John Medlin: Installments

Episode 1: The Boy from Johnston County

The first episode of Biographical Conversations with John Medlin traces the future banker’s early years. Born on a small farm in Johnston County, NC, young John shared chores on the property with his three siblings. “A family farm was a partnership,” he says of that time. “Everybody had their respective jobs, and it was a very good way to grow up.” When he wasn’t helping on the farm, John was leading his fellow students at school. A straight-A pupil and varsity athlete, he was elected president of the student council his senior year at Four Oaks High School. Though young Mr. Medlin hadn’t actively sought that position, he notes that his desire to “do things right” was a leadership trait that would serve him well in the future. “I was always...concentrated on doing my job, and doing it well, and (assumed) that it would take you to whatever heights of achievement or leadership you deserve.” John’s talents took him through UNC-Chapel Hill on a Naval ROTC scholarship.

A year after graduating from the university with a degree in business administration, he married Pauline Sims, whom he had met in a constitutional law class their senior year. “We felt very fortunate to have signed up for that class. I’m not sure we’d ever have gotten acquainted if that hadn’t happened.” The newly married Medlin returned to his naval base, and subsequently served on ships that traveled to the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and then the Persian Gulf. Ensign Medlin saw the world during his naval service, though he missed the birth of his first child - Elizabeth Warfield Medlin. “I was in Piraeus, Greek port…headed to the Suez Canal...I was sad about (missing the birth) but exhilarated that she had arrived.” After completing his service in June 1959, the new father wasted little time finding a job, taking an offer at the first company he interviewed. As luck and circumstance would have it, that company was a bank in Winston-Salem called Wachovia.

Episode 2: Sure and Steady

John Medlin began his career at Wachovia in June 1959. Less than eighteen years later, he succeeded John Watlington as bank CEO. It was a relatively quick assent, but during his climb, Mr. Medlin learned virtually every aspect of the company’s operation. After completing the management-training program in 1960, he spent the next five years as a Wachovia credit analyst, and then became a loan officer. In 1968, the young executive was appointed head of the Winston-Salem bank office; two years later, he became an Executive Vice President. Mr. Medlin approached his increasing responsibilities in a quiet but direct manner that earned him the trust of both his peers and his clients. “You deal with things frankly and directly and factually, and usually that will get you out of trouble...(if) a customer has problems, you communicate with them directly.” The young executive also kept in mind the principles he learned at Wachovia: “We had rules like you answered your own telephone...And you’d clean out your own inbox every day...and if a customer had a problem, it had to be dealt with by the close of business.” He adds that those priorities were always a part of the Wachovia way. “You’re dealing with other people’s money. You’re dealing with their lives...all of those things are very important and you don’t want to be guilty of neglect in any of them.”

In 1974 Mr. Medlin faced a serious test regarding those priorities. Shortly after he became president and chief operating officer of Wachovia, a banking crisis occurred. Mr. Medlin hired Lou Gerstner, the future IBM CEO, as a consultant; “Lou essentially told us to sell everything but the bank,” Mr. Medlin has said of his strategist. Though the board needed some convincing, the young president ultimately persuaded its members to shed most of Wachovia’s external assets, including a travel company and an insurance agency. In late 1975 the financial waters calmed. And in 1976, Mr. Medlin, who had sailed the Wachovia ship safely through the storm, was once again promoted. John Watlington, the bank’s chief executive since 1956, retired. He named, as his replacement, John Grimes Medlin.

Episode 3: The Wachovia Way

When John Medlin became Wachovia CEO in January 1977, he inherited not only the office held by is predecessors, but the desk they used as well. “It was a desk that Col. Fries had had,” Mr. Medlin recalls. “And it was passed along from Col. Fries to Mr. Hanes, from Mr. Hanes to Mr. Watlington, and from Mr. Watlington to me.” Inside the top drawer of the vaunted desk, Mr. Medlin found a single piece of paper bearing a simple message: “John, don’t screw it up. Signed, Colonel Fries.” In his seventeen years at the CEO desk, Mr. Medlin would have made the colonel proud. Under his leadership the bank moved past North Carolina boundaries, acquiring the major Georgia bank company First Atlanta in 1985, and, six years later, South Carolina National Bank. In the meantime, Mr. Medlin steered Wachovia with a steady hand that reflected his company’s top priority: first and foremost, maintain public trust. By Mr. Medlin’s final year at the helm of his bank in 1991, Wachovia’s stock on Wall Street was worth $4 billion, and he had been singled out by several of his fellow CEOs as one of the best managers in banking. Even so, Mr. Medlin was ready to move on. Later that, he announced his retirement, and on New Year’s Eve, 1991, he celebrated his final day as Wachovia CEO.

“(I felt) some relief in turning over this enormous responsibility, but also wondering if you had done all the good things that you should do,” he said of that time. In 2000 Mr. Medlin retired from the Wachovia board, though he served as an advisor to the bank, during its merger with First Union in 2001. Seven years later, Wachovia joined forces with Wells Fargo. “It’s found a good home in Wells Fargo, Mr. Medlin said of the merger. John Medlin, who died on June 7, 2012, spent his final years enjoying time with his wife, Pauline Sims Medlin, with whom he shared a happy 55-year marriage; his daughters, and his five grandchildren.