Bank vs. Bank

Bank of America and Wachovia didn’t just build this town. They ARE this town. Still, sometimes their cultish cultures clash, and despite denials from each, a rivalry persists

Written by Melissa Hankins/Photographs by Chris Edwards, except where noted 


Charlotte is known as the Queen City. Frankly, it should go by Bank Town.

If it weren’t for the two big banks and their friendly rivalry (and you know who we mean), Charlotte wouldn’t be Charlotte. But unless you’re one of the 35,000 locals who work at one, life inside the walls can seem mysterious and cultish. That’s because it is. PLUS: A head-to-head comparison

If it weren’t for the two big banks and their friendly rivalry (and you know who we mean), Charlotte wouldn’t be Charlotte. But unless you’re one of the 35,000 locals who work at one, life inside the walls can seem mysterious and cultish. That’s because it is. PLUS: A head-to-head comparison

The country’s second- and fourth-largest banking institutions both make their homes here, and their presence is shaping Charlotte the way the auto industry shaped Detroit, the way steel defines Pittsburgh. Thanks to Bank of America, which is battling Citibank for national supremacy, and Wachovia, which is larger locally, Charlotte is the second-biggest banking center in the country, behind Manhattan (as of March 31, Charlotte has $2.23 trillion in assets held by banks headquartered here, according to business intelligence group SNL Securities; New York has $4.79 trillion).

Through real estate development and staffing and due, as well, to a stiff competition between the two that’s catapulted the area’s growth, the banks are also largely responsible for turning the urban core into what it looks and feels like today: Uptown, the slick, and—some charge—sterile city center that is the day- (and increasingly, night- ) time home to more than 20,000 big-bank employees. Uptown, with its neat streets and new, somber structures, reflects the conservative countenance of the stereotypical banker more than the opulent one of its namesake, Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, a fact that’s not lost on those that live here. Some people aren’t interested in calling Charlotte the Queen City or anything as banal as Bank Town, either, for that matter. Some just call it colorless and boring, and they cite the banks as the cause.

“The place has no funk, no soul,” complains an artist who moved to Charlotte several years ago from New York City when his girlfriend got a job here. While Manhattan may be the biggest banking center in America, this artist says he thrived there because it’s also a vivid and stimulating city. “There, you can walk from Little Italy to China Town,” he says. “There you’ve got uptown and downtown, Fifth Avenue and the Meatpacking District. But here—the buildings, the people, the ambience. It’s all positively antiseptic,” he says. “Walk down Trade or Tryon at lunchtime, everyone looks the same, completely straight-laced. Everyone looks like a banker. Hell, everyone is a banker.”

The reason the artist insists upon anonymity, however, is ironic. He wants his name withheld, he says, because he doesn’t want to publicly insult either bank. He’s worried, he says, that his comments could injure the chance of future patronage from BofA or Wachovia or any of their respective employees. And his caution also brings up an interesting point: there’s no escaping the influence of the banks in this town, whether you appreciate them or not. The area’s hipsters and artists might resent living in BofA and Wachovia’s long collective shadow, but the money the companies generate has helped the area expand artistically. BofA built the McColl Center for Visual Arts, a kind of incubator for artists, and Wachovia broke ground not long ago on an entire arts complex. At a more micro level, the banks have enlarged the average income in town, making it so more people can live big-city lifestyles, which includes the ability to afford original art. And both banks contribute heavily to the region’s artistic scene. In fact, BofA and Wachovia contribute to all sides of the city’s scene. They’ve stuck their proverbial two cents in just about every important charitable, artistic, sporting, and entertainment endeavor around.

Together, they mold the culture and atmosphere of this place in almost every conceivable way.

The north part of uptown belongs to BofA; Wachovia controls the south. The lines are drawn at the historical heart of the city: the intersection of Trade and Tryon. BofA owns three of the four corners there; in the surrounding blocks, 14,000 people work in thirteen buildings, including the sixty-story Bank of America Corporate Center. It is the tallest skyscraper between Philadelphia and Atlanta, and certainly the most prominent peak on Charlotte’s skyline. The giant structure is jokingly referred to as “Taj McColl,” it being the crowning achievement of retired BofA Chief Executive and empire-builder Hugh McColl. Across the street, on the corner of College and Fifth, BofA is building a new $450 million, 750,000-square-foot office tower that will house 1,200 of its employees, along with other tenants. BofA plans to complete it in 2010, a year after it finishes its Ritz-Carlton. The Ritz will occupy 150 rooms over seventeen floors.

