Bruce Marks was kicked out of Wells Fargo’s annual meeting. But that doesn’t mean he’s going away.
“Tuesday was just the beginning. It’s only going to get worse for these guys,” Marks, an activist with a long history of throwing verbal bombs at big banks, told CNNMoney.
The day before his outburst halted Wells Fargo’s shareholder meeting, Marks launched the Wells Fargo Justice Campaign. The grassroots fight is aimed at mobilizing Wells Fargo customers to dump the bank and fired employees to join lawsuits.
“We want to make sure people understand the Wells Fargo brand is toxic for consumers,” said Marks, who leads a nonprofit that helps homeowners fight foreclosure.
One of the criticisms of Wells Fargo centers around how much top executives and its board of directors knew about the scandal, and why they didn’t do more to stop it.
Marks interrupted the Wells Fargo shareholder meeting last week by screaming at the bank’s directors, demanding they explain what they knew about the bank’s fake account scandal. He asked board members if they had “the guts” to explain if they “were complicit or incompetent” in their knowledge of the scandal where 5,300 employee were fired for creating some two million fake accounts.
Wells Fargo execs pleaded with Marks to sit down because he was out of order and eventually had to stop the meeting temporarily.
Marks said he was “dragged out” of the meeting by security and the sheriff’s department. He received a summons, as well as a lifetime ban from the Marriott Sawgrass, the Florida hotel that hosted the meeting.
But the activist denied initial claims by Wells Fargo Chairman Stephen Sanger that he made a physical approach to the board.
“No I did not. I’m 5’8″ on a good day, 61 years old and 170 pounds,” Marks said. (Sanger later said he would apologize to Marks if he was mistaken in claiming Marks had approached the board.)
A Wells Fargo spokesman said the bank gave Marks “every opportunity to be a participant,” but he “made every attempt to dictate his own rules for the meeting.”
Marks believes the episode shows that Wells Fargo’s board and management “live in a bubble.”
“They feel threatened when anyone raises their voice and questions them,” said Marks, who grew up in a middle-class family outside New York City and today heads the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America.
Marks is no stranger to yelling at corporations. He has previously been kicked out of shareholder meetings held by Ford, JPMorgan Chase and First Union.
“And there were others,” he said.
Marks said his goal is to hold executives personally responsible by going to their annual meetings, homes and social clubs to confront them. One time he even used rafts to try to confront Jamie Dimon at the JPMorgan CEO’s waterfront home.
“You go everywhere they are to hold them personally responsible. It’s nonviolent, but it’s aggressive,” he said.
By interrupting shareholder meetings to heckle executives, Marks is following in the footsteps of rabble-rousers of the past like Evelyn Davis and John Gilbert.
“It made annual meetings fun. We need more people like that, I think,” said Dick Bove, a veteran bank analyst at Rafferty Capital Markets.
While Bove said such outbursts rarely cause directors to lose their re-election bids, he said they can often bring attention to critical issues.
In the case of Wells Fargo, the board started the meeting by explaining the many steps it has taken to try to fix the deep cultural problems exposed by the fake account scandal. Wells Fargo has installed new management, eliminated sales goals and clawed back $180 million in pay from top execs.
The board also highlighted Wells Fargo’s financial success in the face of the scandal.
“They were making this meeting seem so beautiful, like everything is fine and dandy,” said Ruth Landaverde, a former Wells Fargo banker, who also spoke at the meeting.
“That fueled Bruce’s rage. He just started going off,” said Landaverde, who is a member of a coalition for frontline bank workers called the Committee for Better Banks.
While all the Wells Fargo directors were re-elected by shareholders, several received alarmingly-low levels of support, sending a message that more change is needed.
“The board is now on notice that they need to become more activist and engaged. The acting out by Bruce Marks is a catalyst to that,” said William Klepper, a Columbia Business School management professor.
Klepper, the former mayor of Ewing, New Jersey, said an activist fight like the one launched by Marks can quickly gain momentum if people sympathize with it.
“This voice has got to be addressed,” Klepper said.
The Wells Fargo spokesman said the bank is taking “decisive actions to rebuild trust” and encourages “anyone with concerns to discuss those with us directly.”
Landaverde, the former Wells Fargo banker, believes the company is “starting to understand” it has a problem when it comes to treatment of lower-level employees.
She pointed to how Wells Fargo’s top human resource executives have agreed to meet next month with members from the Committee for Better Banks for the first time. The coalition plans to raise cultural and compensation problems at the bank.
“They want to be the good guys again,” Landaverde said.