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Walter B. Wriston, 85; Chairman of Citicorp

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2005; Page B06

Walter B. Wriston, 85, the legendary chairman and chief executive of Citicorp under whose reign the bank introduced automated teller machines, interstate banking and the negotiable certificate of deposit, died of pancreatic cancer Jan. 19 in New York City.

Mr. Wriston, probably the most influential U.S. banker in his day, was considered a consummate corporate risk-taker. He led Citicorp and its principal subsidiary, Citibank, for 17 years, retiring in 1984 after spending nearly his entire career with the firm.

Walter B. Wriston is shown after a meeting with President Ronald Reagan. Wriston was chairman of the president's Economic Policy Advisory Board. (File Photo)

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He pushed the bank, once considered highly conservative, into the global market. He battered down the regulatory walls that prevented commercial banks from the expanded financial services now considered standard and spoke out for laissez-faire capitalism in the industry. These views didn't always make him popular, either inside or outside the industry, and some blamed him for encouraging excessive loans to Third World countries under the belief that countries do not go bankrupt.

While he was chairman, Citicorp's profits rose from $145 million in 1970 to $890 million in 1984.

"Walter Wriston was a great man and one of the foremost bankers of the 20th century," Charles O. Prince, chief executive of what is now called Citigroup, said in a statement. "He had a profound impact on the financial services industry and was an influential voice on the global economy."

One of his innovations was signing up with the fledgling MasterCard operation (then called Master Charge) in 1969. Citibank mailed out 20 million cards nationwide and lost $1 billion before it turned a profit. The problem was that the rate of inflation exceeded the amount of interest Citibank was allowed to charge its credit card customers under New York usury laws. Mr. Wriston eventually moved the credit card operation to South Dakota, where there was no usury law limit.

"All of their senior people used to say it," former South Dakota governor Bill Janklow told the "Frontline" television show last year. "That South Dakota saved Citibank. I believe it did."

Mr. Wriston was described as a man with an acerbic wit and hobnail boots. But as a rising Citicorp executive, he suffered from such a lack of confidence that he would get physically ill before giving presentations, his biographer, Phillip Zweig, told Bloomberg News Service in 1996.

"The guy was an insecure, shy, trembling personality," Zweig said. Mr. Wriston managed to overcome his nerves and, in the process, "totally change the face of banking," Business Week magazine said.

As an adult, he was lean and elegant and wry, noting that after reaching Citicorp's mandatory retirement age of 65, he went from "Who's Who to 'who's that?' "

He was born in Middleton, Conn. His mother was a chemistry teacher and his father was a history professor at Wesleyan University and Lawrence University who later became president of Brown University and an adviser to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Raised as a strict Methodist in Appleton, Wis., the young Wriston was forbidden to smoke, drink, listen to the radio or go to movies on Sundays.

He graduated from Wesleyan and received a master's degree from Tufts University's Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy. He joined the State Department as a junior Foreign Service officer and helped negotiate the exchange of Japanese interned in the United States for Americans held prisoner in Japan.

Drafted into the Army in 1942, he served in the Signal Corps on Cebu in the Philippines.

After his discharge, he joined Citibank as a junior inspector in the comptroller's division. He rose steadily through the ranks until he became chief executive of Citibank in 1967 and three years later the chairman of both it and Citicorp.

He kept himself trim, playing tennis regularly and acting as a carpenter, electrician, plumber, backhoe operator, front-end loader operator and chain-saw-wielding tree farmer on his Connecticut retreat. During the July 1977 power blackout in New York City, he walked down 23 flights from his high-rise apartment, hiked to corporate headquarters, then climbed 15 flights to his office.

In 1987, the Manhattan Institute initiated a lecture series in honor of Mr. Wriston. From 1982 to 1989, he was chairman of President Ronald Reagan's Economic Policy Advisory Board, and last June, President Bush gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civil honor.

He said he was twice offered the job of Treasury secretary, in the Nixon and Ford administrations. He turned down the offers but said it was not because of the public scrutiny he was sure to face. "I've been living in Macy's window for 20 years," he said.

Peggy Noonan, a Reagan speechwriter who had known Mr. Wriston since 1994, when they both served on the board of the Manhattan Institute, called him "a prince."

"For a titan of business, he was so warm and wise and funny," she said. "He was knowing about human beings, but it didn't make him cynical, it made him . . . understanding. It made him cut people some slack. He was creative about public policy, and he didn't believe history is a big static thing but a thing that could be affected by human beings."

Mr. Wriston was the author of several best-selling books, including "Risk & Other Four-Letter Words" (1986) and "In the Twilight of Sovereignty: How the Information Revolution Is Transforming Our World"(1992).

His first wife, Barbara Brengle Wriston, died in 1966.

Survivors include his wife of 36 years, Kathryn Ann Dineen Wriston of New York; a daughter from the first marriage; and two grandchildren.

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