Charles Clifford “Cliff” Cameron took a chance on a career in mortgage lending and ended up leading one of the banking giants that shaped Charlotte.
The former First Union CEO, who also played a major role in the Charlotte and North Carolina civic scene, died Saturday at age 96 at his home at Southminster Retirement Community in Charlotte.
At First Union’s helm from 1966 to 1984, Cameron led one of the city’s two major banking institutions at a time when they were launching aggressive growth strategies that would turn Charlotte into a national banking center. He would also work with other business leaders to address various community issues, even serving as state budget director under former Gov. Jim Martin from 1985 to 1990.
“Cliff Cameron’s visionary leadership was a major reason why Charlotte is the financial center that it is today,” North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said in a statement Sunday. “As a decorated veteran, his devotion to his country and state serves as an example to us all. He was also a genuine public servant not only for the Charlotte community, but for the entire state. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends during this difficult time.”
Cameron was from Meridian, Miss., the son of a railroad man father and a devout Baptist mother. After graduating from Louisiana State University, he commanded a mortar battalion in World War II that met up with the Russians at the Elbe River.
After working in the refinery business, he partnered with an Army friend in Raleigh, James Poyner, to launch a mortgage company that would eventually become a top 10 lender in the United States.
“I thought I was crazy at first,” Cameron once said of his career turn. “I didn’t know anything about mortgage banking, and he (Poyner) didn’t either, but we figured we were intelligent and could learn.”
In 1964, he sold the Cameron-Brown Co. to Charlotte-based First Union after turning down offers from bigger rivals NCNB and Wachovia.
Cameron said he saw opportunity in joining a smaller company.
“I felt like if there was going to be any possible opportunity of me going higher in the organization instead of just going in and managing the mortgage company, it had to be a small company,” Cameron said.
Cameron started out as head of the mortgage unit, but in two years he was leading the bank. By 1968, First Union was a leader in pushing for a new way to expand in nonbanking businesses, with Cameron guiding national lobbying efforts.
Like other banks, First Union struggled during the recession in the 1970s, and Cameron said he got his first case of bleeding ulcers. “Those were tough days,” he said. “Tough nights.”
As CEO, Cameron also nurtured a young municipal bond trader, Ed Crutchfield, who would succeed him in 1984. Cameron retired as a director of the company in 1991.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Crutchfield and NCNB’s Hugh McColl Jr. would gobble up rivals across the country to create two of the nation’s biggest banks, turning Charlotte into the second-biggest U.S. banking center after New York. NCNB would become today’s Bank of America, and First Union is now part of San Francisco-based Wells Fargo.
“Cliff Cameron’s leadership, vision and integrity shaped First Union through important, formative years, and he leaves a legacy of outstanding leaders in financial services and the community whom he mentored and influenced,” Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf said in a statement. “He was an ultimate professional, wise, dedicated and always kind to others.”
Beyond banking, Cameron was active in Charlotte civic affairs. He was credited in 1983 with founding “The Group,” a collection of top business leaders, including Crutchfield, McColl, then-Duke Power CEO Bill Lee and then-Observer publisher Rolfe Neill, who helped guide Charlotte’s growth.
Charlotte’s uptown business leaders for decades had met informally at lunch, cocktail parties, church and association offices to talk politics and community affairs. Cameron decided it was time to reach out and include leading companies beyond the central business district.
At first they met late afternoons on the 28th floor of the white office tower now known as Two Wells Fargo, sitting in green upholstered chairs around the table in Cameron’s dark-paneled executive conference room. “The idea was, you wouldn’t have any staff. You don’t keep minutes,” Cameron said. “You just sit and talk about the problem.”
State budget director
When Cameron was retiring from First Union, then-Gov. Martin approached him about serving as his budget director. Cameron agreed to take the position on the condition that he be paid only a ceremonial $1 per year salary, Martin said Sunday. Cameron and his wife, Sara, postponed a retirement trip they had planned until after the General Assembly finished its session.
During his first term, Cameron advised the state to be careful in its spending and set some money aside in reserves, Martin said. It was a smart move.
“We went through a recession, and his judgment and wisdom paid off,” Martin said. “It left us in a fairly secure position.”
One of Cameron’s strengths was the trust and respect he commanded on both sides of the political aisle, said Martin, who led a Republican administration at a time when Democrats were in the majority in the legislature.
“He was never flustered,” Martin said. “He was calm no matter what the circumstances were. He would listen to people get all excited about some budget problem, then (he would) calmly tell them how we could deal with it.”
Cameron was also respected for his honesty and integrity, Martin said.
“He was a great leader,” he said. “If he had wanted to be governor, he would have been a great one.”
In other civic roles, Cameron also advised Wake Forest University on managing its $200 million endowment and chaired the UNC Charlotte Foundation and University Research Park boards.
In his later years, he served on the board of directors of the Southminster Retirement Community in South Charlotte, where he lived. His wife, Sara, died in 2012. He is survived by four children, 10 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that memorials be sent to Hospice & Palliative Care Charlotte Region, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (Cameron Scholars Endowment) or the charity of your choice.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte.
Observer archives contributed.