Hugh McColl’s second act

Plus: Readers share their favorite Teen Talk moments; Charlotte's top stories of the week

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At age 85, Charlotte’s hard-charging banking titan is keeping active to solve some of the city’s thorniest problems.

Editor’s note: The following article is an excerpt from a forthcoming biography, “Beyond the Bank: Hugh McColl’s Chapter Two,” from Lorimer Press. It is republished with the permission of the author. The book is expected to be available in January at local bookstores and online.

By Howard E. Covington Jr.

Shaun Corbett, a tall Black man with strong shoulders, close-cropped hair, and just the shadow of a close-trimmed beard, stood at the entrance of his LuckySpot Barbershop watching shoppers across the way gather their purchases from the checkout and head for the exit. It was around 2 p.m. on a Wednesday, and the Walmart Supercenter on Charlotte’s west side was busy, indeed very busy for a midweek afternoon — good news for entrepreneurs like Corbett who operate under Walmart’s roof. …

Now, more potential LuckySpot customers pass Corbett’s shop in a single day than did over an entire year at his previous northside Charlotte location. In LuckySpot’s first week at Walmart, 142 new customers took a chair; 125 in the second. Midway into week three the numbers looked good, and Corbett figured about three-quarters of his old customers had followed him across town. …

No one is more pleased with Corbett’s success than his newest best friend and business advisor, Hugh L. McColl Jr. Corbett still couldn’t believe that McColl, the retired chairman of Bank of America and a financial titan, was taking him and his business seriously.

Whenever Corbett had a question, McColl was as close as his cell phone. When Corbett needed plans drawn to upfit the Walmart space, McColl found an architect who prepared them at no charge. The lawyer who handled lease negotiations also came pro bono, thanks to a couple of phone calls.

The man whose bank provided encouragement and billions of dollars in capital to businesses all across the South, on its way to creating one of America’s largest financial institutions, was at it again. The prospect of Corbett moving on to claim space in five, 10, or even 100 or more shops in Walmart locations across the land was no less exciting for McColl than the challenge of rounding up $200 million to bring a National Football League franchise to Charlotte, his hometown. McColl was just operating on a different scale.

Hugh McColl left Bank of America for “retirement” in the spring of 2001. During his 40-plus years in banking, he had helped his corporate customers grow and thrive using the leverage of what he always called “his bank,” even when he was only a junior officer. In the early days, that was North Carolina National Bank, or NCNB. It reared up in the 1960s with McColl among a pack of aggressive junior bank executives who in a dozen years pushed NCNB ahead of the state’s largest institution, Wachovia Bank and Trust Co., a sluggish competitor terminally smug about its portfolio of blue-chip clients. …

In 1998, McColl satisfied his ambition for a nationwide franchise when NationsBank acquired BankAmerica, the pride of San Francisco. He made a slight change in the name and installed Bank of America’s headquarters smack dab in the center of Charlotte. Making the city an even larger global financial center was a satisfying response to all those who over the years had made fun of southerners as slow, dumb, and awkward — a distasteful stereotype that dogged McColl throughout his professional career.

His record of more than 100 mergers and acquisitions earned McColl a reputation as a determined competitor who talked tough about “launching his missiles” against those who stood in his way. He wasn’t in the business of merging banks; McColl was acquiring them. He closed deals with such regularity that he had a transition team on the road, somewhere, virtually year-round. The coveted reward for successful associates was a crystal hand grenade fashioned after those McColl once tossed out of a training bunker on the Marine Corps range at Quantico, Va. …

McColl’s wife, Jane, says all the bluster that business writers spread about her husband is woefully incomplete, leaving him misunderstood. Friends and coworkers confirm her opinion. All in all, McColl has always been a soft touch for a stranger with a hard-luck story, and he is ever willing to shed cash or sweat, whichever is required at the time, in aid of a “teammate” or anyone he considers in need.

It’s true that he’s not much on small talk and can be a bit brusque. He also becomes prickly at situations he deems unjust, unreasonable, discriminatory, or just plain silly. Basically, he values loyalty and honesty, and he adheres to a simple credo, one he learned in the Marine Corps’ officer training, that can apply to a corporation or a community: Take care of your people, they’ll take care of the customers, and that will satisfy the shareholders. …

McColl was well-compensated while at the bank, though not as richly as some operating at his level. … He only began making what Wall Streeters would call real money after he was on his own. His annual take-home pay tripled to about $15 million after he created McColl Partners, a mergers and acquisitions firm that was licensed to do business September 10, 2001. The Great Recession in 2009 later took a huge bite out of his wealth, but he recovered in the years that followed thanks to a successful turn of investments from his partnership in the private-equity firm Falfurrias Capital. …

Even as McColl accumulated wealth and power, he and Jane never saw the need to upgrade a lifestyle that had suited them for years. They had bought a handsome brick Georgian-style two-story in 1992 and were still living in the same well-to-do Charlotte neighborhood nearly 30 years later. The house is big, but nothing like the McMansions popular in his part of town. The interior is well-appointed and serves as a gallery of sorts for favorite pieces of art chosen from a collection that the two have accumulated over the years. Hugh’s favorites are maritime scenes.

