In 2008, sitting squarely in the vortex of the global financial crisis and teetering on the brink of financial collapse was Charlotte, N.C.-based Wachovia Bank, the fourth-largest bank holding company in the United States as measured by total assets. The economic ramifications of Wachovia’s collapse suggested themselves, which is why the U.S. government intervened and ordered the forced sale of the institution.
Wachovia, seeking to negotiate a sale or end up being taken into receivership by the Federal Reserve Bank, brought together a team of leaders, including a middle manager in its investment bank to lead a team of people charged with saving the bank and thousands of jobs. That person was Julie Caperton, who was tapped for the assignment because of her experience and her background as a securities attorney. Somewhat stunned by the gravity of the sudden assignment, Caperton and her team went to work, even as senior executives were, one by one, departing from Wachovia.
“There were some transactions we had been trying to address for some time,” Caperton recalls, “but the end of Wachovia came very quickly.”
By the early fall of 2008, Caperton and her team were responsible for the due-diligence on the commercial and investment bank with several potential acquirers, working six consecutive weekends in hopes of working out an acquisition deal. On the final weekend, she was in the throes of a four-party dialog between Wachovia, Citi, Wells Fargo and The Fed.
“When we closed on Friday, we knew we wouldn’t be able to open on Monday. It was an incredibly intense period of time.”
FOLLOW THE MONEY
As a young woman, Caperton sought to become a lawyer for the most common of reasons: Lawyers make bank, as the young phrase it these days. And bank was not the most ubiquitous resource in her native town of Cortland, N.Y., population 19,000.
“All the wealthy people I knew growing up were either doctors or lawyers, and I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor because I am a bit squeamish,” Caperton explains. “So, my worldview was that I wanted to make money, and I am going to be a lawyer because they were among the people who, when I looked around, seemed to be making a lot of money in the mind of a 17-year-old who was looking for a path of success.”
And succeed she did, as a securities law attorney at the firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft in Manhattan. Just one problem: Caperton learned that she thrives on professional collaboration (much like was required to salvage the future of Wachovia Bank), yet she found practicing law to be isolating.
“You are very much in academic mode reviewing documents,” she recalls. “It is not the most team-oriented environment. Yes, you are working with your clients, you are working with others in your firm, but it is not as collaborative a process as I had imagined.”
As fate would have it, Caperton attended a 2002 business lunch where she was seated next to the general counsel for Wachovia’s investment bank, during which she learned Wachovia was building its structured finance and derivatives business at the time, an area for which Caperton specialized.
“He encouraged me to pursue a role,” she recounts.
It was the collaborative aspect of the private wealth advisory business that drew her to the profession and helped foster her success. But it is also the outcomes she seeks to achieve that have kept her steadfast in her commitment to the business.
“I love helping people achieve their financial goals,” she remarks. “Financial security is tantamount to having a happy and successful life. Not that it is the only thing that matters, but it makes your life so much easier if you are able to achieve financial independence.”
In time, Wachovia became Wells Fargo. Caperton went on to lead the asset-backed finance and securitization group, as well as the group responsible for mergers, acquisitions, divestitures and strategic investments across the enterprise. When her boss at Wells Fargo Securities was tapped to lead Wealth and Investment Management, he recruited her to lead a newly created group in 2019: Banking, Lending, and Trust. Today, her group oversees a $174 billion deposit base and $80 billion in average loans.
“Digital innovation is changing the wealth industry,” she says, “and I’m in a great position to use my skills, experience and leadership style to create a path to enable clients to maximize their opportunity for financial success.”
Her achievements have not gone unnoticed, as Caperton has been named more than once to the “most powerful women in banking” list published by American Banker, and was recently was honored as a member of the magazine’s “most powerful women to watch” list.
THE SWORD OF DAMOCLES
Even as she leads a business serving wealthy clients — a seemingly coveted role — Caperton has not forgotten the difficult path she forged to arrive at this point. Reflecting back on the pitched battle to find a buyer for Wachovia Bank, she recalls how she and her war-room colleagues were pushing themselves “incredibly hard,” both in terms of the number of hours worked and the intensity of the negotiations and the financial risk involved.
“I had a family that I needed to provide for,” she says. “I needed that job. A lot of people I had worked with had been in the industry for decades and they would have been fine if they lost their jobs. I was not there, nor were the thousands of people who needed their jobs and were counting on us to get this figured out. If it was placed in receivership by The Fed, obviously, it was all over.”
Caperton and her colleagues in the war room managed to strike a deal with Citi, only to have Wells Fargo proffer a richer buyout offer and take the prize. Or was a failing financial institution truly a prize?
