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A Most Valuable Player

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a curveball specialist on the Stanford University baseball squad in the mid-1960s, Richard M. Kovacevich couldn’t overwhelm batters with speed like his teammate Jim Lonborg did.

But Kovacevich compiled an outstanding record in big-time college baseball by using pinpoint control to get batters to hit the ball where his fielders could handle it.

Lonborg went on to star for the Boston Red Sox, while Kovacevich, as chairman and chief executive of Norwest Corp., has employed the same teamwork skills he learned on the ball field to help build the Minneapolis firm into one of the nation’s premier regional banks.

“He’s definitely a collaborator, not a micro-manager,” said William H. Ellis, a longtime friend of Kovacevich and a former senior executive of the Minneapolis-based brokerage Piper Jaffray.

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Robert Rollo, a Los Angeles-based executive recruiter, says that Kovacevich himself may be the most valuable asset that Norwest brings to its proposed merger with Wells Fargo & Co. when he takes over as chief executive of the combined company.

In contrast with Wells Chairman and CEO Paul Hazen, whose management style a professional acquaintance termed “cerebral but cold,” Kovacevich, 54, has shown an ability to inspire his work force.

In 1986, when Kovacevich was recruited from Citicorp to be Norwest’s chief operating officer, “this place was flat on its back,” senior Norwest spokesman Larry Haeg said.

The bank’s headquarters building had been destroyed by fire, and its finances had been rocked by bad agricultural, international and mortgage loans, Haeg said.

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Then-Chairman Lloyd Johnson, a Minnesotan who had been a senior executive at Security Pacific Bancorp, tapped Kovacevich as the best person to “build a new culture” at Norwest, Haeg said.

The culture Kovacevich built was described by a Minneapolis businessman as “just as aggressive [as] but more human” than the climate prevailing across town at U.S. Bancorp, a rival bidder for Wells Fargo run by hard-nosed John F. “Jack” Grundhofer, himself a former Wells executive.

Kovacevich gives his managers lots of autonomy and uses performance-driven pay packages to add incentive. He is known as a marketing whiz who tries to apply to banking the techniques of such superior marketers as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and McDonald’s Corp.

The 6-foot-3 executive, a native of suburban Tacoma, Wash., is married with three grown children. He keeps himself trim by joining full-court pickup basketball games with 25-year-olds and by playing club-championship caliber tennis.

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Ellis, a sometime golfing partner, said Kovacevich’s style on the golf course is “competitive but not overbearing. He’s not a win-at-all-costs type of guy.”

Kovacevich’s image as a jock sometimes makes people forget that he finished first in his class as an undergraduate at Stanford and then picked up a master’s degree in industrial engineering and an MBA, both also at Stanford.

According to one insider, Kovacevich impressed the Wells directors with a bravura performance that showed a total command of the details of his business, a grasp of the big-picture issues and--most significant--"a passion” for making the merger work.

“He showed he was no one-dimensional marketer,” the observer said.

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Kovacevich once told Stanford Business School classmate John B. McCoy, now chairman of Banc One Corp., that he couldn’t imagine himself as a banker. But after starting his career as a strategic planner at General Mills Inc. and chief of the firm’s then-toy-making subsidiary, Kenner Products, he was lured to Citicorp in 1975 by John Reed, now its chairman.

Like BankAmerica Corp. Chairman David Coulter, Kovacevich fits the “nice guy” profile, but with “more oomph and power,” Rollo, the executive recruiter, said.

Irv Weiser, chairman and chief executive of Minneapolis brokerage Dain Rauscher, found himself on the opposite side of an issue from Kovacevich earlier this year when both men went to Washington to meet with congressional leaders on bank reform legislation.

Bankers generally seek increased powers to enter the brokerage business, while the securities industry wants to hang on to its turf.

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“Dick started telling me quite forcefully what his opinion was and what mine should be,” recalled Weiser, who regards the banker as a friend.

“ ‘Relaxed’ is not a word I’d use for Dick,” Weiser said, “but he’s certainly not abrasive.”


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