Walter B. Wriston '41

Smith, Nancy

2007

Walter B. Wriston '41 by Nancy Smith for the Wesleyan: The Wesleyan University Alumnus

 

Walter Wriston '41 changed the way banks do business.

In 1967 he became president of Citibank (then the First National City Bank in New York) and, a year later, of its parent holding company, Citicorp. At that time the banking industry was heavily regulated, predictable and basically risk-free. Today it is aggressive, innovative and often very risky indeed.

This change is due in large part to internal pressures in world markets that altered the international monetary system, sent interest rates, energy costs and prices soaring, and, through high-tech gadgetry, moved banking literally into the street. But in equally large part, this revolution is the result of the direct encouragement, inspiration and involvement of Walter Wriston.

Wriston has affected the environment of the banking industry in a number of ways. In 1961 he helped to develop the "certificate of deposit," or CD, which banks used increasingly in the 1960s and early 1970s to attract corporate funds. A confirmed advocate of laissez-faire capitalism, he pushed wherever he could for deregulation of banking and against inflexibility of interest and currency exchange rates. During the 1970s, Citicorp led all the other major banks in lending to the Third World--most notably in loans to such developing countries as Argentina, Brazil and Mexico.

Under Wriston, Citicorp broke down old barriers and expanded into areas that had been traditionally closed to commercial banks. He foresaw that, in a society undergoing rapid technological transition, banks would have to compete with the giant non-banking financial conglomerates like Sears, American Express and AT&T. With ingenuity and boldness he developed Citibank into a financial and technological "supermarket" capable of handling almost any kind of transaction. At Wriston's instigation, Citibank became a pioneer in the field of automated banking machines and interactive home computers. In the very near future, he believes, customers will be able to do all of their banking from their home terminals--move deposits, sell stocks, buy insurance. He expanded Citibank's horizons to include insurance and brokerage services, positioning it to compete with commercial companies in data-processing and communications, even, to some extent, in publishing and the hotel business. Citibank was the first bank in the United States to acquire its own transponder on a space satellite.

When Wriston retired last year as chairman and chief executive of Citibank, the compared his career to those of J. P. Morgan, A. P. Gianinni (founder of the Bank of America) and William McChesney Martin, longtime chairman of the Federal Reserve.

It was not only what he did, but the swashbuckling way he did it, that helped create the Wriston legend. An example: Congress passed a law that expressly prohibited bank holding companies from engaging in most aspects of the insurance industry. As a means of circumventing this restriction, Citicorp acquired a small bank in South Dakota. By doing its insurance business through a state-chartered bank, Citicorp could end-run the federal law.

Wriston exercised these principles of entrepreneurship and free enterprise as an administrator as well. At Citicorp he established a system of internal management that allowed managers and supervisors a degree of autonomy unusual among corporations of its size.

In an interview granted to the alumni magazine shortly after his retirement, he spoke of many aspects of his career. "If I've had an influence," he said, "I believe it was to perpetuate a corporate culture that rewards excellence, rewards innovation, doesn't shoot people when they make a mistake. If you hire good people and permit them to grow in the job, they will produce extraordinary results."

Wriston didn't set out to be a banker. "Before I went to college, I planned to be a chemist," he said, "but when I got to Wesleyan I found out that I couldn't play basketball and go to the lab at the same time. So I made a career choice of giving up chemistry--and I never was a very good basketball player, either."

At Wesleyan he majored in history. "I was fascinated with the field of international relations," he said, "and began to think of a career in the State Department." After graduation he entered Yale Law School, but with the advent of World War II he shifted gears and enrolled at the Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy ("Those were different times; they took me straight in"), from which he earned a master's degree. After a brief stint with the State Department, he joined the army in 1942.

Discharged as a lieutenant in 1946, he returned to New York, where his wife, whom he had married in 1941, was teaching school. He was at something of a loose end. "I looked for a temporary job, something to do until her school term ended and until I could re-take the foreign service examinations." That something turned out to be a position as junior inspector in the comptroller's office of First National City Bank in New York.

