Rob Christensen

NC businesses being directed from afar

The Charlotte-based Belk department store chain has been sold for $3 billion to Sycamore Partners, a New York private equity firm.
The Charlotte-based Belk department store chain has been sold for $3 billion to Sycamore Partners, a New York private equity firm. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

When I recently used my ATM, there was an automatic message congratulating me on the 37th anniversary as a customer of Wells Fargo bank.

This is false. There is no way I have been doing business with the San Francisco banking behemoth for decades. What is true is that I have been a customer of First Union and Wachovia banks for that long. And those banks were swallowed up by Wells Fargo.

So why should you or I care about the cannibalistic practices of capitalism, which after all, are nothing new?

The continued loss of North Carolina homegrown businesses is not only sad, but can have an important effect on the political, civic, education and religious life of the state.

I thought about this when I saw last week that another North Carolina institution had been sold. The Charlotte-based Belk department store had been sold for $3 billion to Sycamore Partners, a New York private equity firm. The firm, located near New York’s Central Park, has been snapping up major retail chains since it was created in 2011. It is no doubt a quality company.

But Belk, started in Monroe 127 years ago, is part of North Carolina’s lifeblood. The Belk name adorns freeways, college buildings, a college football bowl game. John Belk served as a forward-thinking Charlotte mayor. In cities and towns across North Carolina, Belk executives have played an important role in the civic life of their communities.

Maybe Belk’s being owned by a firm on West 57th Street in Manhattan will be a good thing. Department stores are struggling in the new retail environment. But one worries about the loss of local leadership – whether it’s in public policy, education, charitable giving, and religious initiatives.

Think of all the leadership provided North Carolina over the years by executives of Wachovia and First Union – people such as Robert Hanes, Archie Davis, John Medlin, and Ed Crutchfield, all born or raised in North Carolina.

The chairman and CEO of Wells Fargo, John Stumpf, is undoubtedly a fine man, but he is a Minnesota native who now lives in San Francisco. He cannot be expected to have broad interest in North Carolina’s future.

Other iconic North Carolina businesses have undergone transformations. Carolina Power & Light Co., once Raleigh’s only Fortune 500 business, is now a subsidiary of Charlotte-based Duke Energy. Piedmont Airlines of Winston-Salem was absorbed by US Airways.

Burlington Industries of Greensboro was once North Carolina’s largest employer, headed by a brilliant innovator, Spencer Love. Now a much diminished Burlington Industries and Cone Mills are owned by the International Textile Group, whose chairman is New York investor Wilbur Ross.

Central Carolina Bank & Trust Co. of Durham was purchased and submerged into other banks. Its leader, George Watts Hill, was a leading figure in the state’s civic and education life for decades.

Cannon Mills of Kannapolis is no more. Charlie Cannon, the founder of the textile giant, almost single-handily kept the state from defaulting on its bonds during the Great Depression.

There are still North Carolina business leaders playing an important role in the life of the state beyond running their enterprises – Jim Goodnight of SAS Institute in Cary, Jim Goodmon of Capital Broadcasting of Raleigh, Fred Eschelman, a Wilmington pharmaceutical executive; Art Pope, a Raleigh retail executive; and Erskine Bowles, a Charlotte investment banker, to name a few.

But increasingly, North Carolina’s businesses are being directed from afar. North Carolina’s history of business progressivism – whether in creating a first-rate university system, or the Research Triangle Park, or an outstanding community college system, or as a leader in the arts, or as being moderate on race – was often driven by the Tar Heel business community.

Yes, their first goal was to make sure their companies were profitable and their shareholders were rewarded for their risks. Their politics were varied. But they also had a broader interest in making sure North Carolina moved forward, not just in having the lowest taxes.

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