His real excess is a South Texas hunting camp with a low-slung lodge and a full-time staff. The foremen and his men look after about 1,000 head of cattle grazing on roughly 40,000 acres spread across the flatlands 80 miles north of the border town of Brownsville.

McColl’s everyday tastes are simple. He dresses casually and favors black T-shirts, Levi jeans held up by a belt with a silver ram’s head buckle (he is a graduate of the University of North Carolina), and comfortable leather sport shoes (also in black). He drives a BMW sport utility vehicle. (He shifted from black to cream.) A 1993 Ford Ranger pickup that looks like it has been disguised as an abandoned vehicle stays parked in back of the house. Among the stickers literally covering the tailgate is one that reads, “You May All Go To Hell And I Will Go To Texas —Davy Crockett.” Another: “I Got This Truck For My Wife — Good Trade, Huh?”

Growing old hasn’t been easy. Not long after doctors repaired his rotator cuff, injured during a pickup basketball game, at age 69 McColl underwent heart bypass surgery. A decade later, he had to learn to walk again after brain surgery. It took months of physical therapy before McColl regained full mobility. Yoga and continued physical therapy restored him to health, although he now walks with a side-to-side motion slightly reminiscent of a penguin’s gait. He is happy to note that today he can swing his custom Spanish-made .20-gauge shotgun into shooting position as smoothly as he ever did before doctors opened up his skull.

A single medical event, not to mention two, would have convinced most old warriors that it was time to turn things over to a younger set. Not McColl.

He was forced to face the real possibility of dying, however, as an ambulance rushed him to Charlotte from the clubhouse at Augusta National, where he had collapsed in December 2014. “I just thought that was it,” he would later allow. Jane tells him that he’s still alive for a purpose. Hugh says he’s not so sure and changes the subject, but he adds, “Yeah, it changed my life. I guess I decided to live.”

The fact of the matter is that facing death, with resignation or not, can focus one’s attention. In the years following that long ambulance ride to Charlotte across South Carolina on Interstate 85, McColl has increased his commitment to addressing some of Charlotte’s deepest problems. High on the agenda has been the yawning gaps of economic disparity between whites and Blacks. Urban riots in September 2016 moved him to begin to do more than think about problems, to do more than talk about them. The Black Lives Matter movement reinforced his resolve.

For McColl, Charlotte is not simply the place where he lives. It is who he is. Charlotte and McColl came of age together. A sleepy burg back in the ’60s that out-of-towners never could place correctly — Is it in North Carolina or South Carolina? — Charlotte was where he and Jane began raising their family.

The bank he worked for was young, too, at least in name, and as eager to build a record as McColl was to make something of himself. When he had the chance, McColl began investing the bank’s money, and a considerable amount of his own time and attention, in rebuilding the city’s center. McColl can honestly claim to have built much of what’s called Uptown Charlotte when he directed the investment of hundreds of millions of his bank’s money into new buildings and projects in the center city. They grew side by side, and by the 21st century no other single individual had left such an imprint. Just as Bank of America was “his bank,” Charlotte was “his town.” …

Racial separation and lack of opportunity ignited outrage following the death of a Black man shot by Charlotte police in September 2016. The event produced nights of protests as National Guard troops and tear gas savaged Charlotte’s image. The consequences went deep and shocked people from their complacency. The events troubled McColl, and he turned his time and attention to learning more about himself and his neighbors. It also set him on a journey that would eventually lead to LuckySpot and Shaun Corbett. …

McColl thought everyone who lived in Charlotte had probably heard of him. In the 20 years since he’d left Bank of America, he had remained a media favorite. Leaders in politics, business, and the arts called on him for everything.

Shaun Corbett, busy sorting out his own future, must have missed all that Uptown Charlotte news because when a stranger called him out of the blue asking about his vision for LuckySpot, Corbett had no idea who he was talking to.

