Wriston, Walter Bigelow

Wriston, Walter Bigelow

Wriston, Walter Bigelow, 1919-2005, American banker, b. Middletown, Conn., grad. Wesleyan (B.A., 1941); Fletcher School, Tufts Univ. (M.A., 1942). Widely considered the most important and influential American banker of his generation, he revolutionized what had been a stodgily conservative industry with a raft of technical and other innovations including computerization, diversification, and globalization. Wriston began (1946) his career in New York City as a junior inspector in the controller's department of what is now Citicorp. He rose quickly, becoming (1960) executive vice president of what had then become First National City Bank. Seven years later he became president of the bank, at that time New York's largest.

In 1968 he initiated a business reorganization that resulted in a structure of five separate companies under the umbrella of a holding company (renamed Citicorp in 1974). Exploiting this arrangement, the company was able to offer various services not ordinarily permitted to banks, e.g., insurance, stock brokerage, leasing, real estate services, and much more. In 1970 Wriston became chairman of the bank, which six years later was rechristened Citibank. Among the many innovations he introduced were the automated teller machine (ATM), negotiable certificates of deposit, and interstate banking. He also led Citicorp to the domination of the credit card business and was key in transforming modern banks into large one-stop all-service businesses. During his stewardship Citicorp grew enormously in assets, loans, and net income. Wriston retired in 1984. He was the author of Risk and Other Four-Letter Words (1986) and In the Twilight of Sovereignty (1992).

See P. L. Zweig, Wriston: Walter Wriston, Citibank and the Rise and Fall of American Financial Supremacy (1995).

Walter Wriston (August 3, 1919January 19, 2005) was a banker and former chairman of Citicorp. As chief executive of Citibank / Citicorp (later Citigroup) from 1967-1984, Wriston was widely regarded as the single most influential commercial banker of his time.

Personal information

Walter Bigelow Wriston was born in Middletown, Connecticut to Ruth Bigelow Wriston, a chemistry teacher, and Henry Merritt Wriston, a history professor at Wesleyan University who was later president of Lawrence College and Brown University.

Reared as a traditional Methodist in Appleton, Wisconsin, Wriston was not allowed to listen to the radio or go to the movie theater on Sundays.

He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Wesleyan University in 1941 where he was a member of the Eclectic Society and a Master's Degree from Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1942.

After graduate school, Wriston became a junior Foreign Service officer at the State Department in which position he helped negotiate the exchange of Japanese interned in the United States for Americans held prisoner in Japan. Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942, he served in the U.S. Army for four years, being with the Signal Corps on Cebu in the Philippines during his service.

In 1942, Walter Wriston married his first wife, Barbara Brengle Wriston, with whom he had one daughter. Two years after Barbara’s death in 1966, he married lawyer and businesswoman Kathryn Dineen.

He kept himself trim, playing tennis regularly and acting as a carpenter, electrician, plumber, backhoe operator, front-end loader operator and chain-saw-wielding tree farmer on his Connecticut retreat. During the July 1977 New York City blackout, he walked down 23 flights from his high-rise apartment, hiked to corporate headquarters, then climbed 15 flights up to his office.

Wriston was an Eagle Scout and recipient of the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award.

Wriston died in January 2005, aged 85. Wriston's papers, including the text of hundreds of speeches and articles spanning his lengthy career, are at Tufts University's Digital Collections and Archives.

Banking

Immediately after World War II in 1946, Wriston entered the banking sector as a junior inspector in the comptroller's division at the First National City Bank (which would later become Citibank and then Citicorp).

Wriston ascended quickly within the Bank, becoming head of the Overseas Division in 1959. As a close adviser to then-Chairman James Stillman Rockefeller, Wriston became executive vice-president in 1960, and President and chief executive in 1967, and Chairman in 1970.

In 1968 the bank pioneered its conversion into a "one-bank holding company", First National City Corporation, later re-named Citicorp. Regulations restricting the kind of business banks could undertake, and similar regulations restricting "multi-bank holding companies", did not apply to the new entity, which enabled Citi to expand into diverse fields, such as property, mortgages and consumer credit.

Wriston divided the operation into five sections: personal banking; commercial banking; a corporate division to serve large businesses, multinationals, governments and institutions; an international division - which Wriston greatly expanded - to look after the hundreds of Citibank branches around the world; and an investment management group. In London, Citibank was a pioneer of the eurodollar lending market and the financing of North Sea oil; it was one of the first banks to manage large corporate relationships on a global basis, employing industry experts for each sector. Some of these activities generated demands for greater regulation, but Wriston consistently insisted that "legislation that hobbles the service efforts of the commercial banks must hobble the economic growth of the country and the world."

Under his leadership, Citibank pioneered automatic teller machines. It pursued the credit card business in a way that no other bank was doing at the time, launching The Everything Card in 1967. He constantly battered government regulations. He expanded internationally at a dizzying pace. Old constraints on banks were consigned to the dustbin of history. Wriston made what is now called Citigroup the world's leading financial institution. Because he was not risk-averse, he made his share of mistakes. But these were minute compared to his monumental achievements. During Wriston's tenure, Citibank developed the certificate of deposit (CD), which yielded higher rates of return to corporations than to individuals.

One of his innovations was folding the Everything Card, which was proprietary and regional in scope, into the fledgling Master Charge operation in 1969. Citibank mailed out 20 million cards nationwide and lost $1 billion before it turned a profit. The problem was that the rate of inflation exceeded the amount of interest Citibank was allowed to charge its credit card customers under New York usury laws. Wriston eventually moved the credit card operation to South Dakota, where there was no usury law limit. He later oversaw the launch of another proprietary credit card, Choice.

Wriston retired in 1984 and was succeeded as Chairman by John Reed. During his tenure, Citicorp experienced dramatic growth, with its assets increasing to $150.6 billion; its loan growth reached $102.7 billion. Citicorp is now known as Citigroup Inc, and is the world's most profitable financial institution.

Politics

From 1982 to 1989, Wriston was chairman of President Ronald Reagan's Economic Policy Advisory Board, and in June 2004 awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civil honor, by President George W. Bush.

Wriston admitted he was twice offered the job of Secretary of the Treasury, in the administrations of Presidents Nixon and Ford. He turned down the offers, but said it was not because of the public scrutiny he was sure to face. "I've been living in Macy's window for 20 years," he said. One report is that Wriston declined the offers because these were not made to him personally by the-then President. Wriston also would have had to take a substantial pay cut had he accepted the government position.

In 1987, the Manhattan Institute of Policy Research initiated a lecture series in honor of Mr. Wriston, and in 2004, the Idea Channel organized a seven-part series of interviews with him as well.

Quotes

  • Capital goes where it's welcome and stays where it's well treated. (Discovery)--Walter B. Wriston
  • Information about money has become almost as important as money itself
  • Countries don't go bust

Books

  • The Twilight of Sovereignty (1992)
  • Risk and Other Four-Letter Words (1986)
  • Bits, Bytes and Balance Sheets (2007)

See also

References

External links

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