When Lloyd P. Johnson arrived to lead Norwest Bank in 1985, the Minneapolis bank was in trouble.

Farmers had defaulted on loans in droves. Foreclosures raged. Main Street customers struggled, and 20 percent interest rates punished.

"That is what caused the firing of the previous CEO and the bringing in Lloyd," said Dick Kovacevich, whom Johnson and the board brought in as COO and Johnson's eventual successor. "These were not the glory days. At some stage there was the thought that Norwest may not survive."

Johnson, who grew up in Minneapolis, was a college hockey and football star before snagging a Stanford University MBA, spending two years in the Army and then rising in the ranks at Security Pacific National Bank in Los Angeles. This was not a man who ran from challenges.

And he knew Norwest, which was his customer at Security Pacific. So when the offer came to run the troubled institution, Johnson decided to return home.

He died Oct. 22 at age 82 after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease. He is fondly remembered for rebuilding Norwest's burned-down headquarters and for steering the crippled institution toward stability, profitability and eventually growth. In 1998, just four years after Johnson retired as CEO, Norwest was healthy and hearty enough to buy the industry whale Wells Fargo.

Even early on, "Lloyd had a keen focus on all of our problem loans," said retired Wells Fargo Minnesota President Jim Campbell. "He came into [the Monday leadership] meetings with his pad and lead pencil and made detailed notes of exactly what we each committed to do. And if at the next meeting you [digressed], he would say, 'Last month you said this and this.' "

Meanwhile, a small circle of executives awaited Johnson's turnaround plan. One day, he strode into the conference room and wrote on the board three words: "Control. Profitability. Growth."

"We were waiting for this very complex vision of the future," Campbell said. "And he had three little words for us. It was so basic and so fundamental and exactly what we needed to focus on."

Johnson's plan helped transform Norwest from a bank with roughly $20 billion in assets in 1986 to one with $1.4 trillion in assets today.

John Stumpf, Wells Fargo's current CEO, said Johnson was never showy. Several months after he came to Norwest, Johnson and his wife bumped into Stumpf's wife at the airport. "They struck up a conversation. After a while my wife said, 'You know, you look so familiar. I wonder if we have met at one time? Maybe in conjunction with my husband? He works at Norwest.' Lloyd just said, 'I do also. I'm Lloyd Johnson.' "

He didn't bother mentioning that he ran Norwest.

Johnson arrived at Norwest three years after its headquarters burned to the ground on Thanksgiving Day. Employees were scattered in 10 offices. Customers, nearby businesses and politicians kept asking when the bank would do something about the gaping hole in the ground.

"Finally [Johnson] said, 'I am going to personally get this thing done.' And he did," Kovacevich said. "He spent an enormous amount of personal time on it. I can still see him leaning over the drawings and blueprints ... with the architect, interior designers and planners."

Johnson formed an advisory committee that selected architect Cesar Pelli to build a striking 57-floor skyscraper that is Johnson's legacy.

Rosie, Johnson's wife of 39 years, died in 2001. He is survived by three children, his two sisters and 10 grandchildren. Services have been held.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725