Tales of the New South

comments

Bank Town USA: Really, the 'town of former bankers'?

Former bankers find innovative ways to stay in a place they now call home

By Elizabeth Leland
eleland@charlotteobserver.com

More Information

  • More: Tales of the New South
  • 10 New South Tales

    June 17: Southern Drawl

    June 24: Livermush

    July 1: Jewish life

    July 8: Globalizing city

    July 15: Segregated past

    July 22: Rural poverty

    July 29: Gateway to city

    Sunday: Still BankTown?

    Aug. 12: Flying the flag

    Aug. 19: Booster gene

    For DNC visitors, the series will be featured online at charlotteobserver.com.


  • From gold to an era of uncertainty

    1799: Gold discovered in Cabarrus County, setting off a Carolina gold rush.

    1837: Charlotte Mint is founded. North Carolina led the nation in gold production before the California gold rush in 1848.

    1874: Commercial National Bank founded in Charlotte.

    1879: Wachovia National Bank founded in what is now Winston-Salem.

    1927: Charlotte branch of Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond opens.

    1958: Union-National/First National Bank and Trust merger creates First Union National Bank.

    1960: American Commercial merges with Security National Bank to become NCNB.

    1985: Supreme Court upholds regional banking compacts.

    1998: NationsBank/BankAmerica merger creates Bank of America.

    2001: First Union merges with Wachovia.

    2008: Bank of America announces plans to buy Countrywide Financial and Merrill Lynch; Wells Fargo buys Wachovia as the North Carolina bank teeters.

    2010-12: Charlotte’s banks have weathered fines, cutbacks and mortgage-related legal troubles.

    Sources: Observer archives and “Banktown: The Rise and Struggles of Charlotte’s Big Banks” by Rick Rothacker



Randy Mitchell lost his banking job 11 years ago, and since then, he has helped other out-of-work bankers find new professions. He believes Charlotte can still rightfully promote itself as Bank Town but he suspects the nickname is hiding a dirty little secret:

More former bankers may now live here than current bankers.

There are no statistics to prove Mitchell’s theory, but given the thousands of layoffs over the years, he may be on to something.

“A lot of us came to Charlotte for banking-related jobs,” Mitchell said. “When the jobs went away, we wanted to find a way to stay here. People wanted to build another career for a place they now call home.”

How times change.

When I moved here in 1985, Charlotte was better known as the Queen City after its 18th-century namesake, England’s Queen Charlotte.

Four years later, I wrote about the way Hugh McColl, more than anyone, had built Charlotte’s reputation as a national financial center.

But it wasn’t until 1998, when McColl’s NationsBank bought BankAmerica and changed its name to Bank of America that Charlotte could rightfully claim the moniker “Bank Town” as the No. 2 banking center in the U.S.

Despite the banking debacles of the past four years, and the collapse of Wachovia, which cost the city a corporate headquarters and hundreds of high-paying jobs, nothing else has taken its place.

But Bank Town has lost some of its lustre. And being a banker has lost cachet. Whereas the banks once evoked an image of a city on the move, they’re now associated with bailouts, layoffs and legal settlements.

‘Charlotte is great’

Rob Hanckel, who worked in banking here for 13 years, calls Charlotte “a nervous Bank Town. We’re No. 2, but I think there are an awful lot of bankers outside the banks.”

Hanckel is one of them. He was downsized in August 2010, took the rest of the year off to “clear his head” and has spent the months since unsuccessfully trying to find a banking job in Charlotte. His background is in institutional sales. He and his wife, a pediatric intensive care nurse, decided not to leave at least until their youngest son finishes high school next year.

“Part of my issue is what I want to do, and what I don’t want to do, and the opportunities that remain in Charlotte,” Hanckel said. He has expanded his search outside of Charlotte, but still no luck. So he is considering following his passion and working in athletic administration. Or maybe buying a franchise.

“I’ve done a lot of soul-searching,” he said. “I’m very fortunate my wife is working, but I’m in a cash-negative flow.”