Wachovia’s colony begins two blocks south of Trade. It has four main buildings—“we’re the size of a small city ourselves,” says corporate communications executive Jay Everette, chuckling—including the forty-two-story headquarters (at least for now), a Hilton, and a quad called The Green. And Wachovia, too, is expanding: the company is building a 1 million-square-foot complex that will include a forty-floor office tower (the future HQ), a 600-unit condominium tower, a park, two museums, and a performing arts center.

Wachovia’s condo project is one of about a dozen housing projects in the works uptown, with units preselling in the millions. Five years ago, Charlotte was a city of suburban dwellers. Only about 1,000 people lived in the center of the city. But 11,000 live there now, according to Charlotte Center City Partners, which claims that number will double by 2010. Part of this is due to a sheer increase in the area’s population, a phenomenon BofA and Wachovia have certainly spurred. Everette says Wachovia continuously “recruits thousands [of employees], literally, from other cities and states,” and while BofA won’t release any of its hiring information, it’s a good bet that they do the same.

Back in the 1990s, when both banks were engaged in aggressive acquisitions, the Charlotte metro area added about 300,000 people. Approximately 265,000 have moved to the city since. Not all of them, of course, are employees of the two big banks, but many work for other financial institutions—companies that have moved or flourished here thanks to the fact that BofA and Wachovia have helped to make Charlotte the banking nirvana it is—five of the nation’s top 150 financial institutions are now headquartered here. One in five local workers in Charlotte has a finance job of some kind.

The boom has made the workday commute one giant traffic snarl, and that’s another reason uptown is experiencing a housing jump—both banks say many of their workers would love to shake their commutes. There’s yet another bank-related reason people are moving into million-dollar condos versus living in traditionally wealthy areas like Myers Park—the banks are creating an awful lot of new money, a term that’s often used with disdain by Southerners who’ve inherited their lot. It’s mostly new money, too, that’s responsible for all those McMansions along Lake Norman—for turning the northern tip of the city’s outskirts into a kind of flashy antithesis of south Charlotte’s historic “old money” neighborhoods. Now that the morning and evening commute from Exit 28 to uptown is so tedious, however, the nouveau riche are being seduced by modern, luxurious condominiums and all the conveniences they have to offer. Even segments of the NASCAR crowd—long the kings of Lake Norman—are settling into flashy new condo highrises.

So the banks have caused a residential ripple effect in Charlotte, and even a kind of clash of cultures, providing a good example of how their influence expands beyond the obvious. BofA and Wachovia have also pounced on the city’s sporting scene, taking it national as well, and garnering the city national attention in the process. Wachovia is responsible for one of the largest pro golf events, the Wachovia Championship, a celebrity-studded tournament that annually fills the area’s finest hotels and restaurants with the likes of Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan. And BofA, of course, has Bank of America Stadium. Its name is synonymous with the Carolina Panthers, and it will be at least until 2024, when its sponsorship contract runs out (and Wachovia has a chance to bid). BofA shells out approximately $7 million a year for those naming rights. And as of this year, BofA is also the Official Bank of NASCAR. It is the title sponsor of the Bank of America 500 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. And both banks were instrumental in wooing the NBA to town—twice.

The banks also spend major bucks on charities, helping many of the area’s foundations to flourish, and encouraging the growth of more. BofA’s biggest beneficiaries are United Way of Central Carolinas, the Arts & Science Council, Habitat for Humanity, Charlotte Emergency Housing, and Jacob’s Ladder Job Center. Wachovia, who has a list of 6,000 employees who regularly volunteer, contributes to several of those organizations as well, though education is its number-one priority, according to Tami Simmons, senior vice-president of corporate philanthropy and environmental affairs. The primary beneficiary of the Wachovia Championship is Teach for America, an organization that places new teachers in urban schools, and the charity has received $1 million annually for the past four years, since the tournament’s inception. Just as important as the amount of money Wachovia gives, says Simmons, is the amount of time its employees spend volunteering. “Our employees sit on every local community board imaginable,” she says. “Our folks are all over the fabric of Charlotte. Every nonprofit around beats on our door to make sure there is a Wachovian at their table.”

In fact, most of the area’s philanthropic organizations have both a BofA and a Wachovia employee on their boards. And let’s be clear: Giving is not just an altruistic endeavor for the big banks. As in every other aspect of their community and business involvement, it’s a competition. Though both banks are officially quick to dismiss any talk of rivalry, Simmons plaintively gives an example: “we’ve toggled with Bank of America between being number one and two [in donations] for United Way for years.”
Turns out the rivalry between BofA and Wachovia shapes the city as much as anything.  

