STAGECOACH: Wells Fargo and the American West
Fradkin, who has written eight books about the American West, offers a swashbuckling account of Wells Fargo's early mail and express delivery service. In the 1850s, executives hit upon a scheme to get around laws to protect the U.S. Postal Service monopoly. Wells Fargo bought stamped post office envelopes and double-stamped them with the company fee. Customers paid two to three times the government rate to ensure the mail's swift and certain delivery out west, where the Postal Service had a dismal performance record. Armed guards protected the cargo on Wells Fargo's express service, which shipped valuable post via stagecoach. The cargo, mostly precious metals from Western mines, was the bedrock of the company's first "deposits," giving the young institution an instant asset base. Given Wells Fargo's enterprising image today, it is surprising to learn how many times the company stumbled when new technology loomed. Executives ordered 30 pricey new stagecoaches just before the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. They scoffed when government trustbusters threatened to launch a parcel post in 1913. In his final chapter, Fradkin skims over Wells Fargo's breathtaking rise from a single San Francisco outpost in 1918 to a vast financial services institution. He does present a convincing argument that in this age of instantly manufactured brands, Wells Fargo earned its marketing image of rugged pioneerism the hard way—through 150 years of struggle and corporate survival. (Feb. 1)
Forecast:Those interested in western lore or corporate branding will enjoy this intriguing tale of how one corporation adapted to the pioneer days of the Old West. Readers seeking a detailed financial history of Wells Fargo the bank will be disappointed.