By David Weidner, MarketWatch
(Editor's note: David Weidner's Writing on the Wall column, making its debut today, will feature the comings and goings on Wall Street. It will appear weekly.)
NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- If Wall Street had its own Mount Rushmore of influential bankers, who would be there?
Alexander Hamilton, J. Pierpont Morgan and John Rockefeller certainly have that granite look about them. Perhaps Felix Rohatyn might fit alongside them.
But among today's executives no one stands out as a lock for that kind of immortality. Stan O'Neal would if cost-cutting and layoffs were held in higher regard. Henry Paulson might if co-opting the stock exchange was a criteria. John Mack may be comeback player of the year.
No one really seems destined for enshrinement, though one comes very close: Sandy Weill.
Only five years ago Weill would have been a shoo-in. The only question would have been what to inscribe under his likeness: builder of the biggest financial services conglomerate ever, leader of the world's most profitable company, the man who forced Congress to rewrite Depression Era financial services laws.
But times change, and in this environment, legend is a temporary affliction. Weill isn't going on any Rushmore, real or imagined.
That's because in 1998 he made a strategic mistake. He fired Jamie Dimon.
Why he did it for certain we may never know. We do, however, know the consequences of that decision.
Citigroup /zigman2/quotes/207741460/composite C +1.45% continued to be profitable and all powerful, but its prestige eroded. Scandals over research analysts were a blow. Problems with its buyout of Associates First Capital stung. Getting its private bank kicked out of Japan was embarrassing.
Then came the bite that hurt most of all. The Federal Reserve, which almost never criticizes any institution, told Citigroup it shouldn't do any deals until it cleaned up its act. That one really hurt. It was as if the Fed said Morgan Stanley couldn't give hundreds of millions of dollars to former executives. It effectively said Citi couldn't be Citi.
This isn't to say these things wouldn't have happened under Jamie Dimon. Citigroup is a pretty far flung institution. No CEO could have avoided all of that.
Dimon, however, was the answer to the question that immediately followed Weill wherever he went: who is your successor? Weill was already 69 at the time. The question hung over him for more than four years until he finally tapped Charles Prince to take the reins as chief executive.
By then, it was too late. Prince is a fine man, a sharp executive and by many accounts an exceptional lawyer. He didn't shrink from the ugly truth that the firm needed to change its culture. But he never was considered the bright young star that Jamie Dimon was and certainly hasn't proven yet to be the deft dealmaker Sandy Weill is.
Prince, 55, also has had the thankless job of putting out fires -- some set during his reign, some set under Weill -- that have kept Citi from buying more companies and shaking up the industry. That alone has been the biggest contrast.