Chester County Leadership: John Fessick, Market Executive for Pennsylvania and Delaware, Wells Fargo


John Fessick, Market Executive for Pennsylvania and Delaware, Wells Fargo
Image via Wells Fargo.
Wells Fargo Logo

From his office in Conshohocken, John Fessick, Market Executive for Pennsylvania and Delaware at Wells Fargo, spoke to VISTA Today about growing up in Stroudsburg as the oldest of four brothers. As a teenager, he explored a variety of different interests – sports, student government, music, Eagle Scout, and working nights at a hotel – and found himself becoming a leader.

Fessick discussed how he’s spent his whole career in banking with the same company, after a series of acquisitions made Meridian Bank part of Wells Fargo. He talked about the time he resigned from his job and what made him stay, as well as the importance of people, connections, and hard work.

Where were you born and where did you grow up?

I was born the oldest of four boys in Hazelton, Pennsylvania but moved back to New Jersey when my dad came back from Okinawa, from serving in the Army. We then moved to Stroudsburg, where I spent most of my childhood growing up. 

What did your mom and dad do?

My mom was a nurse. She worked nights at the local hospital when we were kids.

My dad never went to college. He went to a technical school and got hired by a “small” company called IBM. He was lucky – he moved up through the ranks there. He was on the service side. He fixed typewriters, and then he morphed to ATMs and, ultimately, mainframe computers. I did an internship there as a copier specialist one summer in the early 1980’s. I visited every IBM copier customer one summer in Northeastern PA.     

What do you remember about growing up in Hazelton and Stroudsburg?

I was only in Hazelton for a year, but we did go back often to see my grandparents. My dad’s father was a coal miner. My mother is Irish, and her dad owned a restaurant in Hazleton.

What kind of jobs did you have in high school?

During the summer, I worked in a hotel, working nights. I think I got paid a quarter more an hour for working nights. I used to get in at 11:00 p.m. I had to get folks into their rooms until about 2:00 a.m. Then the bar closed, and from about 2:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m., I would input all the numbers into a computer. Then they brought me a big pancake breakfast, which I loved.

When I got home in the morning, I went to bed – we didn’t have air conditioning, and I was upstairs, in what had been our attic, with a fan. I don’t know how I did that. Then I woke up around 3:00 p.m., went to the pool with my buddies and then went back to work.

What did that work experience at the hotel teach you that you still use today?

Customer service. We had to find people a room. And I worked on a rudimentary Burroughs computer – back then, it was one of the first ones. I input all the credit cards, all the receipts, and had to balance the books.

Did you play any sports in high school?

I was a runner. I did the two-mile relay and the 500-meter sprint. I played soccer and basketball but I had glasses and used to sit on the bench a lot – but I still love basketball.

What about music? You can’t have grown up when we grew up without music.

I played the trombone through my junior year of high school.

Then, on a whim, I decided to run for president of my high school student council. I was not on student council at the time– I just wanted to do it and I won.

That’s remarkable. What caused you to want to do that?

I’ve always been interested in politics. The popular crowd had those positions, but they weren’t doing much. I got on the cafeteria committee. We got ice cream sundaes and got the place painted.

The other thing about high school was that we had a teachers’ strike. When I was the president of student council, I had to go present to the Board and implore them to resolve the strike. We used to have this school spirit day, Maroon and White Day, where all the classes competed against each other. Because of the strike, they skipped it and then canceled it. And I wanted to bring back Maroon and White Day. I came up with a Maroon and White Week. Each class got a half day, and Friday was a competition among the school. Everybody showed up. It’s still going on today.

You found yourself as a leader in high school.

I did. I was president of student council, I became an Eagle Scout and I was involved with music, so I did a little bit of everything.

Did you have a favorite musician or group that you listened to?

As I get older, I’ve fallen in love with live music. I’ve seen U2, Bruce Springsteen, and James Taylor. Last year we went to see Billy Joel and Stevie Nicks.

How did you get to Ursinus, and what other schools did you look at?

Since my dad didn’t go to college, I was a little bit on my own. I looked at the University of Scranton, Franklin and Marshall, Penn State, and Ursinus College. But I was drawn to small schools. Ursinus gave me money – a presidential scholarship – and when I walked on the campus I felt at home. The relationship with the professors is what really got me. I went in there planning to be a lawyer, and I came out with an Economics degree with a Political Science minor.

Did you stay in student government?

I didn’t do anything other than my fraternity because in high school, I did too much. I wanted to have more fun and be social, although I did study a lot to graduate magna cum laude with honors in Economics. 

What made you transition from law to financial services?

It was a professor. Dr. Bernard Lentz from Yale. I took an economics class with him and thought, “This is really interesting.” And political science was not very challenging to me. It was interesting, but I started thinking, “I could go to law school even with an economics degree. It would give me more options.” I almost got a master’s in political economy.

Looking back on your experience at Ursinus, was it a good choice for you?

For me, it was. I came from a small town, so it was perfect.

Did you go for an MBA after that?

I got my MBA at Villanova. I went nights while I was working.

Who saw promise in you and gave you your big breaks?

I would say it was the managers I worked for. I came from where you had to work hard, and I still have that philosophy. Every manager I worked for, even at the bank – I remember Glenn Moyer, who was one of the senior guys at Meridian Bank in Great Valley in Chester County. It was a new office for Meridian Bank. I moved to Chesterbrook and I never left. I loved it. The people in that office – Glenn Moyer, Jan Heller, Dan Jenkins, and Janet Pavloff – they were all instrumental.

