Pulling off Florida's biggest-ever banking switch this weekend goes far beyond putting up distinctive red and gold "Wells Fargo" signs at Wachovia branches.
With near-military precision, the banking titan has prepped for "W-Day" here:
• Hundreds of Wells Fargo "banking buddies," primarily from California and Texas, have flown in to help branch employees answer customers' questions and troubleshoot problems.
• Sixteen thousand Wachovia "team members" statewide, including more than 2,000 in the Tampa Bay area, have been extensively trained to use Wells Fargo's systems and taught about the new products and business lines they will now promote.
• Carl Miller, who oversees Florida's Gulf Coast region for Wells Fargo, traveled to New York and Pennsylvania to learn from watching first-hand their Wachovia switchovers.
The last time Florida banking saw a computer systems conversion of this scope was in 1998. That's when the state's once-dominant Barnett Banks switched 525 branches over to NationsBank (the precursor of Bank of America). Back then, computer snafus led to jammed branches, hundreds of customer complaints and a mea culpa from the no-nonsense CEO of NationsBank, Hugh McColl.
Miller isn't worried about a repeat scenario.
"We don't have any fear," he said. "We've been through 300 conversions. We've had the expertise of thousands behind-the-scenes. They did (the Wachovia conversion) previously on the East Coast. We're going to take care of our customers. … We're confident of that."
Wells Fargo is breaking up the process slightly. Roughly 350 Wachovia branches in Central and North Florida will switch their computer systems to Wells Fargo's this weekend; the remaining 350 branches in South Florida will follow suit in a month.
It has been a long time coming.
San Francisco-based Wells Fargo swept in to buy the ailing Wachovia operation for $14 billion during the national financial crisis in the fall of 2008. Overnight, Wells Fargo morphed into the fourth biggest bank in the country and jumped from zero presence in Florida into a virtual tie with Bank of America to become the state's biggest bank. Today, it has a banking relationship with more than half a million households in the Gulf Coast region.
The Wachovia acquisition, sweetened with federal incentives, closed on Jan. 1 2009, but Wells Fargo purposefully took it slow on the name and system change.
Many other large states, including California, New York and Texas, have completed the change already.
After the Florida conversion, Wells Fargo will complete the switch over in a handful of other states, wrapping up in October. Most of the branches, which Well Fargo refers to as "stores," are being remodeled and refurbished to reflect Wells Fargo's open floor plan and feature murals depicting community history.
Along the way, Wells Fargo has learned some lessons. Customers elsewhere balked at having to get new Wells Fargo debit and credit cards, so Florida customers will be allowed to keep their Wachovia cards until they expire. They can also keep the same personal identification number (PIN) for ATM transactions.
Among changes customers will notice: Each "store" will have an online banking station where customers can come to learn about online banking options or work through issues with a bank representative on hand. The "I-station" rollout is particularly helpful in a state such as Florida that has a large number of elderly customers who could benefit from walking through the online banking experience in person, said Leah Flores, community bank president in Wells Fargo's St. Petersburg office.
Other bank changes are happening almost simultaneously in the Tampa Bay area, such as PNC's takeover of 19 BankAtlantic branches.
Nothing, however, rivals Wells Fargo/Wachovia, which ranks nationally as the biggest banking merger in history.
One of Wells Fargo's iconic, horse-drawn stagecoaches that travels the country will be in downtown Tampa on Tuesday for a parade that will culminate at the bank's regional headquarters at 100 S Ashley St. The festivities will include the presentation of $80,000 to four different charities and a performance by the Tampa Bay Pipes & Drum Band.
Miller hopes the celebration will be a memorable one. After all, he points out, "we've been working for more than 900 days to be ready for this day."