Ask Leigh and Scott Teague, who can rarely escape it. The Teagues have been married for three years. Leigh, who’s from Reston, Virginia, works in marketing at Bank of America. Scott, an Asheville native, is a financial advisor for Wachovia. At home, they try not to talk much about work, they say, because they don’t want the competitiveness to creep into their marriage—but it’s not an easy thing. Not in Charlotte.

“Meeting is an issue,” Leigh says, laughing. “If we want to eat together, it’s like, who’s going to cross the street? Not me!”
There’s a virtual line drawn down Trade, the Teagues say. BofAers like to lunch at Luce, in the Hearst Tower. Wachovia employees hang out at Mimosa Grill, next to their own quarters. It’s not as if the bankers look different, the Teagues explain. BofA and Wachovia employees share a common uniform: men wear blue button-downs and they always don dark, buckled dress pants (at both banks, jackets and ties are reserved for the most important meetings). Their hair is short and their faces are clean-shaven. The well-heeled women bankers wear black or navy suits. Diamond studs sparkle from their ears, or prim pearls; their hair is sleek, no longer, usually, than their shoulders.

What does set the armies apart is their ID badges; both sets of employees rarely remove them while still camped uptown, even after work. An offensive badge, the Teagues say, can blink like a light in a sea of dark suits, and nothing sets apart a rogue banker on the wrong side of the street like a badge with the wrong colors (BofA’s is red and blue, Wachovia’s green and blue). But, apparently, removing a banker’s badge is a bit like stripping away his identity.

“There’s just this constant, highly competitive feeling,” Scott says. “BofA calls themselves The Bank, but we call ourselves the same thing, and we both make fun of the other for doing so. It’s like the city’s divided in two,” he continues. “I mean, 70 percent of the people we know work at one of the two banks.”

And, actually, a large chunk of the married couples they know are both bankers. Both bankers at BofA, that is. “A quarter of the people at Bank of America have a spouse in the bank,” Leigh says, adding that BofA encourages its employees to intermarry. “They want us to work together, to socialize together, to do everything together,” she says. Wachovia is beginning to adopt the same attitude, says Scott. “From around 1995 to 1999, they frowned on intermarriage,” he says. “But they’re changing their attitude a bit.”

The Teagues say both banks play Big Brother by monitoring phone calls and e-mails. “We all have to write to each other in Charlie Brown talk,” says Scott. “You know, using asterisks and other symbols” to mask words.

Yes, that this all sounds a little cultish is obvious…the intermarriage, working together, playing together, a compulsion to dine in separate eateries, the reluctance to part with ID badges… “But that’s just the way things are in this town,” Scott says. “In Charlotte, the question’s not, do you work for a bank? It’s what bank do you work for?”

BofA even has its own acronym-laden language, Leigh says, complete with a dictionary to define it. And at Wachovia, workers are issued little blue cards stating the company’s philosophical beliefs—wallet-sized, so that employees can carry them at all times. I am Wachovia, the cards read on the cover. Inside is a set of rules that make up what Wachovia calls its Core Value System. Among the values: Integrity, Respect and Value the Individual, Teamwork, Service, Personal Excellence and Accountability, and Winning.

“Employees have been let go at the highest levels because these people haven’t lived our core values,” says Everette, whose own card is creased with wear. “I’ve had this thing since 2001,” he says, pulling the card from his pocket. Working for Wachovia and rejecting the Core Values is “like being a citizen of the United States,” he says. “If someone does something against the Declaration of Independence, then we all cry foul. It’s not uncommon,” he continues, “to be in a meeting and have a Core Value moment. If we’re not connecting well, if we’re experiencing toxicity, for example, it can typically be traced back to a Core Value issue. So we’ll stop, and have a Core Value moment.”

As Everette mentioned, working at a massive conglomerate like Wachovia is a bit like dwelling in a small city—an exclusive one, where residents are handpicked by what Simmons calls behavior-based interviewing, “a tool used to make sure people will mesh with our core values,” she says. Simmons’ card is laminated—she keeps it on her desk.

