Back in 1994, when college basketball’s Final Four tournament came to Charlotte, N.C., pop-up restaurants and bars were set up downtown, former Mayor Pro Tem Lynn Wheeler said. Vacant buildings were temporarily fronted by cardboard facades, almost like a movie set.
The city wanted to give a sense of hustle and bustle, she recalled.
There’s no longer any need for that, largely thanks to the city’s ever-growing banking industry. And Charlotte’s gain is Atlanta’s loss.
Thursday’s announcement that Georgia’s largest bank, SunTrust, is consolidating with BB&T and moving its headquarters to Charlotte marked just the latest in a series of Atlanta banks poached. Over the years, C&S, First Atlanta, Bank South Corp. and First Railroad and Banking Co. were all bought by bigger rivals and moved northeast to the Queen City.
Those departures deprived Atlanta of economic fuel, said economist Roger Tutterow of Kennesaw State University.
“It is a loss,” he said. “Even if we retain a lot of employees for this market, where the corporate headquarters goes likely has a lot of implications for the corporate services firms, the lawyers and where that spending goes.”
So why go to Charlotte, a metro half the size of Atlanta’s?
Not only is Atlanta bigger, it has a busier airport. Atlanta has more well-known history. And higher average pay.
Charlotte’s banking triumphs were not random, said Thomas Hills, a former banker and chief financial officer of the state of Georgia. “It was inevitable.”
Changes in regulation had greased the skids for consolidation in the Southeast, especially in North Carolina, where the rules were the least restrictive, he said. Three decades ago, limits on mergers were shelved. Banks there were finally allowed to do business outside their home counties.
“And because North Carolina had a lead, they just kept on growing,” Hills said. “You had bank lawyers, accountants, all sorts of service expertise. So, you get some efficiencies.”
North Carolina’s banks soon set their eyes on prey elsewhere, like Georgia, giving rise to giants such as Bank of America, the former Wachovia (now part of Wells Fargo) and BB&T.
Now, with Bank of America and the merged SunTrust/BB&T entity, Charlotte will be the headquarters of two of the Top Six banks in the U.S. The city will be the nation’s largest banking center outside New York.
Kelly King, the BB&T chief executive, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he loved Atlanta, as well as the bank’s current headquarters in Winston-Salem. But there’s a deeper bench of banking talent is in Charlotte.
When he and SunTrust CEO William Rogers Jr. decided the business imperative was to pick a third city, the choice was obvious.
“We resulted in the next best choice, which we believe Charlotte is, because it’s a financial hub,” he said.
Charlotte — if only for reasons of geography — in often is competition with Atlanta for corporate relocations, major sports and political events, and the recruitment of young and talented professionals. It offers a southern climate, relatively affordable housing and a choice of suburban or urban living.
“What makes places favorable places to grow?” Tutterow mused. “For entrepreneurs you need access to capital and access to high quality workforce. (Those banks) really funded so much of the growth of metro Atlanta in the 1960, 1970s and 1980s.”
Some of Atlanta’s banking woes are self-inflicted, according to Sam Williams, former chief executive of the Metro Atlanta Chamber.
State legislators wrote restrictive rules governing bank branches and expansions, which for a very long time effectively hemmed in how they could grow, Williams told the AJC.
“It was just an ignorant decision,” he said. “The General Assembly just handed Charlotte the Atlanta banking industry.”
Whatever the historical reasons, Charlotte now has an advantage whenever banking executives are considering where to consolidate, said Chris Marinac, bank analyst with FIG Partners in Atlanta.
“The reality is, it’s a better talent pool than either Winston-Salem or Atlanta,” he said.
Charlotte has seen an influx of young professionals.
Prior to the Great Recession, Atlanta ranked third among big metros as a destination for people aged 25 to 34. Charlotte was fifth, according to a recent study by William Frey of the Brookings Institution. During the past five years, Atlanta has fallen to No. 11, while Charlotte ranks sixth.
“We are not the old stodgy Charlotte we used to be,” said Wheeler.
Millennials are now a majority on the city council in Charlotte, she said. “It’s like that song, that ‘I feel the earth move under my feet.’ There is just so much that is changing.”
Still, Atlanta has been growing steadily and, while the SunTrust merger means some cuts, the 2.8 million-job metro economy will not likely be thrown off-course.
Moreover, Atlanta’s financial sector is still solid, Marinac said. Much of the banking talent will remain, he said.
“It’s not like they’re going to be cutting a lot of heads in Winston-Salem and Atlanta for the benefit of Charlotte,” he said. “I think Atlanta and Winston-Salem will be net beneficiaries, because there will be a lot infrastructure that has to be maintained.”