JANUARY 26, 2014 12:01 A.M.
Wells Fargo, the bank that's big just about everywhere except New York, has its eyes on the Big Apple.
Five years after gaining a toehold in the city when it acquired Wachovia at a fire-sale price, the San Francisco giant is starting to stir. It has hired dozens of bankers to cultivate relationships with small and midsize New York businesses, quietly assembled a formidable capital-markets operation and is experimenting with new kinds of smaller branches to maximize its retail presence in the city's tight spaces.
"We're committed to Manhattan and the region across all lines of business," said Joe Kirk, Wells Fargo's regional president for New York and Connecticut. "We're going to be wherever our customers want us."
It might be tempting to dismiss those words as so much chest-thumping, particularly since Wells Fargo is a relative bit player in a city already saturated with huge financial institutions and scores of community banks.
Yet Wells Fargo comes with some singular strengths: It is widely considered the country's best-run big bank, and about two years ago surpassed JPMorgan Chase as the nation's largest by market value, even though JPMorgan's balance sheet is nearly $1 trillion bigger.
Nor does Wells Fargo appear hobbled by the legal problems afflicting so many other big banks, having set aside less than $3 billion to resolve bubble-era litigation, according to Bloomberg, compared with more than $20 billion for JPMorgan and $19 billion for Bank of America. The bank's brand vies with American Express for the best reputation in finance .
"These guys stick to the basics; they don't get into businesses they don't understand, and they're better at selling to clients than anyone else," said Charles Wendel, president of Financial Institutions Consulting, which had Wells Fargo for a client in the past but doesn't now. "Now that they're here, they're not going away."
Still, Wells Fargo officials insist the bank will grow in the New York market slowly. That seems in keeping with an institution so cautious that it waited more than two years to replace Wachovia's signs because it wanted to make sure computer systems were seamlessly knit together.
"The reason Wells Fargo came out of the financial crisis in such strong fashion is the conservative approach it has taken for many years," Mr. Kirk said. "We're going to be very methodical."