Walter Wriston, 1919-2005

John S. Reed, who regarded Wriston as a mentor and who succeeded him as Citicorp chairman, recalls what made him such a seminal figure in finance.

I started working for Walt Wriston when I was a just-hired trainee and he was running the overseas division of what was then First National City Bank. This was in 1965. I continued to work for him until he retired in 1984.

Walt was a leader and visionary. The financial industry that exists today was shaped by his vision. Our laws and regulatory structure reflect his views. Citigroup is as he imagined it might be, save only for the lack of a major information business. He was early to recognize that money is simply information and that banking, computers and information would come together. I suspect that time will prove him to be correct on this subject, too.

Working for Walt was fun, demanding and always interesting. He had a great command of the language and inevitably saw the world in incisive and novel ways. He always took risks on people, particularly younger ones. He loved their new ideas and was willing to give them a try and stick with them even when they struggled.

Walt was fundamentally quiet and self-contained. He sometimes seemed sharp, possibly even forbidding, but I always sensed that this was his protective coating, needed to give himself space. He could be amazingly kind and supportive.

It is hard now to imagine banking in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Walt was early to give voice to what seemed to be the revolutionary idea that banks should focus on making money, on earning a return on equity. He organized the bank around customers and recognized that all aspects of the “money business” could be folded first into a holding company structure and eventually a single institution. He tried to get us into the insurance business in the mid-'60s.

We were always up against regulatory barriers, but over time his logic helped these melt away. He loved information technology and knew that it would become key to the industry, just as he knew that our far-flung operations around the world would simply become one.

For those of us who worked with Walt and knew him, his passing is a loss. At the same time, in many, many ways, today’s financial business is a celebration of his life.

Reed is chairman of the New York Stock Exchange.

Modern banking and former Citicorp chairman Walter Wriston, who died on January 19 at 85, came of age together. Wriston joined National City Bank of New York in 1946 as a junior officer in the comptroller’s division after three years’ service in the U.S. Army. A graduate of Wesleyan University with an MA from Tufts University’s Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy, Wriston rose rapidly -- shaking up banking customs. In 1961 he devised the negotiable certificate of deposit, and upon becoming president in 1967 of what was then First National City Bank, he ventured into entirely new business lines for banks, such as leasing and data processing. Soon his company had become the quintessential “all things to all people” bank on a global scale: a dominant lender to corporations, governments and, through the marketing muscle that it put into credit cards, consumers. Wriston’s record was not unblemished. Aggressive lending to third-world countries strained the bank’s solvency and helped precipitate the 1980s emerging-markets debt crisis. Yet when Wriston retired in 1984, Citicorp was indisputably the world’s most innovative banking company -- and the biggest. In retirement he penned two books whose titles encapsulate his philosophy: Risk and Other Four-Letter Words and Twilight of Sovereignty: How the Information Revolution Is Transforming Our World. He wrote, “The new electronic infrastructure of the world turns the whole planet into a marketplace for ideas.” Walter Wriston flourished in that marketplace.