Growing from the outside In

Growing from the outside In

 

An unprecedented wave of deregulation rewrote the banking industry’s rule book beginning in the early 1970s. And to seize the opportunities created, Huntington Bank broke with tradition, picking a president unlike any other in its history.

An unprecedented wave of deregulation rewrote the banking industry’s rule book beginning in the early 1970s. And to seize the opportunities created, Huntington Bank broke with tradition, picking a president unlike any other in its history.

Frank Wobst was the first Huntington president recruited from outside the organization. He was also born in Germany and lived there until he was 24. He spoke only a few words of English when he arrived in the United States in 1958, and entering banking was never part of his career plan.1

Wobst and his American-born wife, Joan, who had met as college students in Göttingen, settled in Lynchburg, Virginia, where they lived with Wobst’s mother-in-law. Through friends, Wobst, who had a degree in economics, received his only job offer, in Fidelity National Bank’s management training program. He learned banking’s nuts and bolts hands-on, working in the backroom and even filling in occasionally at the teller’s window.2

“He learned quickly, and he rose quickly,” Joan Wobst said.3

Frank Wobst ultimately was an executive vice president at Fidelity American Bankshares, the bank’s holding company. He was considered to replace Fidelity’s retiring president,4 but was passed over. Feeling he would have a hard time working for the man chosen, Wobst listened when a headhunter told him Huntington National Bank was looking for its own president.

Huntington chose Wobst. He served as president of the bank from 1974 until 1981, when he was named CEO of Huntington Bancshares. He oversaw Huntington’s evolution from a central Ohio bank to one with a statewide and eventually a powerful regional presence.

Throughout his time at Huntington, Wobst operated with a distinctive style and a firm hand.

“He ran a tight ship,” said Bill Lhota, former chief operating officer of Ohio Power Co., a longtime Huntington customer and eventually a director at Huntington Bancshares through much of Wobst’s tenure. “If a board meeting was supposed to start at 2 o’clock, you were in your seat by two minutes until 2 (o’clock) at least because the trains ran on time.

“He expected perfection from (himself), and he expected it from others. I liked the way he ran the bank.”5

Still, when Wobst retired in 2001 after 27 years at Huntington, his impact extended beyond the bank’s footprint and even beyond banking.

Though Wobst became a U.S. citizen in 1963, Dresden was never far from his thoughts. When his son, Franck, was young, Wobst and he would often drive to the airport to watch planes come and go.

“Mom says it was really because he was envisioning getting on a plane and visiting his parents,” Franck Wobst said. “I think he had a great deal of homesickness.”6

In 1992, Wobst led the effort to formally establish a sister-city relationship between Columbus and Dresden. As Friends of Dresden chairman, Wobst helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore the city’s magnificent Frauenkirche (“Church of Our Lady”), which had been reduced to rubble during the firebombing of Dresden in 1945, and rebuild the city’s only synagogue, destroyed by the Nazis on Kristallnacht in 1938.7

The relationship Wobst helped forge between Dresden and Columbus led to a variety of exchanges, including artistic and educational programs, that have left Wobst’s adopted hometown culturally richer.

“He was very proud of the changes he had been a part of,” Joan Wobst said of her husband, who died in 2009 at age 76. “To be part of that is a wonderful legacy, I think.”8

Copy of 1980s Wobst

Frank Wobst in the early 1980s. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Columbus Citizen newspaper.

 

Copy of 1984 Wobst and other executives

CEO Frank Wobst with newly promoted Huntington Bank executives in 1984. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Columbus Citizen newspaper.