Fort Mill Times

Will Wells Fargo stay in Fort Mill?

Local Wells Fargo employees likely will keep their jobs following their company's purchase of Wachovia - but according to banking experts, that likely will mean commuting to Charlotte.

Tony Plath, a banking and finance professor at UNC Charlotte, said he imagines employees of the local mortgage service campus will have to wait at least a year to find out how Wells Fargo's purchase of Wachovia will affect them for certain.

"This deal happened so quickly, I don't know if they've figured any of this out yet," Plath said. "They just bought a bank they weren't expecting to buy. They haven't had time to think things through."

York County officials also have heard nothing from Wells Fargo about its presence in Fort Mill, but government and economic development leaders already are devising ways to keep the company's reported 1,500 employees from leaving the Fort Mill campus it rents off Carowinds Boulevard.

"It would be a big hit," said York County Councilman Paul Lindemann, whose district covers the sprawling Wells Fargo campus in Fort Mill . "We're going to do everything we can to keep them here in York County."

San Francisco-based Wells Fargo emerged the victor in a battle with Citigroup Inc. for Charlotte-based Wachovia. Citigroup initially stepped in - with the help of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. - to bail out the troubled financial giant at the end of September.

A preliminary agreement had Citigroup purchasing Wachovia's retail banking operations for $2.16 billion. A week later, Wells Fargo swooped in and announced its intention to purchase Wachovia for $15.1 billion in stock.

Although it could take up to a year to know the impact on Fort Mill, experts agree it does not bode well.

"The jobs are moving to Charlotte," said Haseeb Ahmed, Ph.D., a professor of banking and finance at Johnson C. Smith University.

Stressing he can only speculate at this point, Plath said Wells Fargo has a "very strong" mortgage infrastructure and is better at mortgage services than Wachovia. Plath foresees Wells Fargo moving its mortgage operations from Fort Mill into Charlotte, where there is plenty of room - two million square feet - in Wachovia's Customer Information Center to combine the divisions.

"They have to cut overhead," Plath said as to why Wells Fargo would close up shop in Fort Mill and head for Charlotte.

"The conundrum is what do you do with the building, the facilities, in Fort Mill?" Plath said. "My best guess is [Fort Mill] will lose the facility, but the people will keep their jobs. If anything, when they consolidate, people are just going to have to drive somewhere else to go to work."

And the Wells Fargo brand likely will remain over that of Wachovia, although Charlotte and banking leaders would like to combine the two, Plath said.

"The Wachovia brand still has a lot of power east of the Mississippi," he said.

There is a remote possibility, Plath said, that Wells Fargo could be persuaded to stay in Fort Mill. But the question then becomes where will the bank put at least 600 Wachovia employees from its mortgage division?

"On the other hand, Wells in Fort Mill could grow dramatically," he said. "But I don't see that happening."

Lindemann said York County officials have not yet heard anything from Wells Fargo, but they already are formulating incentives that will include tax breaks to keep the bank's Fort Mill presence intact.

"Typically, when you cut costs, you don't move from lower-cost areas to higher-cost areas," York County Manager Jim Baker said.

County and economic development leaders have been striving to create a "Ballantyne-esque community" around Fort Mill, with careful development and planning that makes life easier and less expensive.

"York County is much less expensive than Charlotte-Mecklenberg," Lindemann said.

"Everything is done with the idea of family being close to work."

Lindemann said he will stress to Wells Fargo that York County taxes, available infrastructure, school districts and quality of life make Fort Mill the place to be as it combines operations with Wachovia.

"It would be a huge expense to move to Charlotte," the councilman said.

Calls to Wells Fargo's Fort Mill offices were referred to corporate headquarters in California. Local employees were instructed not to talk with the press.

Wells Fargo spokeswoman Melissa Murray declined to comment on the future of Wells Fargo's presence in Fort Mill, saying, "it is too premature for us to comment further."

Plath said that's to be expected, and that Wells is going to need the next year to analyze operations and then at least another six months to begin implementing changes.

Trudie Bolin Heemsoth, the Fort Mill Area Council director for the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce, and Mark Farris, the York County Economic Development Board director, both declined comment.

Plath said York County officials such as Lindemann are wise to plan now to persuade Wells Fargo to stay in Fort Mill.

"You have to get people to think proactively," Plath said. "No one should be surprised a year from now if Wells Fargo pulls out for Charlotte."