N.C. cities know pain of big employer leaving town

10/05/2008 12:00 AM

10/05/2008 7:09 AM

When Charlotteans awoke Monday morning to the news that Wachovia had been peddled to Citigroup at a yard-sale price, it was more than a blow to civic pride. It was also a kick in the teeth that a highly regarded bank with deep roots in North Carolina could be brought so low – and a frightening moment for thousands of workers who had gone from a secure position the Friday before to the prospect of pink slips just a few days later.

Friday morning was a better one, with news that Wells Fargo was also bidding for a merger with Wachovia. There's a better per-share price, and Charlotte might be headquarters of the East Coast operation.

That would ease the sting of the potential loss of a major financial institution that, along with Bank of America, has been a key player in making Charlotte a national banking center. It's a distinction that has given the city, and the state, considerable pride and clout.

But it's nothing new. North Carolina cities have a history of losing major employers and world headquarters for businesses once regarded as mainstays of the Tar Heel economy.

When I was growing up in Greensboro, Burlington Industries was heralded as the world's largest textile company, a Southern success story and major employer at plants throughout the region. It's no longer there.

Just down the road, the city of Winston-Salem was proud of its industrial base and such stalwarts as R.J. Reynolds and Piedmont Airlines. While the tobacco company stayed during the upheavals of the latter part of the 20th century, the larger Reynolds parent left years ago for brighter lights and a bigger city. And Piedmont Airlines, one of the best in the business, disappeared in an acquisition. I miss it still.

The losses of these companies stung the civic pride of the Piedmont, but it was the bank changes that hit home in Greensboro nearly half a century ago when Wachovia was seen as the major competition.

Moravian settlers from the Wachau area of Germany came to what is now Forsyth County in the mid-1700s. More than a century later local businessmen gave a nod to the Wachau area and created Wachovia National Bank in the town we now call Winston-Salem. By the mid-20th century it was a solid bank known for its careful lending practices and prudent management.

In Greensboro, Security National Bank, begun during the Depression, was struggling. By the 1960s, Wachovia's reputation had outshone Security National Bank, and executives at Charlotte's American Commercial Bank wanted to form a new bank to compete against Wachovia. They merged with Greensboro's Security National Bank to form North Carolina National Bank. Newspaper stories described how the bank would have dual headquarters in Greensboro and Charlotte. That didn't last long. The dual headquarters soon became a Charlotte headquarters, a vivid lesson for what was to come.

North Carolina National Bank prospered and changed – to NCNB, to NationsBank and eventually to Bank of America. In time Wachovia grew, too. In 2001 it merged with Charlotte's First Union National Bank.

The new company retained Wachovia's name but moved to Charlotte. It was Winston-Salem's turn to see how the loss of a bank headquarters felt. It was no more welcome than Greensboro's loss of Security National's headquarters had been years earlier. The lesson: Banks change. Nothing stays the same. Deal with it.

Major banks today have merged scores of times over the years, leaving in their wake the communities where they began and prospered. So it should come as no surprise when a troubled Charlotte bank becomes part of a bidding war between West Coast and Wall Street interests.

We don't know where Wachovia will wind up or in what shape. But we do know this: Whoever winds up with it will have it for a while, but it won't be forever.

Write it down.

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