“We continually try to build a sense of community within,” Everette adds, and the bank fosters that sense through several daily procedures. For example, workers are asked to tune in to Wachovia’s own televised newscast, Take 5, on “a network that runs 24/7,” Everette says. Debuting soon: “Wachipedia,” Everette says. “As in Wikipedia? Our employees will be able to use it as a resource, and they’ll be able to update information on it in the same way.”

BofA is tight-lipped about its own daily procedures and internal policies. When asked about its philosophy and corporate culture, BofA public relations rep Nicole Nastacie says the topic is off-limits (secrecy, apparently, is one important part of its corporate code). BofA did provide a prepared statement about the bank’s culture, or at least what it aims for its culture to be. The list of traits includes Doing the Right Thing, Trusting and Teamwork, Inclusive Meritocracy, Winning (sound familiar?), and Leadership.
Leigh reveals another tidbit: the bank operates on something called the Six Sigma system. “It’s a way of improving processes to limit waste,” Leigh says. “The idea is to remove the steps in any process that either loses money or doesn’t improve the ability to gain it.”  Associates are awarded a Karate-style system of belts as they move through the process. “You get your green belt by going through Six Sigma training. They have whole operational teams devoted to this thing,” Leigh says. “They take it very seriously.”

“It’s a huge challenge for someone to come in from the outside and to get the banking culture,” she continues, stabbing at an explanation of it all. “How we speak, how we interact, what the protocol is. But I feel as a representative of Bank of America that even when I’m out, I’m representing my company. You become very accustomed to speaking the language, to internalizing what’s deemed important, to the whole philosophy of the company.”

The only reason, by the way, that Scott and Leigh’s boundary-crossing marriage is accepted is because the two work in different departments. “At Bank of America,” Leigh says, “you’re allowed to work with each other in the same group if you’re married, but if you’re married to someone in a different bank, you’ve got to work in different departments.”

“There’s no insider trading secrets going on here,” Scott says, grinning.
The Teagues are especially careful though, they say, to balance their loyalties. “We have our mortgage through one,” Leigh says, “and some of the other big stuff through the other.” Like the artist who won’t be named, they feel they must tiptoe around the city’s twin corporate giants.
In many ways, the competition between the two banks is so fierce because they’re running neck-in-neck. BofA is second nationally, with $1.5 trillion in assets, according to SNL, but Wachovia’s the bigger of the two in Charlotte, as measured by the area’s deposits (Wachovia has $706.4 billion in assets). Both companies are unusually enterprising, and both want to be top dog on all fronts.

Where they differ is within their company philosophy: Wachovia, the Teagues explain, puts customers first. BofA is all about “the associate.” “Which means employee,” Leigh says, laughing. “That’s more code.” “Bank of America wants to be like Disney,” Leigh says. “They want to be the most admired company to work for in the world.”

Wachovia, on the other hand, wants to woo its customers, above all else. “We use the acronym WISE,” says Everette. “Wachovia Is Service Excellence. We’ve been rated number one in customer satisfaction for seven years [by the American Customer Satisfaction Index].”

Simmons likes to give an example. “About a year ago, my son was in college in Columbia, and he realized at 11:30 at night that he had an overdraft of $1,600,” she says. “We knew Marky hadn’t done that.” So Simmons and her son called the hotline listed on the back of his check card, and “we got this wonderful woman on the phone named Amy, and we told her we didn’t know what this was…she called us back at 12:30 in the morning, saying ‘you know what, I couldn’t rest until I realized what the problem was…’ 12:30!” Simmons swears Amy had no idea she was speaking to a Wachovia exec, and that she helped them realize what was in fact her son’s error. When Simmons revealed her identity, “I said, ‘Amy, that’s why we are…’ and she finished my sentence,” Simmons says. “She said ‘that is why we are number one in customer satisfaction.’ ”

Both banks monitor each other obsessively, according to the Teagues. Scott says Wachovia is constantly concerned about the goings-on at BofA. “We’re always saying Bank of America does this, Bank of America does that,” he says. BofA, according to Leigh, focuses on Wachovia’s success with its customers. “In our meetings,” Leigh says, “we’re always looking at the fact that Wachovia has such good customer service…it’s not that Bank of America isn’t customer service-oriented,” she’s quick to add. “[It’s that] it believes a happy associate drives satisfaction through positive interaction with their customers.”

In fact, she says, Bank of America named 2007 The Year of the Customer “to show its dedication to increasing customer satisfaction.”  

In other words, this is the year BofA plans to trump Wachovia in the area its rival is best known for.
The battle of the titans rages on.

Categories: Feature, The Buzz