Ready to catch the next stage

Thursday, March 29, 2007

John Stumpf

John Stumpf ’76 has made tremendous leaps in the 34 years since he arrived at St. Cloud State with a suitcase and a box – a freshman from Pierz with such mediocre academic credentials he wasn’t sure he belonged in college.

Now Stumpf is president and chief operating officer – COO – of Wells Fargo, the fifth-largest financial services company in the country with more than 6,000 “stores” across North America. He’s
also the guy banking experts have dubbed “heir apparent” to Dick Kovacevich, current chief executive officer and chairman, who will take mandatory retirement at age 65 in October 2008.

By the time Stumpf got his finance degree from St. Cloud State University, as part of the first class to graduate in the newly accredited college of business, he had evolved into an excellent student at the institution where, he said, “I learned how to learn.” He modestly credits others – family, friends, mentors – with giving him a lot of help along the way.

What Stumpf calls his “story of absolute good fortune” began when he was born the second of what would be 11 children to arrive within 13 years on the Stumpf family farm. There were so many children, he quips, “When the Stumpfs didn’t show up for band practice at school, they cancelled.”

Growing up, the older Stumpf children lived through years of financial hardship on the dairy farm and their parents searched out a way to augment their meager income. The answer came in a contract with the Jack Frost Co. and building a chicken barn to house 15,000 laying hens. That meant added chores for the Stumpf children, said Stumpf’s sister Jessie. 

“It was a huge team effort,” said Jessie Stumpf, who’s just 11 months older than John and is now dean of business programs at Hennepin Technical College in Minneapolis. “Everyone had a job,” she said. “We learned the value of work, compromise and teamwork. We also grew up with this wonderful feeling about the importance of extended family and neighbors.”

John Stumpf in his boyhood years

Their mother, a nurse, and father provided the children with the right formula for life. “There was that model of education, of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and going on to find a way to conquer,” Jessie Stumpf said. “There was always an attitude of ‘we will find a way – we won’t sit back and see what’s going
to happen.’”

That attitude helped John Stumpf take advantage of the opportunities that St. Cloud State offered, opportunities that became the gateway to success.

Stumpf remembers well driving to St. Cloud State for the first time in 1972 and moving into 712 Stearns Hall, on a campus with 10 times the population of his hometown.

“It was such a welcoming place,” he said. “You were made to feel like a person, not a number.”

Since he was provisionally accepted because of his less-than-stellar high school grades, Stumpf was advised to take just three classes – English composition, sociology and math. The first day of English class he was asked to write an essay on his summer vacation. The second day he was asked to stay after class. The instructor counseled him that a composition should have an introduction, a body and a conclusion. No one had ever told him that.

On the instructor’s advice, he got a tutor, and ended up with a B in English. In sociology his future brother-in-law helped him, and he got a C. In math a guy who lived on his floor tutored Stumpf and he got an A.

“That A was my first achievement,” Stumpf said. And that guy was Jack Kramer ’76, who soon became his roommate, lifelong friend and the person Stumpf refers to as “the smartest person on the planet.” 

Kramer, a Minneapolis attorney who graduated with a degree in accounting, is just as complimentary of Stumpf. He recalls conversations with business associates from around the country who’d ask where he went to college, then tout their degrees from Harvard, Stanford and other Ivy League institutions. “When they’d say I must be the most successful guy to come out of St. Cloud State, I’d tell them I’m not even the most successful to come out of my dorm room ... that would be John Stumpf.”

Kramer is proud of his longtime friend’s phenomenal success at Wells Fargo. “Now he’s riding shotgun on the stage, and pretty soon he’s going to take the reins,” said Kramer, who joined the G.R. Herberger College of Business faculty three years ago.

“It’s just really special that he’s back at school teaching now,” Stumpf said of Kramer, his first real mentor, whose tutoring gave him the confidence to embrace the education that led him to national leadership in the banking world.

Stumpf would go on to get his first banking job with the First Bank System and earn his MBA in night classes at the University of Minnesota. With his advanced degree, Stumpf landed a position at Northwestern National Bank of Minneapolis, which became Norwest Bank Minneapolis, N.A. He had steadily moved up to a group executive vice president when Norwest Corporation acquired Wells Fargo & Company of San Francisco in 1998. 

But it was the nurturing environment at SCSU that Stumpf credits with “fertilizing” him to develop from a farm kid from Pierz into a highly respected financial services leader in San Francisco, where Wells Fargo has its corporate headquarters. 

Besides classes, Stumpf’s college life included a work-study job in the audio-visual department and playing bass guitar in a rock band. He was active in the Society for Advancement of Management and the Accounting Club. Oh, yes, and foosball. He lived in the residence halls, until he married and moved to an off-campus apartment his senior year. 

St. Cloud State, whose College of Business received Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) accreditation his senior year, had a tremendous impact on him, Stumpf said. “No one else would have taken me,” he said. “They gave me the opportunity.” 

That environment, that sense of common purpose and sense of community, is similar to the culture he and Kovacevich are perpetuating at Wells Fargo. “He’s impressed upon me the value of large numbers of people going in the same direction,” Stumpf said. “We can disagree without being disagreeable. That’s the same feeling I had at St. Cloud State.”

Another part of the culture of Wells Fargo is what Stumpf calls “demystifying leadership,” which involves top executives finding ways to make themselves more human to the rest of the employees.

“I’ve done some of the craziest things,” Stumpf said. “I’ve been Sonny of Sonny and Cher, Elton John, John Lennon and a variety of other characters at annual sales meetings. Part of the culture is to have fun while we recognize team members who’ve excelled.”

Another common thread between the culture of SCSU and Wells Fargo, according to Stumpf, is a sense of connectivity, a sense of belonging. “I’m a big believer in guidelines vs. rules, values vs. phrases and giving individuals a way to know how what they do contributes to the whole,” he said. “I believe that’s why our company continues to excel. We’re 160,000 people with a common sense of purpose.”

Stumpf also credits SCSU’s campus with exposing him to the beauty of a diverse community for the first time. “In Pierz diversity was men and women. Everyone was German Catholic. At St. Cloud State I had my first exposure to people with diversity of religion, ethnicity, thoughts and lifestyle. It helped me understand and value differences.”

Best of all, SCSU gave him the ability to enjoy the pursuit of learning, he said. “I remember seeing a poster ... that reminded me how the goal of learning was not necessarily good grades. It was an ad for a flight training school that said, ‘We’re in the business of helping people learn how to fly safely – not just pass the test.’ ”

- Marsha Shoemaker

<< Previous  |  Contents  |  Next >>