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Executive Profile

Iron Will
Will Spence is dogged in serving his community
because he knows it's good for Wachovia's bottom line

By Phil Kirk

It’s not surprising that Wachovia Corp.’s top banker in the Carolinas would be heavily involved in community affairs because that’s been the bank’s culture for decades. It’s also par for the course that Will Spence, CEO of Carolinas Wachovia Corp., would watch the bottom line while also watching out for Winston-Salem. For example, Spence has played a leading role in transforming downtown into a vibrant, thriving center for commerce, education, healthcare and entertainment. But he also watches the nickels.

“To the best of my knowledge in Winston-Salem we have not had an arts festival since the l940s,” he says. “We just experienced a beautifully done ArtsIgnite, which was an absolute success. Ticket sales exceeded our expectations. We even made a profit.”

The arts festival went swimmingly because it was well planned, Spence says. “We offered something for everyone — from chamber music to ballet, as well as the play ‘Hush,’ in partnership with Winston-Salem State University and the North Carolina Black Repertory Theatre.”

“He believes in what he does for the Arts Council, and therefore accomplishes it,” says Robert Chumbley, president and CEO of the Arts Council. “He is one of the most dedicated and passionate volunteers I have met in my 20 years as an arts professional. Without his guidance and generosity, the arts in Winston-Salem would not be as complete and effective as they are.”

Spence, who recently turned 60, clearly believes cultural activities are an integral part of economic development and downtown revitalization for Winston-Salem. “During a three-week period there were lots of people spending money downtown and that is good for the economy,” he notes.

Largely through his work with the Winston-Salem Alliance and the Greater Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce, activity is increasing in downtown. “Winston-Salem is a great place to live and work,” he says. “I believe it is important to put something positive back into the community. If the community does well, the bank does well."

Doing good for others because it’s good for you is a lesson that has guided Will Spence during his rise through the ranks of Wachovia to become the banking giant’s top executive in North and South Carolina.

Those lessons learned from his parents included the notion that hard work is both honorable and acceptable, along with being taught at an early age that whatever he did, he should always give his best.

“I also learned to keep and honor your word and that living up to responsibility is very important,” Spence says.

Born in Clayton to Wilbert and Ruth Spence, he moved with his family to Goldsboro in the sixth grade. His father was a farmer and later worked for Borden Manufacturing in Goldsboro. His mother, who also gave birth to two daughters and another son, still lives in Goldsboro.

“When we were growing up, our family was very close,” Spence remembers. “We had a lot of relatives and we saw them regularly. We were a warm, caring family.”

He recalls that he learned especially from his mother that “we should care for other people, our family and our neighbors.”

That philosophy has been an integral part of Spence’s career in Wachovia. Whether in Raleigh, Columbia, S.C., Charlotte or Winston-Salem, the banking executive has been extremely active in community affairs. Of course, that high level of visibility, participation and leadership has been good for Wachovia, but Spence exudes enthusiasm for community projects far beyond what his job description may require.

Fellow Wachovian Walter McDowell puts it this way. “Will Spence is a great market leader who always puts customers and employees first. He is a tireless community servant, having recently played a critical role in bringing ArtsIgnite to Winston-Salem.”

That philosophy is the Wachovia-Spence philosophy. The bank is recognized as one of the top corporate citizens of North Carolina with a heavy emphasis on education. Spence is proud of Wachovia’s Reading First program where employees read to school children and then donate the books to schools. Proceeds from the Wachovia Championship, a highly anticipated men’s professional golf tournament that debuts in Charlotte in May, will go to Teach for America, a program that sends teachers into rural and inner-city schools, much like the Peace Corps concept.

“We give our employees four hours of paid time off each month to do volunteer activity,” Spence proudly points out.

A graduate of Goldsboro High School and the College of Management at N.C. State University, Spence spent three years in the U.S. Army. It was there that Spence learned qualities that have aided him in his move through the various levels of banking at Wachovia. “The military taught me discipline and the importance of working as a member of the team,” he says.

One of his years in the Army was spent in Thule, Greenland, near the North Pole. He found that area of the world to be “depressing,” and partially to erase some of those personal feelings about the area, he became heavily involved in athletics. He earned his black belt in karate. A little-known fact in his background is that while in Raleigh, he taught karate at the Lions Community Center. During his time in the Army, he was on the boxing team as well.

Spence, despite an unbelievable travel schedule throughout the Carolinas, stays trim by running five miles four times a week and doing push-ups and sit-ups, often in hotel rooms when no gym is readily available. His day normally begins at 5:30.

Working from his office in Winston-Salem, his duties with the “new” Wachovia are the same as his former position leading the various banking activities in North and South Carolina. This position was created in July l999 and Spence moved from Columbia to Charlotte. Last year he relocated to Winston-Salem as the merger with First Union began.

