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Wells Fargo brings community touch to national operation

Look in a dictionary under community bank, and you're not likely to find Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC) in the definition.

But don't tell the banking giant's employees that. They pride themselves on being the biggest little financial institution in the country.

Well Fargo regional president Nathan Christian

"We really believe, the way we view ourselves, is that we are a big community bank," said Wells Fargo regional president Nathan Christian, who heads the company's Southern California operation.

"Our slogan is, 'We out-national the locals, and we out-local the nationals.' We position ourselves to be competitive with all of them ... with community banks and large banks."

Wells Fargo's intimate feel is exemplified by its presence inside grocery stores like Von's and Ralph's.

The company's approach is apparently working, especially in San Diego, where Wells Fargo's growth has exploded during the past three years. Since 2003, Wells Fargo has expanded by more than 30 percent locally, opening 34 stores to bring their total in San Diego County to 91. The company plans to add another 17 stores in 2007. Wells Fargo also has experienced a 30 percent increase in full-time employees since 2003 and now employs more than 2,500 team members.

"The thing that we believe differentiates Wells Fargo as an institution is that we succeed through our people," Christian said. "We have a fabulous distribution center; we have fabulous products; we have fabulous delivery channels, including our stores online. We're available to our customers 24/7."

As of June 30, 2005, Wells Fargo's total local deposits were $7.6 billion. Part of their success is due to cross-selling and product packaging, Christian said. Wells Fargo is attractive to small business owners because they can receive help on more than just their banking needs. Small business owners can process their lending and insurance needs at Wells Fargo as well.

Individual customers have discovered the benefits, too. As a big community bank, Wells Fargo has available at its finger tips a nationwide delivery system and the expert resources and products of a large bank that it can offer its customers, Christian said.

Wells Fargo's online banking has been rated tops in the country the last couple of years, he said, adding it's easy to use and very secure.

"The biggest opportunity in our strategy here is that we grow through our people," Christian said. "The challenge that comes with that is the recruitment of really good people ... new team members that we can grow with our banker force in order to meet the demands of the community.

Southern California has become an attractive market for Wells Fargo as witnessed by its expansive growth. The reason, Christian said, is because of the same dynamic that makes it a good market for other industries here - people flock to California for the weather and the opportunity.

"Southern California is just a fabulous market," Christian said. "We think it's one of the best in all of the Wells Fargo footprint.

"This is being demonstrated by the investment that the company is making here locally in our markets and the growth of our stores and store locations, and the growth in our team members."

Another feature that makes Wells Fargo effective in the community banking industry is its decentralized chain of command. Regional heads are given ample latitude in making decisions for their own regions.

"We're expected to run our markets within our community banking system," Christian said. "Within each of those markets are managers who have the ability to build the resources they need to meet the market opportunity, market demands. They have the ability to make decisions that help customers at the point of contact."

And as with any community bank, Wells Fargo relies heavily on its employees' customer service.

"The thing we're most proud of, that really differentiates us, is our people," Christian said. "We truly, truly win through our people. We work hard to develop our people, help develop the skills that help them have a truly customer-centric focus about how they view their job when they go into work every day."

Bankers in San Diego, like in every other part of the country, have to keep a watchful eye on the impact of increased interest rates on the economy. But Christian thinks San Diego can sustain any drastic movements in the economy.

"I also think that San Diego, as a community, (has) done really well relative to the rest of the country with some of the last swings in the economy," he said. "And I believe if there is some softing nationally, I still think we'll have a pretty good local economy."

Despite fears of a local housing bubble and the subsequent burst, Christian said San Diego is still a really good housing market.

"Nationwide refinancing is down because we're not at 1 percent fed funds rate," he said. "We're not at rock bottom mortgage prices that we have had, but purchases are good."

According to Christian, the challenges for Wells Fargo are the same for those facing the banking industry.

"Whenever the rates go up, we've got to keep a watchful eye on what impact it has on the economy," he said, "because banks are a reflection of their local economy and the national economy. The signs are pretty good, and the hope is we have a soft landing and that we don't have a surge in inflation."

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