Hanckel joined support groups and took a sales training class to learn how to sell himself, to get “a little bit of swagger.” He volunteers with Charlotte Works, a resource center for out-of-work professionals.

Said Hanckel: “I’ve heard story after story of families moving here from New York, Chicago, San Francisco, thinking, ‘I’m moving to Charlotte?’ And now they’re saying, ‘You know, Charlotte is great.’ They lost their jobs, but they don’t want to leave.”

Putting a positive spin on it

In 2006, before the collapse, 54,373 people worked in finance and insurance in Charlotte, according to the N.C. Employment Security Commission. No figures are available for banking alone.

The number fell to 48,498 in 2009, but by last year had risen back to 49,492.

The loss of jobs doesn’t tell the whole story, said Erin Watkins, director of research for the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce.

“The layoffs within the financial and insurance sector provided an abundance of available labor with specific skill sets,” Watkins said. “This attracted a number of companies within the financial sector.”

Between 2007 and 2011, she said, there were 336 new or expanding financial firms that created 7,858 jobs. Some of the companies were: Ameritrust, Foundation Financial Group, Citco Fund Services, US Bancorp and GMAC Financial Services.

“So where we lost,” she said, “we gained.”

Bankers reinvent themselves

Randy Mitchell worked with Bank of America 15 years, counseling employees who were losing their jobs. Then, in 2001, he lost his. He now owns The Entrepreneur’s Source, which matches prospective business owners with franchises.

“There is life,” he said, “after banking.”

Mitchell helped Emory Simmons buy a computer networking service called CMIT Solutions. Simmons had worked in internet technology with Bank of America and Wachovia, and was downsized at the end of 2007.

“It hurt,” he said. “I took a few days, then I thought, ‘OK, what am I going to do next?’ ”

He opened the franchise in 2008.

“I’m doing a lot of the same stuff I did for banks, but on a very different scale,” Simmons said. “The average is two servers and 20 PCs. At the banks, it was 10,000 servers and 100,000 PCs.”

Todd Johnson also found a new career through Mitchell. Johnson’s title at Wachovia was “director of capacity planning resource development.” He said he helped banks figure the type of resources they needed, such as the number of tellers at each branch.

“When I first got the news that I was downsized, I was going into a meeting to work on reducing my staff,” Johnson said. “I went through the typical process: Do I want to stay in the industry? I thought of consulting, but I didn’t want to be 100 percent travel again. I have a family. I spent all my life telling everybody else how to run a business, I decided maybe I should own one.”

Johnson had come to Charlotte from Cincinnati in 1997 and – like many other transplants – he didn’t want to leave.

So the banker became a house cleaner.

He bought The Cleaning Authority of Southwest Charlotte in February 2009 and employs more than 50 people and has more than 700 customers.

“I won’t say it’s an easy job,” Johnson said. “I still put in close to 12 hours a day like I did in banking, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I don’t have to produce a PowerPoint presentation to try and convince executive leadership to make a decision.”

Not too many years ago, Mitchell said he would go to his children’s ball games and, while there, he would talk with other parents who worked at one of the big banks.

“Now,” he said, “I’m almost as likely to run into someone who has lost his banking job and does something different so they can stay in Charlotte.”

Like Mitchell, many newcomers came here between 1995 and 2005, during the banking boom. As the banks grew, so did their families. They enrolled their children in schools and became invested in the community. When they lost their jobs, they were reluctant to leave.

“The things I hear cited most often are the climate, the cost of living and the lifestyle, especially if you have a family,” Mitchell said. “You’re three to four hours to the beach, and three to four hours to the mountains. It’s a nice Southern lifestyle that gives folks a lot to do.”

Leland: 704-358-5074
Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

Have a news tip? You can send it to a local news editor; email local@charlotteobserver.com to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Charlotte Observer.

  Read more



Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

Have a news tip? You can send it to a local news editor; email local@charlotteobserver.com to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Charlotte Observer.

  Read more


Quick Job Search