He feels the merger is going well. “We are moving at a slow, deliberate speed so we don’t interrupt the high levels of service our customers expect,” he says. “The conversion in Florida is taking place now, and the Carolinas conversion is scheduled for the spring. It has gone off flawlessly. I am not aware of any bumps. Not enough time has passed yet for us to declare victory, but we will.”

Ben Jenkins, president of Wachovia’s General Banking Group, has no doubts about Spence’s optimism for the future success of the bank. “He has immense passion for customers and demands nothing less than first-rate customer care from the people who work for him,” Jenkins says. “Will has the banking business in his blood and in his bones. He knows it so well, and he loves to be at the center of competing for and winning business. He is an effective, experienced and accomplished banking executive and a dedicated leader. He is a great asset to our company.”

Spence says his management style “is basically a reflection of all the great leaders I have served under, going back to Lee Swanson, Betsy Myrick and Gene Hardin, whom I worked with during my formative years in Raleigh.

“I believe in setting very high expectations and in holding people accountable. I believe I am quick to celebrate successes and let people know their work is appreciated. We always do what is in the best interests of the customer, and I expect all of us to hold true to that commitment.”

Spence’s work ethic has impressed those with whom he has worked throughout his 33 years at Wachovia. L.M. (Bud) Baker, Wachovia’s chairman, says, “The ingredients that make up Will Spence are found in outstanding leaders and individuals all over the world and across time. The first and foremost is unimpeachable integrity and strong personal values. The next is intellectual stature and professional accomplishment. The third is the desire and ability to freely communicate with constituents."

He continues. “The last is absolute, stainless steel determination. The truth is, Will Spence just can’t stand the thought that you bank with someone else. Customers know and appreciate this and it benefits them.”

Banking has obviously gone through many changes since Spence chose to go to work for Wachovia in l969 despite offers of more money from other companies in Winston-Salem. “I wanted to go into banking and I liked what I saw at Wachovia through my friends who worked there,” he says.

Spence says the two major industry changes he has witnessed are in technology and in the products and services that financial institutions offer to their customers. “Technology gives us the capabilities to serve customers far exceeding anything we previously thought possible,” he says. “And we have more products and services that I ever dreamed of.”

As for the future, “Whatever changes come will be better for our customers and our employees,” he notes. “There will be more choices and more services. Of course, there will be more flexibility in the way we serve our customers.”

At one time, the banking industry was looking at fewer branches because of advances in serving customers through technology. “However, many say they want to continue to bank face-to-face with our employees rather than on-line, so we are investing in branches,” he says.

He recommends his chosen profession for young people to consider. “Obviously I wouldn’t have stayed for 33 years if it were not exciting and challenging. Wachovia provides unlimited opportunities for growth and advancement.”

Diversity is a high priority on Spence’s agenda. “We are totally committed to diversity. In the Carolinas, I chair our Diversity Council. It’s good business that the bank recognizes diversity in hiring, retaining and promoting. Our customers want to do business with a bank that does business this way.”

Spence works hard and expects the same from his employees. He is not a workaholic but he thinks Wachovia during every waking hour. Jeff Scott, Wachovia’s human resources manager, recalls an incident that proves the point. “Not long after he came to South Carolina years ago, we were having lunch together at a local restaurant,” Scott says. “He noticed the menu was somewhat worn, sought out the manager, and offered to pay for a reprint if the restaurant would name one of their sandwiches after Wachovia.”

Scott echoes that Spence’s commitment to his company is unsurpassed. “As a great believer in the quality and uniqueness of Wachovia, Will cannot understand why anyone would bank elsewhere,” he says. “By his actions he then instills this pride and passion in all Wachovians.”

Spence has no pending retirement plans, except perhaps to spend more time with his children. Daughter Teddie graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and earned her graduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania. She works for Novant in Charlotte. Jeff, an employee of Sprint, is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he majored in accounting. He and his wife Connie also call Charlotte home.

When Spence does begin looking beyond his time at Wachovia, he shouldn’t be without options. For one, he would make an outstanding lecturer at the College of Management at N.C. State, his alma mater, and where he also was an original board member, chaired the college’s advisory board from l993-96, and helped to hire the first dean and re-model the program’s facilities.

His experience, coupled with his candor and no-nonsense style, would make him an invaluable, effective role model and teacher, Scott says. “I have been strongly influenced and motivated by his leadership. He has a strong belief that all employees can make a positive contribution to Wachovia. His management style is to shamelessly and outwardly praise good work and this has caused those around him to work harder and smarter so as to live up to that praise. For me, personally, there is no more powerful form of motivation than this.”

If the recently revealed handful of corrupt high-profile CEOs had demonstrated the characteristics of Will Spence — integrity, hard work, enthusiasm, team player, focused, and a clear thinker — they might still be spending time in board rooms rather than courtrooms.

Their companies, just like Wachovia — not to mention the entire business community — would be much the better for it.

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