Corbett nearly choked on his biscuit when McColl said something about owning Bojangles’. The shambling old white guy meant his investment firm owned every one of Bojangles’ 600 stores, not the one lone franchise on the north side of Charlotte where they were talking about Corbett’s future. …

McColl’s minister, Bob Henderson, says, “I find him in many ways to be a positive example of how to live fully alive.” McColl brushes such praise aside. “What I’m trying to do now are things I can do as opposed to attacking something I can’t fix,” McColl says. “I’ve learned at 84 that I can’t change the world, but we can change the outlook for one person or 10 people or 20 people. I’m trying to deal with the world that I’m able to deal with.

“But one of the things I’m wrestling with at the moment is whether my caring matters, if you follow me? Whether I’m just wasting time. Although I don’t know what I’d do with the time otherwise. That, I believe, is one of the biggest problems of old age, is what to do with the time? That’s an interesting problem.”

Howard E. Covington Jr. is a native of North Carolina and has been writing history and biography, primarily about North Carolina people and topics, for more than 35 years. His work as an independent historian followed a newspaper career that included assignments as a reporter and editor. In 1981, an investigative series he created and co-wrote for the Charlotte Observer on health hazards in the textile industry received the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Two of his books have won awards from the North Caroliniana Society and North Carolina Literary and Historical Association. He lives in Greensboro.


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Teen Talk in action

On Saturdays, we help you impress and delight the young people in your life by teaching you the words they use. This week — something a little different. We asked readers to share their stories about using Teen Talk words with actual teens. A few of the highlights:

Mom’s driving route called ‘sus’

Strong endorsement from my sister on Teen Talk, which I forwarded to her earlier today. She has several teens and a couple of post-teens:

I am sitting here in the parking lot waiting for Amelia to come out of her high school entrance exam, and she and I just had an experience with one of these words on the way here this morning at 7:30 a.m.

She questioned whether we were going the right way to get here, and I assured her that I knew where I was going. She then said it was “sus” and was still not sure I was taking the right road. (My kids are known for not having a clue about regional geography until they start driving). I hear “bruh” and “salty” quite a bit from them also. Thanks for the laugh. 

—Sean Jamieson

Connecting with frequently vibin’ teen

Teen talk is my favorite. Roughly 80% of the time I ask my daughter what she’s doing she informs me that she is vibin’.

I just told her that I am a highkey Yafo mac-and-cheese stan. She agreed that “it slaps.” —Steve Dunn

‘The absolute hit of our Thanksgiving’

The Teen Talk Cheat Sheet was the absolute hit of our Thanksgiving holiday, no cap. Earlier in the week, I’d yeeted my parents an e-mail with the cheat sheet, in part to flex my boujee lifestyle as a Charlotte Ledger subscriber. But I had a bit of a bruh moment and forgot I had sent it.

Fast forward to Thanksgiving Day — my family is vibing on mad cheese and crackers, waiting for a dinner that truly slaps, when my mom highkey shares with us all how salty she was that I had been such a stan about no lumps in the gravy. I lowkey did a double-take. Was my mom dropping knowledge, full send? Bet. — Josh Jacobson


This week in Charlotte: Will CMS go back to all-virtual?, transit plan moves forward, Lebda-Pittenger mansion lawsuit dismissed, local PPP loan recipients revealed

On Saturdays, The Ledger sifts through the local news of the week and links to the top articles — even if they appeared somewhere else. We’ll help you get caught up. That’s what Saturdays are for.

Politics

  • Voter ID ruling: (Observer) A federal appeals court ruled this week that a federal judge wrongly blocked North Carolina’s latest photo voter identification law. The unanimous ruling by 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel found that the judge erred when declaring that the voter ID requirement was tainted by racial bias because a previous voter ID law had been struck down on similar grounds. The decision doesn’t mean the 2018 voter ID requirement can now be carried out, but it improves the position for Republican lawmakers who want to require IDs for voting.

  • Plans for funding transit expansion: (Biz Journal) It looks likely that Charlotte will have a major transit referendum on the ballot next year. A committee appointed by the city is recommending a sales tax increase of 1 percentage point, to 8.25%, to help pay for the $8B-$12B needed to expand light rail and build greenways, sidewalks and roads. The plan would need approval from the City Council, state legislature and Mecklenburg voters. “We’re going to make a choice here, whether we’re going to have a livable city or we’re going to do nothing and deal with those consequences,” Mayor Vi Lyles said.

Education

  • Will CMS shift back to all virtual? (Observer) With Covid cases and positivity rates on the rise, two members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board said the county should move to remote-only instruction. Carol Sawyer and Jennifer De La Jara said Friday that they support a move to “Plan C,” which would put the district back to all-virtual instruction. The board has a regular meeting scheduled for Tuesday, but De La Jara said it’s possible it will call an emergency meeting sooner. Elementary students now attend school in-person two days each week and Pre-K and special education students are attending in-person classes as well.

