After writing glowingly about Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC) for five years, I feel like a naive idiot. And I'm not alone; there are countless other analysts and commentators who did the very same thing -- not to mention, of course, Warren Buffett.
We succumbed to the bank's propaganda.
We believed chairman and CEO John Stumpf when he, like a broken record, repeatedly referred us to the bank's Vision & Values.
And for those of us who took him up on this, here's what we read:
The reason we wake up in the morning is to help our customers succeed financially and to satisfy their financial needs, and the result is that we make money. It's never the other way around.
Our vision has nothing to do with transactions, pushing products, or getting bigger for the sake of bigness. It's about building lifelong relationships one customer at a time.
We say "team members," not "employees," because our people are resources to be invested in, not expenses to be managed -- and because teamwork is essential to our success in helping customers.
We have to earn [customers'] trust every day by behaving ethically; rewarding open, honest, two-way communication; and holding ourselves accountable for the decisions we make and the actions we take.
Our customers are our friends. We treat them as our guests.
Of course, we now know that much of this was a farce.
It was a way to redirect our attention away from what was really going on at the nation's third largest bank by assets.
But now we all know that while it was boasting about not needing TARP money in 2008 and lambasting competitors like Bank of America for pursuing growth for the sake of growth, it was simultaneously putting suffocating pressure on its lowest-paid employees to sell additional financial products to customers who would be harmed by them.
And it's been doing this for years -- perhaps as far back as 1998, when Wells Fargo was taken over by Norwest Bank (where Stumpf and his predecessor, Richard Kovacevich, came from).
Then, when the massive fraud perpetrated against millions of its customers came to light, what did Stumpf do?
He blamed his "team members."
But not just any "team members," only those at the bottom. Those who labored away in its branches for something like $14 an hour.
A trusted colleague and dear friend, Carrie Tolstedt has been one of our most valuable Wells Fargo leaders, a standard-bearer of our culture, a champion for our customers, and a role model for responsible, principled and inclusive leadership. Because of her passion for serving our customers, wherever and however they chose to receive their banking services -- online, in branches, or via mobile phones -- Carrie leaves Wells Fargo uniquely positioned to continue to be a leader in retail banking, no matter how the future of banking evolves. We share in the pride that she has for the legacy, accomplishments and talent that she will leave behind.
This is ludicrous. Tolstedt was a "standard bearer" of Wells Fargo's culture? A "role model for responsible, principled" leadership? She had a "passion for serving" customers?
Two million fake accounts were opened for customers under her watch. TWO MILLION. 5,300 employees were fired trying to sell eight financial products to every customer -- even, or perhaps especially, to vulnerable elderly people who live on only a couple thousand dollars a month, at most.
To make matters worse, when employees tried to blow the whistle on the practice, some even emailing Stump directly about it, they were fired.
But not just fired.
If countless reports are to be believed, which seems reasonable to me, Wells Fargo's managers placed black marks in the official banking records that make it all but impossible for these people to find another job in banking.
Think about that for a second...
These are people who already didn't make enough money to comfortably support a family. And then Wells Fargo tries to destroy their ability to provide for themselves and, certainly in many cases, their children?
It would be bad enough if, say, Citigroup, with its vast history of abuses, had done something like this.
But Wells Fargo?
One of the most respected American companies for over a century and a half?
The company that Warren Buffett, one of the finest and most generous people alive on planet Earth, has praised repeatedly over the 26 years he's been its biggest shareholder?
Needless to say, I think all of us have learned an important lesson, here: You can never take what corporate executives say at face value. Even the seemingly best ones may have something to hide.