Living Here Guide

Belk once sold fishhooks ... and more about companies with Charlotte roots

Belk on East Trade Street in uptown Charlotte, circa 1940.
Belk on East Trade Street in uptown Charlotte, circa 1940. The Charlotte Observer

Across Charlotte, iconic names of local businesses and their leaders are splashed across buildings, roadways, theaters and medical centers. Since their oftentimes humble beginnings long ago, many Charlotte corporations have exploded in size and reach.

Charlotte ties often are obscured by a firm’s lofty Wall Street ambitions, so an outsider might not know, for example, that one of the country’s biggest discount retail chains started on Central Avenue.

Here is a look at several companies whose roots trace back to Charlotte.

Bank of America

Although it now has become a global giant, Bank of America’s North Carolina roots trace to two small Charlotte banks – American Trust and Commercial National Bank – that once operated side by side on Tryon Street until a 1957 merger.

In the coming decades, the bank – renamed NCNB and then NationsBank – would go on a major acquisition binge and emerge as a national player. In 1998, NationsBank, under Chief Executive Officer Hugh McColl Jr., merged with San Francisco-based BankAmerica to form a coast-to-coast behemoth.

NationsBank took the other bank’s name but kept its Charlotte headquarters.

McColl was succeeded by Ken Lewis, who continued the bank’s deal-making ways but stumbled with purchases of Merrill Lynch and Countrywide Financial in the run-up to the financial crisis. Current CEO Brian Moynihan, who took the helm in 2010 but still lives in Boston, has spent much of his tenure settling lawsuits and government investigations related to Countrywide.

Bank of America, the second largest U.S. bank, employs about 15,000 people in Charlotte.

Duke Energy

The nation’s largest electric utility started in 1905 as the Southern Power Company, a venture from a gynecologist named W. Gill Wylie, who had constructed a hydroelectric dam in the Catawba River in South Carolina, and James Buchanan Duke, a rolled cigarette manufacturer who funded Wylie’s project.

The company’s fleet of plants grew, fueled by demand from cotton and textile mills to customers craving the modern conveniences that emerged after World War II, like refrigerators and television sets.

In 1997, the company that had evolved into Duke Power merged with its rival PanEnergy to create Duke Energy, which merged with Midwest energy giant Cinergy in 2006. It was then that Duke expanded service into Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. Duke merged with Raleigh-based Progress Energy in 2012, opening up the Florida market to the local utility.

Recently, following the 2014 spill of coal ash into the Dan River, Duke Energy agreed to close all 32 of its ash ponds across the state.

The company employs a total of 6,000 people in Mecklenburg County, including 4,100 people at its uptown Charlotte headquarters.

Family Dollar

Leon Levine was 22 when he started Family Dollar in 1959. He opened the first Family Dollar on Central Avenue (in what is now Plaza-Midwood) with a $6,000 loan and scouted new locations by spotting fresh oil spots left on the pavement by low-income motorists.

The chain mushroomed in size over the next several years, and Levine steered it through its initial public offering in 1970. He was at the helm of the coast-to-coast discount chain until 2003, when his son Howard took over and grew the company into the second biggest dollar store chain in the U.S.

Earlier this year, Family Dollar shareholders approved a sale of the company to Virginia-based Dollar Tree, and the deal officially closed in July, ending 56 years of local control. The combined retailer is the biggest dollar store chain in the U.S.

The company employs about 1,300 people at its corporate offices in Matthews.

Belk

Belk dates back to 1888 in Monroe, where William Henry Belk opened his first store, then called New York Racket. The store sold everything from one-cent items like pencils and fishhooks to workman overalls straight from the wooden packing crates in which they arrived.

For years, Belk operated hundreds of department stores under several different regional divisions and under separate leadership. Belk’s son John Belk, who would later serve four terms as Charlotte mayor, became CEO of one of the various Belk stores in 1953 and later consolidated them under one banner. He held Belk’s No. 1 spot until he retired in 2004.

Belk has since grown into the largest family-owned department store chain in the country, now controlled by a third generation of Belk family members (current CEO Tim Belk and brother Johnny are John Belk’s nephews.)

In August, Belk said it had reached a deal to sell the company to Sycamore Partners, a New York-based private equity firm, for $3 billion. The retailer’s executives said they don’t expect customers and employers to see many big changes from the deal. That’s probably a relief to many: the Belk brand is iconic in Charlotte, and well-loved by native Charlotteans and transplants alike.

Belk employs about 1,300 people at its corporate offices on Tyvola Road.

Bojangles’

Bojangles’ was started in Charlotte in 1977 by a Hardee’s franchisee, Jack Fulk, and former KFC president Richard Thomas. The two opened their first store at West Boulevard and South Tryon Street, a walk-in location with no seating.

While at Hardee’s, Fulk had developed a homemade biscuit recipe, and when he and Thomas added biscuits to the Bojangles’ menu, they initially lifted sales by 60 percent (Fulk would joke that the chain’s slogan should have been “Famous Biscuits n’ Chicken,” instead of the other way around.)

The chain changed hands several times over the decades and was most recently owned by private equity firm Advent International, which bought a controlling stake in Bojangles’ in 2011 from Falfurrias Capital Partners, the Charlotte-based private equity firm co-founded by former Bank of America CEO McColl.

The restaurant went public on May 8, raising about $147 million on its first day of trading. Bojangles’ initial public offering was the 10th biggest by a Charlotte company since at least 1980. The company employs about 200 people at its corporate offices in southwest Charlotte.

Staff writers Rick Rothacker, Ely Portillo and Maria David contributed.

Katherine covers retail business for the Observer.

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