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Charlotte, NC, outpacing nationwide growth in banking, set for further expansion


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Charlotte, NC, outpacing nationwide growth in banking, set for further expansion

Charlotte, N.C., has outpaced the country in financial sector employment, and with more banks moving into the "Queen City," that growth looks unlikely to stop.

Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp recently announced plans to open its first North Carolina branch in the city, and BB&T Corp. and SunTrust Banks Inc. plan to move their combined headquarters there when their pending merger closes.

There are 82,000 people working in finance and insurance in the Charlotte region, according to the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance. Wells Fargo & Co. has an estimated 25,100 employees while Bank of America Corp. has 15,000.

The financial industry in Charlotte has grown significantly since 2000. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of jobs in the financial industry has increased 47.4% since the year 2000, compared to 11.7% growth for the U.S. as a whole.

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A 'banking ecosystem' focused on fintech

In Charlotte, many banks see an opportunity to partner with the city's thriving financial technology community.

"[Banking] really is an ecosystem," said Christopher Marinac, a bank analyst with FIG Partners. "You see it in Charlotte pretty clearly."

BB&T and SunTrust decided to move to Charlotte because of the city's access to fintech, data science and education programs, Brian Davis, director of corporate communications for BB&T, wrote in an email.

Tariq Bokhari, executive director of the Carolina Fintech Hub, said he has rarely seen two banks as upfront about technology as their reason for merging. The BB&T-SunTrust tie-up was one of the largest U.S. bank deals announced in a decade, and Bokhari expects it will usher in other mergers of a similar nature.

BB&T has been a "long-time anchor partner" of the Carolina Fintech Hub, said Bokhari. The Carolina FinTech Hub focuses on increasing talent, innovation and outreach. The group works to identify, build and retain talent in the area, including creating upward mobility opportunities for promising talent. It has an early-stage incubator for fintech and insurtech companies, as well as a late-stage accelerator for more established companies looking to "do a major deal," Bokhari said. The group also has a "digital community" where members can interact.

Banks participating in the hub are beginning to realize they are better off as a "collaboration of competitors," said Bokhari. "They've just really gotten a lot of economies of scale out of all this work together."

Wells Fargo and its competitors "realized we could have a bigger impact if we worked together," Jonathan Hartsell, the bank's head of digital business development, wrote in an email. "Growing fintech talent and resources within the region benefits all of us as we seek to accelerate innovation in our industry."

Charlotte's 'more the merrier' attitude

North Carolina was one of the first states to allow banks to open multiple branches in different cities without a new charter, encouraging growth in the industry across the state. Charlotte is often considered a second U.S. banking hub after New York. North Carolina has attracted banks with its cheap taxes, decent weather and progressive banking culture, said analyst Marinac.

"Charlotte has been based and expanded on a 'more the merrier' concept in the last 25 years," he said.

Bank of America has been headquartered in the city since the merger of NationsBank and BankAmerica in 1998. Wells Fargo moved into the city with its acquisition of Charlotte-based Wachovia in 2008.

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Combined, SunTrust and BB&T employ about 2,500 people in the region, according to the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance, and an additional 1,000 to 2,000 high-paying tech jobs will be added because of the merger, said Yongqiang Chu, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Some Charlotte-area employees will be hurt by the merger as the two banks begin to close some of the 100 or so branches they have in the area, said Chu. He estimated about 200 to 300 people would be displaced from branch closures.

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Although the combined banks' headquarters will be in Charlotte, some operations will remain in the two banks' current hometowns of Winston-Salem, N.C., and Atlanta. Marinac said he expects some employees to stay in their current cities and commute to Charlotte. "You're not going to hurt Winston-Salem and Atlanta as much as you may think," he said.

De novo activity in those two cities may increase slightly, but Marinac said he is not expecting a surge. Although there may not be many de novo banks as a result of the BB&T-SunTrust deal, Marinac said existing startups' business plans may be "reinforced" by this merger, as it highlights a lack of local community banks.

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