In a New York Times (NYT) Dealb%k article, entitledWells Fargo Vice Chairwoman to Succeed Departing Chairman”, Stacy Cowley reported that the Wells Fargo Board of Directors Chairperson, Stephen W. Sanger, will retire at the end of the year and will be succeeded by Elizabeth Duke, a former Federal Reserve Board governor. Also, standing down are Cynthia H. Milligan and Susan G. Swenson, both who joined the Board in the 1990s. In addition to the elevation of Duke to the Chairperson role, retired PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) executive Juan A. Pujadas, will join the board next month. These departures leave at least one seat still open on the Wells Fargo Board.

In addition to Duke succeeding Sanger, the Board also announced that “the board’s risk committee, which is responsible for watching for potential problems, will soon be under new leadership. Next month, Karen B. Peetz, a retired Bank of New York Mellon president who joined Wells Fargo’s board this year, will take over as chairwoman of the committee, the bank said on Tuesday. Ms. Peetz will succeed Enrique Hernandez Jr., who had led the committee since 2012. He was re-elected to the bank’s board by shareholders four months ago with 53 percent of the vote, the lowest total of any director.”

My plea to the company is to hire someone with direct compliance experience for this final seat on the Board of Directors.

Ms. Duke’s experience in the regulatory world was one of the reasons touted in her elevation to the Chairperson’s role. However, experience in the regulatory world is very different from experience in the compliance realm which focuses on the mission, vision and values of a corporation through the tripartite process of prevent, detect and remediate. In addition to getting its regulatory house in order, Wells Fargo has one very large culture problem which needs compliance expertise. Even for a former Bank president, the issue of compliance is at the absolute forefront of Wells Fargo’s miasma.

The Wells Fargo Board needs someone with compliance expertise to oversee of the role of the Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) and the bank’s compliance function which clearly was not up to the task of preventing illegal or even unethical conduct. With Board oversight of compliance, the senior executives provide the Board with a certain level of information and reporting which is an outcome of how senior management and the C-Suite has defined the compliance risk appetite.

Some of the questions the Board should ask include how would management review compliance and monitor the key compliance risk of the bank? Every company and bank have a compliance risk appetite and based on that risk appetite different metrics would be set up on the different compliance risk dimensions that impact the company. How would you measure that risk? What are the benchmarks that the bank would set up? What are some of the sheet maps that they would do to gauge the sensitivity of the risk? The information would vary, yet it is geared around the outcome of the overall compliance risk appetite that the company has set up. The compliance expert would help the Board to oversee, review and monitor that risk.

In addition to the compliance risk there are the mission, vision and values types of risks which could be thought of as a peoples’ risk, reputational risk, technology risk and cyber risk. There are different risk dimensions that impact the company and having true compliance expertise leads to overall Board accountability for compliance risk, brings in someone who can understand and oversee compliance risk management systems; compliance internal controls; the information flow up to the Board and back down to the CCO; and finally, can guide the Board in shaping an appropriate tone from the very highest parts of the organization to try and restore the Bank’s tarnished reputation.

What are some of the skills and background such a person could bring to the Wells Fargo Board? The person would need good in-depth knowledge and understanding of financial institutions and their business models so they appreciate the risk challenges. Obviously financial expertise for scenarios and framework and then you need to have some technical ability to understand the stress testing dynamics and the measurement tools. The position needs to be filled by someone who has worked at the highest levels of banking or a financial institute both as an executive and a Board member. Finally, the position needs to be occupied by someone who has been in the compliance field for a significant amount of time, i.e. 20+ years. Think that is a tall order? I am certain such a person exists and Wells Fargo needs that person now.

More generally, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) has called for greater compliance expertise at the Board. In 2015, OIG said that a Board can raise its level of substantive expertise with respect to regulatory and compliance matters by adding a compliance member to the Board. The presence of a such a compliance professional with subject matter expertise (SME) on the Board sends a strong message about the organization’s commitment to compliance, provides a valuable resource to other Board members, and helps the Board better fulfill its oversight obligations.

Mike Volkov looked at it from both a practical and business perspective and has stated, “I have witnessed firsthand that companies that have a board member with compliance expertise usually have a more aggressive and effective compliance program. In this situation, a Chief Compliance Officer has to answer to the board for the company’s compliance program, while receiving the resources and support to accomplish compliance tasks.”

Roy Snell sees it through the prism of the compliance profession and has said, “If you ask most companies if they have compliance expertise on their Board… most would say yes. When asked who the compliance expert is they typically point to a lawyer, auditor, risk manager, or an ethicist. None of these professions are automatically compliance experts. All lawyers have different specialties.” He has stated that what regulators want to see is specific compliance expertise at the Board level. He noted, “What the government is looking for is not generic compliance expertise. They are looking for compliance program management expertise.”

Hui Chen, the former Department of Justice (DOJ) Compliance Counsel, continually talked about the need for companies to operationalize their compliance programs. Having a Board member with specific compliance expertise, heading a Board Level Compliance expert can provide a level of oversight and commitment to achieving this goal.

In the NYT piece, Cowley cited to, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, who noted Duke’s elevation “is a sign that the board — which has drawn criticism from some shareholders for not doing more to watch for or prevent the bank’s misdeeds — plans to continue on its current path”. He went on to state, “Things just keep coming out of the woodwork”. Clearly the bad news continues to hang a pall over Wells Fargo. By bringing in a true compliance expert, the bank can demonstrate it has begun to chart a new path which hopefully move it to an institution known for its compliance.


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© Thomas R. Fox, 2017