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Crutchfield: Charlotte is a city on the cusp

By Taylor Batten
Editorial Page Editor
Taylor Batten
Taylor Batten is The Observer's editorial page editor.

Talk to Ed Crutchfield for very long and you get a glimpse of what made him so successful as CEO of one of the nation’s biggest banks: He’s as charming as anyone you’ll meet, while also giving the impression that you better not get in his way.

Not many people did in the 1980s and 1990s, when Crutchfield was building First Union into a giant with 70,000 employees and $170 billion in assets. Named president at age 32, he led the bank through close to 100 acquisitions. With friend and rival CEO Hugh McColl of NCNB (now BofA), Crutchfield transformed Charlotte into the nation’s second-largest financial center – and so was partly responsible for almost everything the city has become.

Crutchfield, who retired in 2001, spends much of his time in Florida now. He was back at his Quail Hollow home last week, though, as Charlotte Center City Partners honored him with its Vision Award. In a 90-minute conversation with me, Crutchfield talked about his deep fear that the city he helped build will stagnate without passionate leadership. After all, he’s already watched the bank he built disappear.

Excerpts from our conversation:

Q. Twelve years into retirement, when you think about Charlotte today and how it has evolved, what do you think? Where are we in the lifecycle of a city?

Make it akin to a human’s lifecycle. We’re 35-40, maybe 45, and we’re at the peak of our strength. We’ve achieved a lot and at that age a city or a human, its greatest risk is it doesn’t look forward. It thinks its strengths and powers and achievements are going to last. They don’t last. It does not happen automatically. In fact, decline is what happens automatically. And we are at the cusp.

We must stay passionate and driven or we will get paunchy in the belly and simply pass away like other great cities.

Q. If we don’t do it right, you think we’re truly at risk of following that path?

Not only do I think we’re at risk, we will follow that. Because there’s too much competition out there. My mother used to say about spoiled kids, “Early ripe, early rotten.” That could be a metaphor for Charlotte if we’re not vigilant.

Q. Being vigilant will require leadership.

We’ve got to raise passionate leaders and they are here. We as a community just need to motivate them to step up. We need to tell them: We’ll back you, it’s not going to be easy, Mr. Smith, but we want you and we need you.

It’s about paying the price (to invest in the city) even if it’s controversial. I’m sure what McColl and I were doing was controversial. We didn’t care. We had to have a good city because we needed to hire attractive people and they wouldn’t come here. I’d try to recruit a guy and he’d say “What’s there to do on the weekend?” “Get a piece of twine and a twig and go fishing at the Catawba River is all I know.” We realized people are coming to a boring town.

Q. There’s a chunk of the population that’s louder than ever against the things you’re talking about, public spending, investing in the center city.

That’s not new. What do you think they were saying when McColl and I were going around passing school bonds? They said the same thing: ‘The downtown crowd, they control it.’ The naysayers, and I hear you saying that chorus is loud –

Q. One group here wants to secede.

When you were in the third grade, that was still going on. They were raising hell in Mint Hill and north Mecklenburg. It’s not new. You just have to frankly push through it. “You don’t like the Panthers, Mrs. Smith? Should we bulldoze the stadium and let ’em go, will that make you happy?”

It reminds me of the country club. The last guy who joins says, “We have a real great club, let’s close the doors and don’t let anyone in here.” He just got in Friday. It’s that way with Charlotte. “You like living in Ballantyne, ma’am? Ballantyne wouldn’t be there if we hadn’t spent the money on the highway system and sewer and water and schools.” They think, “I got mine, good luck to you, buddy.”

Q. This goes to something Mayor Anthony Foxx has talked about. We’ve annexed all we can, so if you don’t want to increase taxes endlessly, you have to grow the economic base of all of the city.

We gotta support bond issues that build for the future. The better our schools get, the better our roads and communities get, the more people come here, the wider the tax base.

Q. Do you worry people don’t understand that?

That’s my single biggest worry, and wrap it up with the word passion, a willingness to act. We don’t have champions for the kinds of risks we need to take. So we’ll drift.

Q. Did you feel like you were able to hold your own with McColl?

I tried to zig when he was zagging. But he was just one competitor. If you step back and think about it, that wasn’t the ballgame; the ballgame was a national ballgame.

Q. Surely the rivalry with him and his bank drove a lot of what you did.

Exactly. Drove me crazy. It was intense. I thought of that guy more times in my life than any other human being on the planet. I admit it. It was the best kind of competition you can have: tough as hell but not dirty.

Q. Do you have any regrets from your time at First Union?

Nothing that just sticks in my brain. Did I make a wrong acquisition now and then? Well hell, if you make 100, you’re going to pick a rotten one now and then.

Q. Long after you left, there was a really bad acquisition…

I’m not gonna go there. I’m not gonna go there.

Q. But you had to be devastated to see what happened to the bank.

It ruined my day. It really upset me. When you thought you built something, it was very depressing. What I learned from that, though, is that manmade stuff is really transitory. Anything you’ve built, it’s like sand, man.

Q. How’s your health?

Good. I’ve been fighting a cancer battle. Had a stem cell transplant about three months ago. I’m cancer free, prognosis is good, I’m getting a little fuzz back on my head.

(It’s a recurrence of a cancer he had in 2000.) They just ran me through everything but the air conditioner and they say I’m clean now. But there’s always a risk.

Q. Well maybe it will be another 12 years before it returns.

If it’s another 12 years, I’ll take it. Then I’ll be saying, “I’m outta here!”

Reach me at tbatten@charlotteobserver.com.
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