to
corporations in denominations of $100,000 or more at higher
interest rates. They attracted surplus cash that
corporations had on hand from time to time, and were
quickly imitated by other banks.
As chairman of Citicorp, he continued an expansion of
foreign and domestic branches he had begun as executive
vice president, extending it to 41 states and 91 nations.
Employees grew from 26,900 to 71,000.
"He is more responsible for the current landscape of
American global banking than anyone in the 20th century,"
Phillip L. Zweig, author of "Wriston: Walter Wriston,
Citibank and the Rise and Fall of American Financial
Supremacy" (Crown, 1995), said yesterday.
Mr. Wriston was not without his critics. Ralph Nader in
1973 issued a 406-page report denouncing Citibank, saying
that, among other things, it cheated customers and
The bank issued a point-by-point rebuttal, with a forward
by Mr. Wriston accusing Mr. Nader of "reckless misuse of
Walter Bigelow Wriston was born in Middletown, Conn., on
Aug. 3, 1919. His father, Henry Merritt Wriston, was a
history professor at Wesleyan University who would later
achieve distinction as president of Brown University and as
an adviser to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. His mother,
the former Ruth Colton Bigelow, was a chemistry teacher.
In 1925, the family moved to Appleton, Wis., where Henry
was named president of Lawrence College. In an interview in
Vision magazine in 1976, Henry said the family "never had
any money in the house."
He added, "Walter was not brought up on Easy Street."
boy was raised as a strict Methodist and was forbidden to
go to the movies or listen to the radio. He walked several
miles to school, often in subzero temperatures. He became
an Eagle Scout at 15, and excelled at debating.
When he enrolled at Wesleyan, he first majored in chemistry
but switched to history because chemistry labs and
basketball practice conflicted. He edited the college
newspaper and won a prize for public speaking.
After earning a master's degree from the Fletcher School of
International Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, he
immediately joined the State Department as a junior foreign
He was drafted into the Army, and served 38 months in
command of a Signal Corps unit in the Philippines. After he
was discharged as a second lieutenant, he decided to look
for work in New York City rather than rejoining the State
In June 1946, he reluctantly accepted a job as a junior
inspector in the controller's office of First National City
Bank. He promised himself he would leave within a year if
it was as boring as he expected.
But his "dart hit the board" in a phrase Current Biography
attributed to Mr. Wriston. He began to climb the ranks and
he eventually attracted the attention of George S. Moore,
who was in charge of the expansion of international
Mr. Moore chose him as his assistant on the basis of an
evaluation that described Mr. Wriston as the most brilliant
young man who had ever worked at the bank. By 1960, he had
become executive vice president.
In 1967, Mr. Wriston succeeded Mr. Moore as president of
the bank. That year, First National City edged past the
Chase Manhattan Bank, headed by David Rockefeller, to
become the biggest bank in New York City. In the world, the
bank was then second only to Bank of America.
As president, Mr. Wriston immediately reorganized the
corporation into five groups, ranging from personal banking
to an investment management group capable of giving every
conceivable financial service to some 7,000 institutions
and individuals of high worth.
The holding company called Citicorp was set up in 1968, a
move that allowed the company to engage in activities
normally prohibited to banks. Among other things, the
corporation extended its small leasing business into an
international operation that by 1973 was the world's
largest, supplying everything from jumbo jets to gumball
In May 1970, Mr. Wriston succeeded Mr. Moore as chairman of
the bank and holding company. He immediately set a goal of
a 15 percent annual increase in earnings, a target
considerably higher than the 10 percent or lower earnings
growth rate of the 1960's. With the exception of 1975, a
recession year, the goal was met.
"We have zero interest in asset growth," Mr. Wriston told
Vision in 1976. "What we're interested in being is the most
profitable financial services business in the world, and we
Perhaps Mr. Wriston's most revolutionary achievement was
setting up the first network of A.T.M.'s, which allowed
customers to do their banking at any time, rather than
depending on a human teller from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Citicorp's initial investment was $50 million and it
developed the technology internally.
When Mr. Wriston received the Presidential Medal of Freedom
recently, he said the bank "got a lot of flak" for the
necessarily impersonal nature of A.T.M.'s. Ads of
competitors spoke of "smiling young ladies who remember
your name," he said.
Mr. Wriston said, "And the answer to that was at 7:30 at
night when you go to the movies and you don't have any
money, you like the soulless machine."
Mr. Zweig said that Mr. Wriston craftily brought women into
management positions by identifying them in documents only
by their initials. Some directors in particular could not
imagine women in the executive dining room, Mr. Zweig said.
Mr. Wriston, who also aggressively recruited minority
employees, was known for his wide knowledge and sharp wit.
When a New York State legislator accused the bank of
peddling risky bonds during the fiscal crisis without
warning people of possible problems, Mr. Wriston held up
The New York Daily News with the front-page headline: "City
He suggested that this news in a paper read by millions
constituted adequate disclosure.
Citibank was once accused of both lagging in making loans
to the poor and seducing them into borrowing more money
than they should. Mr. Wriston, a commanding six-feet-four
figure, gibed, "Do I have a third choice?"
He sometimes displayed his erudition in pop music by
dropping snatches of songs into otherwise solemn
discussions, The New York Times reported in 1985. On the
frustrations of having too little knowledge to make a
sensible decision, he paused before warbling, "I don't know
enough about you." His blue eyes twinkled.
Mr. Wriston's first wife, the former Barbara Bengle, died
in 1966. He is survived by his wife, the former Kathryn
Dineen; his daughter, Catherine, of Darien, Conn.; and two
During his retirement Mr. Wriston wrote several books about
business and technology, and served on numerous boards.
Small, innovative technology companies especially intrigued
him. Fortune magazine in 1999 asked him why.
"Well, if I'm not awfully careful, I learn something," he
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