She reasons that Wachovia had different inducements to offer various acquirers. Citi coveted the massive deposits still under Wachovia’s control. The people at Wells Fargo saw Wachovia’s branch, middle-market and commercial banking operations as the ideal eastern seaboard expansion of its San Francisco–based operations.
“It really was the right fit. Wells was the best possible acquirer. I mean, a deal where one-plus-one equaled five,” she surmised.
Caperton says she and everyone on her due-diligence team were pulling for Wells Fargo because the deal would not have been a forced partnership, and it was clear that Wells truly wanted to strike a deal with Wachovia.
“They would have loved to have bought us in ordinary circumstances; they just ended up getting us for a really, really good price.”
EARNING HER WAY
Caperton has not forgotten her roots, either. She earned a tuition-only scholarship to Syracuse University. She was the first in her Italian-immigrant family to graduate from college. Despite the university scholarship covering her tuition, there were other costs involved in her higher education.
“Everything was a financial struggle when I was at Syracuse,” she recalls.
But she persevered and earned her undergrad degree in English and history before heading off to Wake Forest University School of Law, where she was granted another academic scholarship alleviating most of her financial worries. What expenses she did have were offset by working as a part-time paralegal at a couple of different law firms, one of which was Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, which hired Caperton after graduation.
“I ended up having a much better time in law school because I was less stressed.”
Recognizing her own struggles along the way, Caperton embraces the opportunities to assist others. As a board member with Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholars, she helps provide first-generation college students the resources needed to pursue higher education. Mentoring young women who are pursuing careers in the financial services industry is time she feels is well spent and gives her hope for the future of the industry.
VELVET ON THE HAMMER
Today, Caperton’s communication as a leader is direct. She is forthright when making her expectations clear, and in holding her people accountable for their performance.
“Not that I expect zero problems, but I do expect complete transparency,” she comments. “I always say the worst thing you can do is surprise me. If there is an issue, if you have made a mistake, just put your hand up. Own up to it. We will figure it out. I don’t like surprises. I definitely don’t like it when people hide the ball.”
Just how directly — and forcefully — Caperton communicates came to the attention of fellow Wells Fargo executive Rebecca Henderson, who Caperton counts as one of the many people who positively influenced her career. It was Henderson who memorably told Caperton, “You need to put a little velvet on that hammer,” which Caperton rightly interpreted to mean, “Tone it down, don’t be quite so hard-charging and insistent.”
“I have been too direct at times in my career,” she acknowledges, “and I have worked hard to make sure I am thinking about how my delivery is landing on others. That intensity comes naturally to me, so I need to make sure I’m mindful of that.”
Indeed, that intensity was made plain during Caperton’s interview for this story.
MAKING A DASH FOR IT
“I am a runner,” Caperton says, as declaratively as a person putting a stake in the ground, “and have been one for a long time — and a triathlete. I love being outdoors. I much prefer that to being in a gym.”
For this executive, running is cathartic. It’s also a moving meditation, of sorts. Caperton admits to having difficulty quieting her rambunctious mind. Running is an activity that allows her to “unplug,” and so is swimming and reading.
“I have tried to meditate, and I continue to try, but I haven’t mastered that yet.”
She has experienced the so-called runner’s high and describes the emotion as analogous to listening to a favorite piece of music. The feeling is that “all is right with the world.”
“For me it occurs when you are at a point in time where you are thinking about quitting because you’re on the fence as to whether or not you can make it,” she says. “You are just about to quit, and you convince yourself to continue, and that is when it happens. It’s like, ‘okay, I worked through that really difficult spell and now feel like a million bucks, because I was true to myself and true to my goal.’”
All that athleticism came to a temporary cessation months ago when Caperton suffered a bad skiing accident resulting in a massive knee injury. Following her surgery, she couldn’t put any weight on that leg for several weeks, and needed months of physical therapy.
“I will not be running anytime soon,” she laments, “so I have to come up with some other strategy. Probably swimming.”
One assumes any competitive runner and triathlete is competitive by nature. Caperton quickly amends the notion by pointing out that she is not a competitive person vis-à-vis others, but is highly competitive with herself.
“I love to push myself and usually set a goal in terms of some form of achievement for myself, but I am really not competitive with others.”
THE NTH DEGREE
Obviously, in the end, Wells Fargo got the deal it wanted. In retrospect, Caperton considers the grueling effort to find a buyer for Wachovia Bank to be a monumental turning point in her career.
“Coming out on the other side, I could not help but feel that if I could successfully make it through something like that, I could do almost anything,” she says. “That was such a pivotal turning point for me in terms of a battlefield promotion to the nth degree.”
Mike Consol (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor of Real Assets Adviser. Follow him on Twitter @mikeconsol to read his latest postings.