National Geographic : 1995 Mar
Core of Carolina Rollingfrom the Appala chian Mountains to the Atlantic CoastalPlain, andfrom Alabama to New York, the Piedmont Plateausupports North Carolina'srich tobacco and textile trade-but white collars are dis placingblue ones. An early sign of the times: In 1956 Wake Forest College relocatedfrom its eponymous home town to Winston-Salem, a move financed by industrialistswho wanted their city to have a majorschool (left). North Carolina'sPiedmont rnL u Then they played out. Today's gold sits above ground. Charlotte has surpassed Atlanta as Wall Street erson of the South. Its two homegrown banks, First Union and NationsBank, have combined assets of 230 billion dollars-more than the annual gross rest national product of Sweden. Growth has compounded. The city's population has doubled to 450,000 in the past 20 years; median family income, in ten. The se number of firms has tripled in the past four. "This is the southern frontier," said David Gold field, history professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "Entrepreneurs coming in and putting down money. The city is a giant vacuum cleaner, sucking up the best and the brightest." Welcome to the newest South. Unlike such ancestor-obsessed cities of the Old Confederacy as Savannah and Charleston, Char lotte doesn't care who your grandparents are or how you dress. Charlotte says: Let's make a deal. When the city needed 16 million dollars for the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, it raised 30 million. When it wanted big-league sports, it built a 23,500-seat coliseum and landed a National Basketball Association team, the Charlotte Hornets. Now the impossible dream has come true: A National Football League franchise, the Panthers, has come to Charlotte. (With the cost of inaugural season tickets topping at $6,000, the banks wasted no time in offering loans.) The high-flying symbol of Charlotte's rise is Hugh McColl, head of NationsBank. Twenty years ago his bank lagged second in the state behind Winston-Salem's Wachovia. Now it's third in the country-closing in on second. McColl holds court in the tallest building in town, the 60-story NationsBank corporate headquarters, a spare-no-expense tower of glass and pink granite locally dubbed the "Taj McColl." One morning I was ushered into McColl's walnut-paneled office on the 58th floor. Fog hid the view. A hard-charging former marine from South Carolina, McColl gets to the point quickly. "I came here to work," he said. "Charlotte was the one place you could make money." He has. Last year NationsBank made more than a billion dol lars. Aided by southern banking laws that allowed regional expan sion while keeping northern banks at bay, it covers the South like kudzu-1,900 branches from Florida to Maryland. He could play on any stage from New York to San Francisco. Why here? "This is home. We are not distracted by pseudosophisticated things. We don't go to power lunches or drink martinis. It's an environment in which you can know your people and friends." McColl impatiently twists a plastic straw around his finger. Money waits to be made. Time to descend. The fog lifts; sunlight glints off rival banks. "Let me know if I can help you," McColl said, showing me out. A small loan? I joked.