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SAN FRANCISCO ( TheStreet) - In a surprise announcement after the market's close on Tuesday, Wells Fargo ( WFC) said its CFO Howard Atkins - who had often been the face of the company at investor conferences and in media outlets - was leaving the firm immediately, to be replaced by Chief Administrative Officer Tim Sloan.

The news appeared to startle investors, with shares of the San Francisco-based lending giant selling off sharply in after-hours trading. Its stock was recently down 3.2% at $33.

Wells Fargo said Atkins decided to retire for "personal reasons" that were "unrelated to the company's financial condition or financial reporting." A spokesman declined to provide a specific reason for Atkins departure or where he might be headed, but reiterated that it was unrelated to the bank's financial statements.

Atkins, who turns 60 this week, has been with the company for nearly a decade, following a long career with executive positions at New York Life Insurance Co., Midlantic Corp. and Chase Manhattan Bank before the latter two firms merged into other entities. He did not provide a statement about his departure, which is effective in August following an unpaid leave of absence that begins immediately.

His animated voice and effusive praise of the company's culture and reputation had become an integral part of the Wells Fargo brand during investor conferences and appearances on financial news networks. It also came in stark contrast to Chairman and CEO John Stumpf, who is more reserved, but has been stepping out into the spotlight in recent months.

"We understand Howard's decision to retire after having served Wells Fargo successfully for nearly 10 years and after having had a financial services career that has spanned four decades," Stumpf said in a statement. "His tenure included Wells Fargo's rise from a super-regional industry leader to the global company that it is today following its 2008 acquisition of Wachovia. He leaves behind a Wells Fargo that remains financially strong and wholly committed to its strategy of helping all its customers succeed financially."

Noticeably, the vociferous former CFO did not provide his own statement in the release. His sudden departure is rare at a bank that prides itself on gradual change. For instance, Stumpf's predecessor, Richard Kovacevich, announced his retirement in 2008 but stayed on board through early 2010 in order to ensure a smooth succession plan and help steer the company through the end of the financial crisis. Similarly, the bank is taking its time to carefully integrate Wachovia over a period of several years.

Sloan, Atkins' replacement, has been with Wells Fargo for 23 years and continue to report to Stumpf. Before being elevated to CAO last year, the 50-year-old banker had been head of commercial banking, real estate and specialized financial services. Patricia Callahan, who is leading Wells Fargo's integration of Wachovia, will take over his duties as CAO.

"Tim is a strong leader and has demonstrated the kind of superior business and financial acumen that makes him uniquely qualified to be Wells Fargo's next chief financial officer," Stumpf said in a statement.

-- Written by Lauren Tara LaCapra in New York.

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