The Carolina Panthers’ trip to California in pursuit of a historic victory reminds me of another bunch of Charlotte upstarts who made a similar trip 18 years ago and returned home victorious.
In 1998 the Charlotte team was NationsBank. Its goal was to merge with San Francisco-based BankAmerica Corp. to create the nation’s largest bank, the first to reach from coast to coast.
It’s amazing how much those combative Charlotte bankers had in common with the Panthers of today.
The bank team’s leader, Hugh McColl Jr., was as aggressive, unconventional and successful as the Panthers’ Cam Newton.
Like Cam’s dab, McColl’s bravado generated considerable backlash. An ex-Marine, McColl used military terms to describe his take-no-prisoners attitude toward competitors and handed out crystal hand grenades to reward key employees. He warned a Georgia banker he was ready to “launch my missiles” in an effort to buy his bank. (The Georgian’s response: “Go the hell back to North Carolina.”) When NCNB bought a Florida bank in 1982, an editorial cartoon depicted him invading the state in a tank. An informal company photo shows McColl, wearing a military helmet, and key lieutenants beaming as they pose Iwo Jima-style around a Florida state flag – the ex-Leatherneck banker’s victory dance.
In the California deal, McColl’s NationsBank – like Newton’s Panthers – was a maverick challenging a traditional powerhouse. Though it could trace one of its predecessor institutions to 1874, NationsBank until the 1970s wasn’t even the biggest bank in its home state. But by 1998 it had becomne an entrepreneurial juggernaut, gobbling up banks in Atlanta, Dallas, St. Louis and beyond.
BankAmerica had a longer, richer history. It was founded by a first-generation Italian American to serve immigrants denied credit by other banks. It helped rebuild San Francisco after the calamitous 1906 earthquake. It helped finance such iconic ventures as the Golden Gate Bridge and “Gone with the Wind.” At one time it had been the world’s largest bank, but by 1998 its prospects were limited and its management ponderous.
Though the eventual deal was called a “merger of equals,” in fact NationsBank swallowed the biggest bank in the West. The new institution took Bank of America’s name, but Charlotte would be its headquarters, McColl its chairman and a majority of board seats would be NationsBank appointees. The nimble, scrappy newcomer had won.
The ties between McColl’s NationsBank and the Panthers involve more than a shared spirit. McColl’s pledge of financial support helped Panthers’ owner Jerry Richardson get an NFL franchise. At home games the men often watch together in the owner’s box – in Bank of America Stadium. And McColl says he does the dab every game.
Ed Williams retired in 2008 after 25 years as editor of The Charlotte Observer’s editorial pages.