Wells Fargo Lost Its Soul When It Quit the Iditarod
In the winter of 1925, a deadly diphtheria epidemic hit the isolated town of Nome, on Alaska's far northwest coast. Diphtheria killed entire towns in those days, and some 10,000 people were in real mortal danger. The antitoxin on hand had long expired, but it was administered anyway to save the life of a young girl. When it failed, the only doctor in Nome sent out an urgent plea by radio for help.
Fresh antitoxin was found in Anchorage and rushed by rail the 300 miles to Nenana. From there, over six days in January, twenty dogsled teams carried the serum 674 miles to Nome in temperatures as low as -85 degrees Fahrenheit. It arrived just in time, and it limited deaths there to just a handful.
Today, the Alaskan Iditarod – "The Last Great Race on Earth" – commemorates the 1925 race against time and the heroic dogsled teams that accomplished theepic feat. Begun in 1973, the Iditarod (pronounced eye-DIT-ah-rod) has joined the Kentucky Derby and Indy 500 as one of America's most iconic racing events. This is rarified air territory, as quintessentially American as Steve McQueen, the '57 Chevy, and Route 66.
The world's best dogs and dogsled mushers now come to Alaska each year to compete at the annual event. On March 4, sixty-seven sled teams left Willow, Alaska for Nome in the 46th running of the 1,000-mile race. Sadly missing was Wells Fargo, one of the event's biggest sponsors, which had supported the Iditarod every year from 1999-2017. Wells quit the race last year after caving in to pressure from one of the world's most extreme animal rights groups.
Wells Fargo is the second biggest bank in the United States by assets and the third biggest in the world by market capitalization. Based in San Francisco, it has operated continuously since 1852, when it first offered banking and overland mail services to the '49ers who flocked to the California gold rush. Itself an iconic American brand, Wells has reinforced its corporate image in modern times by playing to America's pride in its 19th-century western heritage. Desert landscapes, with rampaging stagecoaches and men riding shotgun, have long been the advertising mainstay of the Wells Fargo identity.
The last eighteen months have been cataclysmic for the bank. In late 2016, after opening millions of fake customer accounts, it was fined $100 million by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and another $85 million by other government entities. In 2017, it admitted to charging over 800,000 customers for unwanted auto insurance, on top of which it agreed to pay $108 million for charging hidden mortgage fees to American veterans. New York City cut ties with the bank in May 2017, and in February 2018 – in "one of the strongest federal rebukes to a big bank since the 2007 financial crisis" – the Federal Reserve Board restricted the bank's growth and replaced four of its board members.
All of this can be chalked up to weak corporate character and bad corporate governance. But quitting The Last Great Race transcended that. When it pulled its support for the Iditarod in May 2017, Wells Fargo lost its soul. Incredibly, it said it had dropped the Iditarod to "build and enhance relationships with customers and the broader community." A Wells Fargo banker confirmed that, telling me at the time that it was because of customer base values.
Wells Fargo has its hat on backwards, and I'm not the only one who thinks so. The bank ranked eleventh on the 2018 list of America's 20 Most Hated Companies, just after Cigna and just before The Trump Organization.
In its craven exhibition of spinelessness, Wells Fargo caved in to not just anyone. It caved in to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). PETA was founded in 1980 by animal rights activist Ingrid Newkirk, who was born in Britain and raised in India. PETA is the world's largest and most virulently aggressive animal rights organization, and it is also one of the most radical and extreme. While it doesn't officially engage in violence, it formally supports domestic terror groups like the Animal Liberation Front.
When Wells Fargo abandoned the Iditarod, it reduced the purse from $750,000 to $500,000. But The Last Great Race isn't all about money, and don't expect Alaskans to dwell on it – they have a lot more character than the company that quit the field. As the sled dog teams work their way toward Nome, and Wells Fargo licks its corporate wounds, it's worth contemplating how a bank could fall so precipitously to Earth. Maybe it's character, and maybe it's the karma of a company that lost its soul.
Jeff Goodson, a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer, has worked with industry, government, academia, and the private sector on project development, execution, and troubleshooting for more than four decades.