In the light of future developments, that would seem to have been a momentous event. To Wriston, it was casual serendipity. "All of life is a series of accidents," he says. "When we get older, we rationalize them as if we planned them that way, but of course that is nonsense." The bank asked him to make a commitment for one year. "Inertia took over," he says lightly, "and I stayed."

"Inertia" is about the last word anyone would choose to apply to Walter Wriston. The man is a coiled spring, a walking electric charge. He drops the portcullis of diffidence and understatement to edge an importunate interviewer away from personal matters and back to the more neutral territory of business and banking.

Leaning on his elbows, at ease over the round, book-laden table in the office the corporation provides for him at Citicorp Center, he discourses genially about Adam Smith, Sir Thomas Gresham (the 16th-century British financier and articulator of Gresham's Law--"bad money drives out good"), his memories of Wesleyan, the lessons of history, his own philosophy. Urbane and witty, elegant in an impeccable suit, surrounded by trophies of his travels and successes, he is the image of the international tycoon.

At the same time, there is a frontiersman's ruggedness about him that is purely American. Wriston looks like Joe DiMaggio and talks like John Wayne; he doesn't waste words, and his rangy six-foot-four-inch frame would seem to be equally at home on the prairie as in the executive suite. It is not surprising to learn that one of his grandmothers traveled to Colorado in a covered wagon.

Whether it was inertia, fate or brilliant business sense that kept him at First National City, Wriston advanced quickly through the ranks, becoming an executive vice president in 1960. He was named president of the bank in 1967, and, in the following year, of the reorganized one-bank holding company, Citicorp.

Wriston became an influential spokesman for the private business sector in the early 1970s. President Nixon appointed him to the National Commission on Productivity in 1970, and in 1971 he became a member of a group of business leaders regularly consulted by the White House. In 1973 Wriston was appointed to a labor-management advisory committee formed under the auspices of the President's Cost of Living Council. In that same year he joined other leading bankers and monetary specialists on the administration's Advisory Committee on International Monetary Reform.

Wriston's father, Henry M. Wriston '11, set a family precedent for this kind of public service. A much-respected historian and president of both Lawrence College and Brown University, the senior Wriston had been an adviser to President Eisenhower, director of the Council on Foreign Relations and chairman of the President's Commission on National Goals.

Walter Wriston played a prominent role in the controversy over the possible default on New York City's debt in the summer and fall of 1975. Citibank, one of the largest holders of the city's debt, adopted a particularly hard line in its call for cutbacks in city employment and services to solve the crisis. When the potentially disastrous effects of a default on U.S. capital markets became more apparent, Wriston advocated some form of federal aid to the city. With Chase Manhattan's David Rockefeller and Morgan Guaranty's Ellmore Patterson, Wriston endorsed President Ford's plan for aid to the city.

There have been rough passages, too. His tough stance on issues such as the New York City bailout and Third World lending regularly drew sharp criticism from the press. Citicorp was the object of a massive investigation by the Ralph Nader Study Group, which published an unflattering report in 1973; in 1976 the leaked a list of "problem" banks that included both Citibank and the Chase Manhattan Bank. In both instances, Wriston's defense of his bank was a forceful offense. He attacked the Nader study as "reckless misuse of facts," and the Post story as "misleading, irresponsible and at variance with the facts." Such spirited responses, added to rumors of a gentlemanly ruthlessness in the board room, gained him--and Citicorp--a reputation for haughtiness and arrogance. Over the years, however, the press has generally treated him with respectful admiration. At the time of his retirement, the called him "a man of uncommon intellect and a sense of mission, an entrepreneur who takes the long view."

When, in 1984, he reached Citicorp's mandatory retirement age of 65, Wriston became one of the busiest unemployed executives in America. He is a director of eight companies; a consultant to the State Department for his longtime friend, Secretary of State George Shultz; chairman of the President's Economic Policy Advisory Board, a panel of a dozen economists and former Cabinet members; and a sought-after speaker. His name has surfaced recently in connection with several top-level jobs in government and industry, among them secretary of the treasury.

Inertia? Never.

 
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  • This document was created from the article, "Walter B. Wriston '41," written by Nancy Smith for the Fall 1985 edition of the "Wesleyan: The Wesleyan University Alumnus." The original article is located in MS134.003.025.00007.
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