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Bob Steel Speaks

Steel accepted the invitation to speak back in August - about a month after taking the reins at Wachovia and only a few weeks before the bank was forced into a merger. Still, he kept his commitment to make the speech, and the scores of people who came to hear him were full of hope. "I hope this guy's gonna talk about something relevant and interesting and upbeat because that's what we need to hear," said David Harker, a partner at Doerre Construction. He came hoping Steel might say something to magically unclog the gears on new development in uptown Charlotte. "If it's a good speech, I think people would be more interested in moving forward with projects," said Harker. "Everyone's been so dismal for so long now." Wachovia Shareholder Ann Depta was more tempered in her expectations saying, "I don't think he will say anything that can encourage me particularly." She says she's upset and angry over the Wachovia acquisition. But she hoped in his speech Steel might "give us some kind of sense of what they're gonna do, which is probably not realistic. Other than that, I think it will be interesting to hear his perspective." Both Harker and Depta got what they expected - very little. Bob Steel said the merger is on track for completion by the end of the year. But he did say frankly he is disappointed Wachovia will not survive as an independent company. "But I think we have an obligation to be realistic and accept reality that's been produced by market conditions," said Steel. "And the reality, we believe, is that the prospects for our company, and shareholders and customers and colleagues are best served by combining with Wells Fargo, and we're excited about that combination." Perhaps knowing he had no "news" to impart, Steel requested an informal setting for the event. He gave his brief speech sitting at a raised table at the front of the ballroom, and then turned to questions from a panel of Business Journal reporters. Though he jokingly noted it might be a mistake to open himself up like that. The reporters asked a few pointed ones, which Steel mostly evaded. For example, could Wachovia have survived had the federal government offered its bailout a few days earlier? Steel basically said it's hard to speculate on that. Is it possible that the Wells/Wachovia merger will actually mean more jobs for Charlotte, rather than less? Well, anything's possible. Can he offer any hope to cultural and sports groups that rely on Wachovia donations? On that question, Steel reminded the crowd that Wells Fargo supports community, but said things will change. He even managed to be vague about his own future when Business Journal publisher Jeannie Falknor asked, "You have already said you're not going to be part of the company. But could you talk about what you will be doing and whether you might have a board seat on the combined company." Steel replied, "Usually the question I get is 'Boy I bet you wish you hadn't done this.' And I look people right in the eye and say, 'You're wrong.' It's been a privilege to get to know the community and people at Wachovia. . . . and it's so easy to judge things on the last out, or the last inning. And it shouldn't be done that way." Steel went on to say he's right now focused on keeping the bank running full-steam until the deal closes at the end of the year. But he didn't offer any insight on his plans post-deal. Nor would he say if he'll be on the new bank's board. In the end, the man who could answer the burning questions - and offer the most hope to the anxious crowd - made only a two-minute appearance by video. John Stumpf appeared onscreen to introduce himself as the President and CEO of Wells Fargo. He said Wells supports the communities where it operates. "And I will give you this promise," he continued. "We will do all we can do as a combined company to earn your trust and continue to be a community leader in Charlotte, North Carolina." With some polite applause, the crowd hurried out of the ballroom, not lingering to rehash the speech; no signs of relief on their faces. Mostly, they got what they expected from Steel: An exhortation to keep the faith, but no news that will make it any easier.