After I got my MBA at Villanova, I had a chance to take a really cool job downtown, because I wanted to work in the city, although I lived in Chester County. That job was fascinating. I have never left this bank.  It’s been 38 years!

You started with Meridian, which became CoreStates, which became First Union, then Wachovia, and then Wells Fargo. What kept you in the organization?

When we merged with CoreStates, I was given a choice of jobs. I was in a middle market group at Meridian, but I handled specialty accounts with large lines of credit. All those specialty accounts were handled by a specialty group at CoreStates.  I ended up in corporate banking covering Boston and North Jersey. That was a terrific job, but I didn’t feel like I fit in.

I actually resigned from the bank to go back to being a middle market banker at another bank because I wasn’t happy. I went from a small town in a community where I knew everybody to corporate banking handling accounts in Boston where I didn’t know anyone. 

So, what happened when you resigned?

The same day I resigned from CoreStates, somebody resigned from CoreStates in middle market in Chester County.  The manager of that office, Dan Jenkins, called and said, “Why don’t you apply for that job?” We actually had a goodbye luncheon for me that I went to, and I announced that I was staying, but that I was moving to the middle market group in Chester County.

I understand why people leave when their company gets bought. It’s very hard to adjust to the culture. My manager at First Union said, “You’re either an underwriter, a portfolio manager, or a relationship manager.  Dan Jenkins, at that point, was a sales manager, and he said, “come on, work for me,” so I became an underwriter and then a team leader. I became a credit officer at First Union, all the way through Wachovia. It’s only when Wells Fargo bought us and we went through the Great Recession that I realized that I was burned out. I missed working with customers, so I switched back to being a relationship manager and handling a large portfolio.

So, John, here we are at the beginning of 2024. What challenges, opportunities, and priorities are you focused on?

I’m optimistic about 2024. Last year was a challenging year, with rates going up as high as they did.  That created opportunities for us given our long-standing client relationships.   

We’re a large bank, but we try to manage it locally. In our office, we’ve got all our local services, all our local partners and credit as well. We operate as a local bank, but we have lots of branches, and we’re big. Our job is to make it not feel like a big bank.  

We spend a lot of money on technology each year.  Our portal, which we now call Vantage, is state-of-the-art. Half of our business is technology-based – trying to get people so they have scalable operations. We have different products to offer like payment automation, which is a big part of our business.

I would assume the other advantage you have is locations – not just the buildings, but the people in the buildings.

A lot of the banks, even the bigger banks, don’t have a lot of branches. We are really a main street bank. The reality is that they’re expensive, and more and more people aren’t going into a branch. But it is a big part of our distribution. We have the lowest cost of funding of a lot of the banks because of that.

I see rates coming down, which will be good for folks. I think it’s more on the short end than the long end of the curve.  I think high rates are going to be here for a while.    

What is Wells Fargo doing in this market to differentiate itself?

We’ve got specialty groups that differentiate us in the market.  You’ve got to differentiate. We’ve got an investment bank that supports our larger accounts as well as the middle market.

One specialty group is our healthcare specialty group.  Healthcare is 1/3rd of our economy and a big part of Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs. 

Technology is another one. We have a national practice and the head of that group, Tom Harper, sits in Conshohocken.  A lot of what we do is treasury management and depository services for early-stage and growth companies, but we also support larger technology companies.   

Another is asset-based lending. We’re one of the biggest asset-based lenders in the country, which is AR and inventory lending. Within this specialty group are our retail finance division, staffing practice, government contractors, and lender finance where we lend to other lenders. 

Any new initiatives that you’re undertaking this year?

I’ve been in this business almost 38 years, and the business hasn’t changed that much even though we have more technology. It’s about people, relationships, and service. I preach service because they’re going to go to the bank and they want their transactions to be processed right.  It’s about execution and service.

That’s why I go to work every day. I help people. I’m not a doctor, but I help them fund their business and buy buildings and equipment. We help the economy grow. 

What do you like to do with your free time, John?

My wife and I enjoy going to the Jersey Shore and playing golf together.  My son is a junior at Drexel University. I love my chocolate lab, Harper. I try to exercise every day and follow all of the Philadelphia sports teams.    

Three final questions, John. What’s something big that you’ve changed your mind about over the past 10 years?

It all comes down to people and connections. My job is all about connecting people. When I was in credit, I got away from that. It was good intellectually, and credit lets us help companies, but people are the most important thing. Our relationships are based on people, caring about the community, and giving back. 

It’s a crazy world out there, John. What keeps you hopeful and optimistic?

I go back to Warren Buffett’s company and his book “The Snowball” by Alice Schroeder.  I am a guy who started out with a little money my grandfather gave me to buy a used car. I believe in the American Dream and hard work. Warren Buffett believed that over time there would be more people which would mean more business, and he was right.

I traveled to Europe recently. I’m just amazed at all the innovation we have in the United States, how hard we work, and how diversified our economy is.  When I talk about capitalism – it’s about people and the power of hard work.

Finally, John, what’s the best advice you ever received?

I’ve received some great advice over the years from colleagues and mentors like Charlie Cowles and Dan Jenkins, but the one that sticks out to me the most is: to get ahead, you need to be the best at your current job and be indispensable.  Too many people want to get promoted and are focused on the next big opportunity without being the best at their current job.  This has served me well. 

Connect With Your Community

Subscribe to stay informed!

"*" indicates required fields

VT Yes
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
Creative Capital logo