  • A ‘wasted year’ for education: (News & Record) State education leaders say there will be long-lasting educational consequences of the pandemic, including fewer students graduating and more having to repeat grades. Absences are up and public school enrollment is down by some 50,000 students across the state.  

Local news

  • New details on assault accusations against Sonic CEO: (Ledger 🔒) A 911 call obtained by The Ledger gives new details about charges alleging that Sonic Automotive CEO David Smith assaulted a woman on Oct. 5 at his south Charlotte home. Police charged Smith, 46, with felony assault by strangulation and misdemeanor counts of assault on a female, false imprisonment and interfering with emergency communications. He has told Sonic’s board he is innocent, the company has said.

  • Charlotte to receive Covid vaccine: (Ledger 🔒), (WBTV) A Covid vaccine distributed by Pfizer Inc. could be shipped to Charlotte in as little as two weeks. The first batch will go to hospitals, healthcare workers and high-risk patients.

  • Panel suggests renaming Charlotte streets: (Observer), (WCNC) The Legacy Commission, formed by Mayor Vi Lyles in June 2020, submitted a report proposing name changes to nine Charlotte streets currently named after Confederate and white supremacy leaders.

Business

  • Who received PPP loans? (Ledger 🔒) More than 15,000 Charlotte businesses received Paycheck Protection Program loans from the government in spring, including some in industries that seem to have fared well in the pandemic. We break out a list of some of the most recognizable names.

  • Belk hits financial turbulence: (Ledger 🔒) There are reports that Charlotte-based Belk is struggling to pay vendors owed money. Two national publications have recently suggested that Belk is attempting to hang onto its cash for as long as possible by delaying payments.

Sports

  • Want to see the Hornets live? You’re out of luck. (WBTV), (Observer) The Charlotte Hornets will open the 2020-21 season without fans in attendance because of state Covid restrictions. Cord-cutters will also be unable to watch the team, as the local broadcasting stations were removed from most popular streaming services. The only way to see them play live will be through cable television. The team’s schedule, released Friday, has them opening in Cleveland on Dec. 23 with the home opener Dec. 26 against Oklahoma City.

  • Hornets acquire Gordon Hayward: (ESPN) The Hornets made a splash in free agency last week, completing a sign-and-trade with the Boston Celtics to bring forward Gordon Hayward to Charlotte, under a four-year, $120M deal. 

Good reads

  • A year of moments and places around Charlotte: (Charlotte Magazine) Every month in 2020, The Ledger’s Cristina Bolling threw a dart at a map and wrote about where it landed in a column for Charlotte Magazine. This is a collection of those little stories. 

  • A new meaning for ‘rock art:’ (Observer) UNC Charlotte professor Marek Ranis traveled to the furthest reaches of the Sierra Nevadas, where he and geologist Martha Cary “Missy” Eppes would study how climate affects the weathering and cracking of rocks, and then display their work via artistic showcase and carvings.

  • With no fans, why don’t UNC and N.C. State play in their old arenas? (North Carolina Rabbit Hole) In his new newsletter, Jeremy Markovich investigates.

Ledger originals

  • Lebda-Pittenger lawsuit dismissed: (Wednesday🔒) A long-running lawsuit filed by former Rep. Robert Pittenger against his Quail Hollow neighbor, LendingTree CEO Doug Lebda, seems to have come to an end. A judge this week dismissed the suit accusing Lebda of creating a nuisance by building a 15,000 s.f. mansion next to Pittenger’s more humble 10,500 s.f. abode on Quail Hollow’s 15th hole.

  • Charlotte’s a stand-in for Nashville in Hallmark movie: (Wednesday 🔒) One of Hallmark’s new Christmas movies, “A Nashville Christmas Carol,” was filmed in Charlotte and features a few semi-recognizable spots around the city. State and local film officials say they expect filming in the region to continue to pick back up in 2021.

  • Teen jobs (Monday): Why don’t teens have part-time jobs anymore? They help build character and look good on college applications. Colleen Brannan takes a closer look.

  • Local charity recommendations (Tuesday): We asked our community of paying subscribers for recommendations on worthy local charities, and they responded with nearly 70 Charlotte-area organizations doing valuable work to make this area a better place. As you think about charitable donations this year, check it out.

David Griffith


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Executive editor: Tony Mecia; Managing editor: Cristina Bolling; Contributing editor: Tim Whitmire, CXN Advisory; Reporting intern: David Griffith