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Ripple effect: Countertops to hospitality tents

‘Everything's on hold': Lawyers, interior designers, printers and others see work drying up because of the uncertainty at Wachovia.

By Kirsten Valle
kvalle@charlotteobserver.com

The Wachovia Championship starts every fall for The McLamb Group.

There are tickets to ship and pairing sheets to print. Light fixtures and bars for the golf tournament's hospitality tents need to be ready by spring. The Charlotte printing and marketing company has been part of the intricate behind-the-scenes work since 2002.

Now, everything's on hold, because tournament coordinators don't know what name will top this year's tickets.

“I can't stress enough how important Wachovia and this tournament are to Charlotte and the business community,” said Ed McLamb, 61, who said a quarter of his business comes from the event. “The tournament is going to survive … but the bank and the folks they've installed made it what it is. You never know what other people coming in are going to do.”

From the attorneys who advise the bank to the interior designers who rely on its wealthiest workers' dollars, many businesses have a stake in the outcome of talks between Wachovia, Wells Fargo and Citigroup.

Some businesses are diversifying, like The McLamb Group, which is working with seven other golf tournaments and actively seeking more. Others are taking a wait-and-see approach, hoping Charlotte's low cost of living, talent pool and other big companies will be enough to keep them afloat.

The trickle-down effect starts with the companies that serve the bank directly. Large law firms, for instance, flocked to Charlotte in recent years, looking for a slice of the banks' booming business.

That work has slowed as the economy has slumped, resulting in some layoffs. Now, many firms are reluctant to speculate on what happens next.

“There's no question that there's going to be an effect,” said Jamie Bryant, managing partner of Dewey & LeBoeuf's Charlotte office. But “the extent is really impossible to quantify.”

Paul Donohue of Alston & Bird – which counts both Wells Fargo and Citigroup as clients – feels confident his firm will persevere because of its diversity. Still, he's well aware of the financial sector's troubles. The firm created a task force last week to help clients navigate complex legal issues arising from the rubble.

As for the rest of the legal community, “I think it's going to shrink dramatically,” Donohue said.

That could be the case for information technology staffing firms that supplement Wachovia's IT staff, too.

On one hand, the merger could create more IT work. On the other, Wells Fargo or Citigroup might already have IT vendors, said Jon Olin of Ettain Group, a Charlotte IT staffing firm.

“I know a lot of companies built their business solely on the banks,” he said. “I don't know what's going to happen to those guys.”

When Ettain was launched in a founding partner's living room in 1996, there was just a handful of IT staffing firms in Charlotte.

Soon after, regional and national firms began moving here, emboldened by the dot-com boom and growing banks, Olin said. Now, about 50 IT staffing firms have offices in Charlotte.

“I think the banks have been critical,” he said. “They have done a lot for the IT community in Charlotte.”

Early on, Ettain did a lot of work for First Union, later Wachovia, and Bank of America. At one time, 40 percent of the firm's work came from banks. In recent years, Wachovia has trimmed its list of IT vendors to six or 10 large firms, Olin said.

Ettain is still a sub-vendor, meaning IT recruiters will enlist it when they need help staffing a project, but Wachovia only provides about 2 percent of its business, he said.

The company now works mostly in the healthcare, retail and hospitality industries, Olin said. Because of that, a Wachovia deal could boost its business, allowing other companies in town to grow and broadening their IT needs, he said.

Appraisers also play a large role for Wachovia, said Allan Reich of T.B. Harris Jr. & Associates.

The commercial appraisal and consulting firm gets 35 to 40 percent of its business from banks, he said. Banks are required to have appraisals done on loans of a certain dollar value; they use the appraisals to secure their loans, based on the appraised value of a property.

Commercial appraisers' fees range from $1,000 to more than $25,000.

Work from the big banks has slowed recently with the economy, though it's started to pick up in the last month or two, Reich said.

T.B. Harris Jr. & Associates has enough work from Wachovia to stay busy in the immediate future – plus a strong workload from private businesses – but it's unclear what the longterm effects of a merger could be, he said.

“I would imagine it's going to be a hit,” Reich said. “Everybody's going to be affected.”

Consolidated Press of Charlotte has printed accompanying materials for Evergreen Investments' retirement programs since 2000, said Tim Mullaney, whose father founded the company in a garage in 1966.

The bank provides a “chunk” of the company's annual revenue, but Mullaney, 48, said the company doesn't have any clients who make up more than 8 or 9 percent of its business.

About 20 years ago, printers relied much more on banks, which used printed documents for nearly every transaction. But as banks began to computerize their forms, printers reinvented themselves, Mullaney said.

“There's some printer somewhere who has all his eggs in the Wachovia basket, and he's a poor guy,” he said.

Not so for Consolidated Press. “It's political season now,” Mullaney said, “so there's enough work to do to keep us busy and happy.”

The Wachovia talks have already started to affect small businesses whose clients work at the bank or own its stock.

Brian Jambora recently started Jump Charlotte, a free uptown shuttle system. He's concerned that a mass layoff at Wachovia could make advertisers less likely to buy space on one of his electric cars, he said.

At Ideal Countertops, a kitchen remodeler on South Boulevard, the last few days have seen fewer calls and visitors, said Carrie Ritchie, who oversees sales.

Interior designer Celeste Lupo-Hack had three major projects – about four months of pay – stalled last week as anxiety mounted.

“Anytime the economy turns, luxury items are the first things to be cut,” she said. “I do pretty much live paycheck to paycheck, and those paychecks are gone.”

Lupo-Hack, who said she feels for her clients, was job-hunting on Thursday.

“I am going to have a roof over my head,” she said. “But will I be able to make my next insurance payment? I don't know.”

Another interior designer, Katherine Young, lost a contract recently from a Wachovia employee, she said.

“They had signed my contract and were ready to get started until Wachovia became so unstable,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I told them to rip up the contract and take care of their family. What else can you do in these times but show compassion?”

Kirsten Valle: 704-358-5248

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