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Honor for Bud Baker not without its critics
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Honor for Bud Baker not without its critics

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The naming of L.M. “Bud” Baker Jr. to the N.C. Business Hall of Fame drew praise and criticism yesterday regarding his tenure at Wachovia Corp.

Inductees are recognized by the N.C. Chamber and Junior Achievement of Central Carolinas for “making an outstanding contribution to the economic development of our state.”

As part of a 34-year career with the Winston-Salem bank, Baker, 68, served as the chief executive from 1994 to 2001 and as chairman from 1998 until he retired in February 2003.

Baker’s time as Wachovia’s top executive remains polarizing in the local community.

He has been praised for his role in building Wachovia into a prominent bank in the Southeast, as well as its local community and philanthropic contributions.

He has drawn criticism from his decision to sell the bank, which was struggling with bad loans and poor credit decisions, to risk-taking First Union Corp. for $14.6 billion in September 2001. Baker received a $1.5 million annual retirement package for life from the merged bank.

Winston-Salem, meanwhile, paid a stiff price for the First Union deal, including the elimination of 1,300 local jobs and the loss of the Wachovia headquarters.

A little more than seven years later, Wachovia nearly collapsed under the weight of alternative home loans — pushed by legacy First Union executives — that turned toxic in the bursting of the housing bubble in 2007-08.

Even though Wells Fargo & Co. bought Wachovia for $14.8 billion, some shareholders blame Ken Thompson, deposed as chairman and chief executive of Wachovia in 2008, and Baker for the drastic loss in stock value and personal wealth.

Tony Plath, a finance professor at UNC Charlotte, said that Baker’s legacy at Wachovia always will be colored by how the bank lost its independence.

Baker offered a mea culpa in September 2008, saying he accepts being the lightning rod for local discontent and frustration for the First Union deal.

“I still believe (the First Union deal) was a brilliant strategic move that ultimately failed,” Baker said at the time.

Lew Ebert, the president and chief executive of the N.C. Chamber, said that the hall of fame’s nominating committee took Baker’s entire business and community efforts into consideration.

“On balance, Bud’s career achievements are those that the N.C. Business Hall of Fame should be honoring,” Ebert said.

Thad Woodard, the executive director of the N.C. Bankers Association, said that most business officials “have accomplishments they are proud of and some they wish hadn’t happened.”

“Bud Baker’s induction is a major statement to his achievements for the industry and the state.”

The induction will take place at 6:15 p.m. Nov. 18 at the Westin Hotel in Charlotte. The other inductees are O. Temple Sloan, the chairman of General Parts International Inc., and Allen Tate, the chairman and founder of Allen Tate Cos.

There are at least 16 Hall of Fame members with Triad ties. Baker becomes the seventh banker connected with Wachovia and First Union selected for the hall — the most of any business.

rcraver@wsjournal.com

727-7376

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