Wounded pride club gains new member

The word filtering out of New York City was that thousands of Merrill Lynch & Co. employees were stunned when they woke up Monday morning.

Overnight, their executives reached agreement to sell the brokerage and investment banking firm to Charlotte-based Bank of America Corp. for $50 billion.

Jobs will be in jeopardy, of course, as the bank slashes expenses and reduces employment.

But a lot of pride is at stake, too.

When the merger is completed, those New York City dudes will be reporting to a Southern bank in a city where NASCAR rules and pork barbecue is gourmet cuisine.

For Bank of America, dealing with wounded pride is nothing new.

In 1988, still known as NCNB, it acquired Texas' First RepublicBank Corp. from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and instantly became the biggest bank in Texas.

Talk about a backlash.

Instead of praising NCNB's leaders for rescuing the failed Texas bank, critics accused them of arrogantly tightening credit and plundering the state. Many Texans had trouble facing reality.

One wag tells the story of sitting beside a Texas soldier on a bus headed through Eastern North Carolina to Fort Bragg. The soldier saw an NCNB sign out the window and remarked, “What's a big bank like that doing in a little place like this?”

The Texas acquisition put North Carolina on the national banking map and got former Chairman Hugh McColl Jr. – in western hat and cowboy boots – invitations to speak to brokers on Wall Street.

The next big event to attract national attention was the bank's name change to NationsBank and acquisition in 1991 of C&S/Sovran Corp. of Atlanta and Norfolk.

Atlanta, too, had to swallow some pride as Charlotte took the lead in banking center prominence.

The New York Times was curious enough about the bank's ambitious moves to dispatch a reporter to Charlotte to write about what it called “a historic juncture, not just for Charlotte but also for the South.”

A quote from former NCNB Chairman Thomas Storrs in that story characterizes Charlotte perhaps better than all the statistics.

“When I came here in 1959, a cousin in Richmond told me Charlotte's a wonderful place,” Storrs said. “She said the best way to summarize is to say that if the Russians bomb us and the first wave of bombs that come over doesn't include one for Charlotte, they will be very much disappointed.”

Students of Charlotte culture say Bank of America's and Wachovia Corp.'s successes in the financial world are reflective of that attitude.

At last, they say, the North is taking note that the South has power and influence.

And tasty pork barbecue.

I bet those Merrill Lynch investment bankers will like it.