Belk: Future still bright in Charlotte

Tim Belk, his family and his company have been in Charlotte long enough to have witnessed plenty of change on the local business landscape. In the next year, the CEO of Belk Inc. will see it from a slightly different perch – as chairman of the Charlotte Chamber.

Belk, 53, officially began his duties at the group's annual meeting Thursday, as the region experiences economic pain and civic challenges, particularly those related to the sale of Wachovia Corp. Retailers including Belk have also been hit hard by the slowdown.

“I can't help but think back to the first line of an old Rolling Stones song, ‘I was born in a cross-fire hurricane,'” Belk told the crowd Thursday, quoting “Jumpin' Jack Flash.” “I'm not sure what a cross-fire hurricane is, but I think we're in it.”

Yet Charlotte also has strengths that will help it move forward, he said. Belk spoke with the Observer on Thursday. Comments have been edited for brevity and clarity:

Q. It's been a hard year for retailers. At Belk, what have you seen from the economy; how does Charlotte stack up to other markets you're in?

Charlotte has been better than average. We seem to have weathered the downturn better than most, although recently we've seen a falloff in some of the businesses, in some of the better goods. I don't know if that's related to Wachovia. There are a lot of high-paying jobs there, and people are not spending. But I would say we've seen in September across the board a slowdown in spending, and that's concerning to people and it seems to be sticking around in October. There's been a retrenchment. How long that will last, I think, is the big question.

Q. What might it take to turn it around?

There are some positives. Falling gas prices is a big positive. You can go across the border and get gas under $2 now. The election will be a positive. We'll now have answers to who is going to be in office, and those leaders can put together their teams and try to move forward more forcefully with solutions for the economy. But the issues that got us into this took a long time, and I would imagine the solutions … will take time.

Q. Looking at the local retail landscape, what do you foresee for 2009?

I think the slowdown is going to be with us for a while. And I think we've got to be realistic and manage our business accordingly. We've got to control expenses, we've got to manage our inventory so that we try to bring those in line with sales. So, those will be the dominant factors – the time it takes for the customer to regain confidence and deal with some of the economic issues that are bothering people. One of the things that will help us a lot is to develop newness in our assortments. If we give customers a reason to buy, they'll respond. So the degree to which we can get them excited about our offerings, then we'll be better.

Q. What changes have you seen this year?

I think that the biggest thing that's occurred has been the postponement of plans that were in place. The slowdown has affected the development community. The (Bridges of) Mint Hill (shopping mall) project that General Growth proposed has been postponed. Hopefully that will be resurrected and will move forward, but in these times it's hard to know. There haven't been a lot of new retailers entering this market.

We were disappointed that (the Mint Hill project) didn't go forward, because we closed our store at Eastland; we'd love to put a store in Mint Hill and we're not servicing that sector of the market as well as we'd like. But there have been growth opportunities that we've looked at, some of which we'll act on, some of which we may postpone.

We've looked at an expansion of Monroe. And we're still committed to that, although the timing might be slightly different. We've looked at an expansion of our store in Concord. There's been a lot of growth in that area. And the timing of that we may push back a little bit, but we're excited about that.

At some point we'll have to decide, do we expand Pineville? Or pursue other retail further down (U.S.) 521? Those types of projects will come back, and it's just a matter of time as we manage through and this economy recovers.

Q. How do you think we as a region can weather the economic storm, and how will the Chamber contribute to that?

We are still in the planning process for next year. I'm going to suggest we narrow our focus to four areas: (economic development, diversity, transportation and education.) …We feel good about the financial sector. We're still going to be the No. 2 banking center in the country. But we've got other drivers that show that we're diversified, and they have bright prospects.

Q. Is that diversification what you think it will take to pull through?

Certainly. I would say that we can build on the existing bases: Transportation logistics has been a historic strength of the region. We're working hard to engineer an intermodal facility near the airport. Health care is another field that has seen good growth. Manufacturing has seen growth with the number of different companies here. And motorsports may not be growing right now, but is a large base and I think the presence of their skilled labor here anchors that to this area, and it's something that we can build on over time.

Q. How worried are you about the Wachovia sale?

I think everybody's worried about that and is wondering what's going to happen. But Wells Fargo will be a good long-term company to have in our town, and we're going to try to help them with the transition. I know that with the Norwest-Wells merger, everybody in Minneapolis was afraid of what would happen if they moved their headquarters to San Francisco, and they went through a slow, deliberate, thoughtful process. And I think Minneapolis actually benefited from that. We've got to give it time. I'm sure that there will be some reductions. So we'll have to work through that.

Q. Will the loss of the headquarters change recruiting?

I don't think so. Without Wachovia on the list, we'll go down by one (Fortune 500 company to eight in the region), but we'll still be relatively strong. And if anything, that will just cause us to redouble our efforts to attract others. There are prospects out there.

Q. Is there anything else you're hoping to accomplish in 2009 that you feel the region can move forward on?

There are a number of positives for this area. One of the things that's important for us is to recognize that we have a lot of advantages. Our cost of living is 93 percent of the national average. We consistently rank in the top in terms of quality of living. Our downtown is attractive and vibrant. We've got class A office space. We've got a phenomenally trained labor force. And we've got leaders that can get involved and invest. So, those characteristics will help us to manage through the tough times.

We're in a deep recession. People and businesses are hurting. And this is a time for leadership to step forward. Charlotte's done that before. We can do that again. When the recovery occurs, we'll be one of the first to benefit from that. And I think the things that have been so attractive about Charlotte the last five years will still be in place. We need to keep that in mind.