Edward E. Crutchfield, a banker who grew a small North Carolina bank into one of the nation’s largest through a deal-making spree that earned him the nickname “Fast Eddie” and helped establish Charlotte, N.C., as a national financial hub, died on Jan. 2 at his home in Vero Beach, Fla. He was 82.
His death was confirmed by his son, Elliott, who said his father had dementia.
When Mr. Crutchfield graduated from business school in 1965, he took a job as a credit analyst at First Union bank in Charlotte. It was the lowest-paying job he was offered, but he thought he could move up faster at a smaller bank. He sensed opportunity at the bank and in the region, he told his family and colleagues.
Both hunches paid off. At age 32, just seven years after he joined First Union, he became its president and was thought to be the youngest person in the country to hold that title at a sizable bank. His ambitions were broadened by a 1985 Supreme Court ruling legalizing interstate banking. The decision empowered Mr. Crutchfield, by then his bank’s chairman and chief executive, to gobble up rival banks and failed thrifts, transforming First Union into a super-regional bank with thousands of branches throughout the Southeast.
“I just had a feeling that what turned out to be the Sun Belt would be a good bet,” he told The New York Times in 1983, shortly before he began his buying binge. “I guess we’re rubbing the rabbit’s foot the right way.”
By the time Mr. Crutchfield retired in 2000, First Union had acquired more than 90 banking and lending companies and become the nation’s sixth-largest bank by assets. In 2001, First Union merged with Wachovia, taking on the other bank’s name. Wells Fargo bought Wachovia in 2008, during the meltdown that reshaped the financial industry.
Mr. Crutchfield’s imprint lives on in the outsize role Charlotte still plays in the banking industry. Wells Fargo has 27,000 workers there, more than it employs at its San Francisco headquarters.
“Ed just had a vision that he thought we could be one of the best and one of the largest banks in America, and that’s what he grew it to,” said Austin Adams, who was First Union’s chief information officer for 17 years.
Edward Elliott Crutchfield Jr. was born on July 14, 1941, in Dearborn, Mich., and raised in Albemarle, N.C., a rural town about 40 miles east of Charlotte. His father worked for the F.B.I. before becoming a lawyer and county judge. His mother, Katherine (Sikes) Crutchfield, was a high-school teacher.
He attended Davidson College on a football scholarship and graduated in 1963, then earned an M.B.A. from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. His marriage to Nancy Robson ended in divorce. In 1996, he married Barbara Massa, who was First Union’s director of corporate communications. In addition to his son, he is survived by a daughter, Sally Davis, both children of his first marriage; a stepdaughter, Elizabeth Howze; his wife; and five grandchildren.
At First Union, he quickly established himself as a go-getter. Shortly after joining the bank, he set up its municipal bond department. In 1968, at 26, he was asked to fix serious problems in the bank’s credit card operations. He kept the back office operation open 24 hours a day and brought in a cot to sleep on. “I felt I had to be there to welcome the midnight shift and the 8 o’clock shift,” he told The Times.
As a manager he had a reputation as a non-delegator, a style he had to adjust as the bank grew. But when he acquired a new bank, one of the first things he would do was take over the bank’s investment portfolio. He was also quick to rebrand new acquisitions, developing what Mr. Adams called “the most rapid integration model in the country.”
“It was never more than 11 months from the time we announced the transaction until we had converted all the systems, changed the signs, the products, the branches, everything,” Mr. Adams said.
Mr. Crutchfield was “a quintessential Southerner” who loved hunting, fly-fishing and living far away from Wall Street, according to his son. “He relished our underdog status, and got as much enjoyment seeing Charlotte outgrow its rivals as he did First Union outgrow other banks,” the younger Mr. Crutchfield said.
When he set his eyes on a target, he didn’t like to be defeated. To persuade Malcolm McDonald to sell Signet Banking Corporation to First Union in 1997 for $3.25 billion, Mr. Crutchfield quipped, “I just kept stacking billion-dollar bills on the table until Mac said yes.”
There were stumbles. In 1998, First Union bought CoreStates Financial for $17 billion — a record six times the bank’s book value and, at the time, the largest banking merger in U.S. history — and then lost 20 percent of CoreStates’ two million customers in an effort to direct them away from human tellers and toward phone and internet service. One of Mr. Crutchfield’s final purchases, of the home-equity lender the Money Store, turned into a cash sinkhole and was soon shuttered by his successor.
Ken Gepfert, a First Union employee who worked for several years as Mr. Crutchfield’s speechwriter, said his boss once recounted a conversation he had with his father, who was also a devoted fisherman, about his bank’s acquisitive streak.
“His father said, ‘Son, I hope you’re not catching those faster than you can string them,’” Mr. Gepfert said. “Ed knew First Union needed to expand quickly to survive in interstate banking. But privately, he always said that one of his biggest fears was that First Union would get too big and lose its kind of community-minded roots.”