In more than three decades with Wells Fargo, Perry Pelos’ career trajectory has climbed steadily upward. (5:11)
Inside the Stagecoach
July 22, 2019

Pelos: Leading from the heart, mind, and wisdom

The child of Greek immigrants, Perry Pelos has gone from a shy kid in Chicago’s inner city to the head of Wells Fargo’s Wholesale Banking business.

In the bone-chilling cold of a Minnesota night, Perry Pelos gazed through his backyard telescope into a clear night sky and viewed the Ring Nebula in vivid detail — a spectacular show put on by a star that was 200 light-years away.

For Pelos, a lifelong astronomy hobbyist, recalling that moment still fills him with awe at the sheer beauty of the experience and the “magic” of physics that allowed him to see into the universe’s past.

“There are so many things in the world and beyond that are so much bigger than us and our day-to-day worries,” he said. “Sometimes, just taking the time to think about those things and be aware of them can help you get through any stressful time and crisis. It really helps put things in perspective.”

From stargazing planetary nebula to studying the lessons of history, Pelos said he has found a great deal of wisdom from the past to help him lead a multibillion-dollar business for Wells Fargo.

Perry Pelos quote: “To a certain extent, I feel like my role now is to be an emotional leader at a time when that’s something the team very much needs ... to take on the feelings that people have now and turn them into positive action.

The child of Greek immigrants, Pelos went from being the shy new kid in an inner city Chicago schoolyard to one of the first in his family to graduate from college. He joined a predecessor bank of Wells Fargo more than three decades ago as a trainee, and rose to become head of the Wells Fargo Wholesale Banking business more than two years ago.

In his 31 years with Wells Fargo, Pelos’ career trajectory has climbed steadily upward, with more than half a dozen promotions in the commercial, corporate, and business banking organizations. He became head of Wholesale Banking in October 2016, one month after the company announced its retail sales practices settlement with federal bank regulators.

By all accounts, the soft-spoken executive with a sharp intellect, infectious smile, and incisive business savvy has skillfully guided the Wholesale unit through the challenges and changes at the company. Pelos has also been at the forefront of advocating for more transparency, diversity, inclusion, and advancement opportunities for women, minorities, and the LGBTQ community.

“Perry’s vision for our Wholesale division has been instrumental as we have worked to transform our company and execute against our top priorities,” said CEO and President Allen Parker. “His focus on delivering for our customers and team members is unwavering, and the changes he has made have created a more nimble, efficient, and effective organization. His authenticity, honesty, and credibility embody the leadership qualities we want at Wells Fargo and inspire our team — both within Wholesale and across the company.”

Pelos’ long-time leadership role in the company is invaluable, said Maria Morris, one of the newest member of Wells Fargo’s Board of Directors and former head of global employee benefits for Metlife Inc.

“I have enjoyed getting to know and work with Perry, who leads a critical and growing business for Wells Fargo,” she said. “I have been impressed by his values, candor, humility, and willingness to leverage strengths while learning from mistakes. He is investing in his own and the organization’s continued development, which is exactly what we need to accelerate the transformation to make Wells Fargo a better bank.”

For customers, Pelos represents the brand and integrity of the company, said Sam Simon, an energy executive, private equity investor, and Wells Fargo customer in the Detroit area.

“Perry has a unique ability to know people, communicate genuinely with them, and inspire confidence that he means what he says,” he said. “He looks people in the eyes, and you just know he’s someone you can bet on. That is a real gift Perry has. And he really bets on others.”

Despite the company’s difficulties of recent years, Pelos said he still believes in the company now as much as he did when he started decades ago.

“Wells Fargo has given me the opportunity of a lifetime to help people make the best financial life possible for themselves, their business, and their family,” he said. “To me, that is what has always driven Wells Fargo, and it is what continues to drive the company today and into the future.”

‘Like an anchor in a storm’

As a leader, Pelos has fashioned a career hallmarked by decisiveness, effectiveness, humor, and empathy for people, said John Manning, a longtime friend and head of Commercial Banking for Wells Fargo’s western U.S. region, who has worked with Pelos for many years.

“He’s like an anchor in a storm,” Manning said. “He’s always composed, measured, and steady, especially in times of crisis. He never makes impulsive or sudden turns that might cause the ship to list. He really listens to people, and they listen to him.

“Perry has a sort of homespun way of taking complex things and making them simple,” he added. “In a meeting, whenever he speaks up, people stop and listen. They know whatever he says, it comes from the heart, and his intent is always to motivate individuals and teams to be better.”

‘To feel like an outsider’

Pelos’ early life was marked by upheaval. He was born in Pittsburgh, where his parents had settled after emigrating. When he was 7 years old, they moved back to Greece, following a dream to return to “the old country,” Pelos said. His entire family — three siblings, parents, and grandparents — lived in an apartment in Athens. Nine years later, the family returned to the U.S., so Pelos and his siblings could be educated in America. This time, they lived in an apartment in Chicago.

At age 6, Perry Pelos sits with his parents and siblings in their home in Greece. From left to right, next to him on the sofa is his mother Dimitra and infant sister Johanna, brother Dean, father Andrew, and oldest sister Sophie.
Perry Pelos, left, with siblings Johanna, Dean, and Sophie, and their parents Dimitra and Andrew, at their home in Athens, Greece, in 1969.

Pelos described the culture shock of leaving the familiarity of his childhood in Greece and entering an inner city Chicago high school where he didn’t know anybody.

“I do know what it’s like to grow up not having things, to grow up in poverty,” he said. “I know what it’s like to feel like an outsider, that you don’t fit in — and I carry that with me today. It’s something I think about a lot when I consider how my decisions impact others. So I try to reach out and ensure we listen to as many people as possible before we make key decisions.”

Pelos’ consensus-building leadership style found its roots in those tough high-school years, when he figured out how to survive a strange, new culture by listening and learning from others and forming meaningful friendships. He finished high school near the top of his class, attended Northwestern University on federal Pell Grants, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics.

The beginning of his banking career, Pelos said, came with help from his college girlfriend, now wife Lynne. While he mulled getting an advanced degree in economics, she recommended he look into an MBA program, which would give him broader business expertise. Pelos took the cue, entered the program, and came out of it with an offer to become a business loan trainee for Norwest Bank in Minnesota, which later acquired Wells Fargo and retained the name.

It was an improbable career move “that changed the course of my entire life,” he said.

“There were no influences from my family to set me on a professional career at all, let alone banking,” Pelos said. “So, in a sense, I’m really not supposed to be here. I didn’t have any friends or anybody I knew who was a banker. It all happened for me when I met (Lynne).”

‘My Renaissance man’

The two met his sophomore year at Northwestern. Pelos, the social chair of his dorm, was helping new first-year students move in and found himself carrying furniture for Lynne up a flight of stairs to her room. The attraction was immediate, mutual, and life-changing, he said.

“A lot of the things I didn’t grow up with,” Pelos said, “a lot of things I missed in my life in terms of understanding how the world worked, I learned so much of that from Lynne. She’s become my partner and, in many ways, my mentor and hero.”

For Lynne Pelos, the initial spark of that chance encounter on the college steps has never faded as the relationship has deepened through the years.

“He’s my Renaissance man, with more interests, ideas, and philosophical views than I can ever track,” she said. “He keeps me on my toes, challenging my thought process daily. I can honestly say he makes me a better version of myself. He has more integrity than anyone I know.”

Both said their defining milestone was having children. Ellen Pelos, 25, has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and music therapy. She is getting an advanced degree in public health administration and wants to tap the healing power of music to help patients. Andy Pelos, 21, graduated from college in May with degrees in molecular biology and gender studies. He wants to help find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

In a 1999 photo, Perry Pelos sits with his daughter Ellen, son Andy, and wife Lynne on the back porch of the Minnesota home where they lived at the time.
Pelos with his wife Lynne and their children Ellen and Andy at their Minneapolis home in 1999.

“They are our greatest accomplishments,” Pelos said. “And it’s nice to be able to give back something to the world that will be here when we’re gone. They are great people who are going to do amazing things in life.”

Ellen Pelos said her father has inspired her at every level — his work “to help people finance their dreams,” his love of science, and the nightly family debates he led around the dinner table, where everyone’s opinion mattered. “He always treated us like we were real people, not just kids,” she said. “He always listened and heard what we had to say. That helped me know what special parents I had.”

For Andy Pelos, the relationship was just as deep and meaningful, especially when he told the family five years ago that he is gay. In that moment, he felt his father went from acceptance of the LGBTQ community to being a vocal and powerful advocate for diversity and inclusion at Wells Fargo.

“I know he’s been fighting for the cause,” he said. “I feel like he has a really strong drive to take diversity to a higher level and increasingly widen the door to let more diverse people in. And that just shows me how open he is and how much he stands up for what he believes in, which is what he taught us.”

Although he has always believed in diversity and inclusion, Pelos said it became intensely personal for him — with Andy’s help.

“The world today is not a perfect place, relative to [acceptance of] people’s sexual orientation,” Pelos said. “Whether the bias is conscious or unconscious, it is still there. It exists. But Andy has been magnificent in meeting people where they are, understanding where they are coming from and how their biases are often just something they were taught. He does a much better job of understanding that than I do.”

Boundless, focused energy

In addition to diversity advocacy, Pelos also supports a number of other causes that are close to his heart, including nonprofits that treat children with autism or help disadvantaged children get a college education.

Workwise, his most time-intensive focus of recent years has been to help rebuild trust in Wells Fargo after the sales practices settlements that began in 2016.

Although the sales- and fee-related settlements of recent years did not involve Wholesale, the organization under Pelos’ leadership has worked with regulators to resolve its own issues in documentation compliance with anti-money laundering laws and know-your-customer statutes of the Patriot Act. He led that effort to support Wells Fargo’s overall in-depth examination of its business practices and its commitment to build a better bank for its customers going forward.

Pelos has traveled the U.S. with boundless, yet focused energy, constantly meeting with customers and team members, strengthening relationships, sharing his vision of the business, and speaking encouragement to all.

“I’ve seen him have a consistent, steady calm about him, always able to connect with people everywhere,” said Manning of Commercial Banking. “It’s a gift, a skill set that you don’t see in many leaders.”

With typical modesty, however, Pelos said he considers his role of encourager to be just one of many important roles leaders take on for the company at this time.

“We’ve had some tough times in the past, and obviously things have really been tough the last couple of years,” he said. “But to a certain extent, I feel like my role now is to be an emotional leader at a time when that’s something the team very much needs. There are many talented leaders doing other important things, but doing them in different ways than I do. So I feel like it’s my role to take on the feelings that people have now and turn them into positive action.”