This booming business capital has 612,000 residents-and 15,000 bankers.

First Union Corp. and NationsBank Corp. are only the two biggest of a half-dozen banks with headquarters in Charlotte and dozens of others large and small with presences here.

The Charlotte Observer routinely reports on such minutiae as fluctuations in the weight of First Union chairman Edward E. Crutchfield.

Charlotte is clearly Banktown, U.S.A.

Its emergence as a regional banking hub seems to be feeding on itself and taking on national significance. Technology firms are moving in to serve and support the banks. Several de novo banks have formed in the last year to pick up business from larger banks. An influx of investment bankers from up north has helped spawn the city's first bagel shops.

"You see an awful lot of dark suits downtown," said Brian Bunce, an architect with Little & Associates, which designs structures for financial institutions.

"If you're not in banking, you're in a support business or technology company that services banks," observed Mr. Bunce, whose wife works for First Union. "The city has kind of grown up along with the industry."

In Charlotte, bank gossip is common conversation at country clubs and civic organizations. The business of banking looms the community just as surely as First Union's and NationsBank's towers dominate the skyline. (Wachovia Corp. of Winston-Salem also has a major presence uptown, as Charlotte's downtown is known.)

"Atlanta used to be the banking center of the Southeast," said Anne Morgan Moore, president of Synergistics Research Corp., an Atlanta-based banking research firm. By the early 1990s, she said, with statewide banking the norm in North Carolina, Georgia was fighting it. As times turned tough for the industry, the region's center of financial gravity drifted north and Atlanta "lost its preeminence in retail banking," Ms. Moore said. "It hurts a little bit."

Charlotte is also a center for banking education. The University of North Carolina's local campus opened its Banking Center two and a half years ago, founded by a former Ohio banker, D. Anthony Plath.

The program, said Mr. Plath, is designed to meet the local demand for well-trained bankers. He serves as a liaison to the banks, helping them with consulting projects and introducing them to students.

Mr. Plath still marvels at the number of bankers in town: "I don't even know 1% of them, and I have a big Rolodex," he said.

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The corner of Trade and Tryon Streets is smack in the center of Charlotte. The city grew up around the intersection of these two former Indian paths, and the crossing is now the site of NationsBank's headquarters.

People say First Union workers refuse to set foot in the central NationsBank tower, known locally as the "Taj McColl" after NationsBank chairman Hugh L. McColl Jr.

Despite the big banking population, Janey A. Place, executive vice president in charge of NationsBank's strategic technology group, is concerned about being able to attract top-flight people.

"We have an awful time recruiting," Ms. Place said. "There are so many banks here that they have snapped up everybody who has banking experience. We're bringing people in all the time."

Richard J. Parsons, president of NationsBank's direct banking division, challenges skeptics to do an Internet search for the bank's name and see what kinds of Web sites it delivers. "You'll find that nine out of 10 will show a recruiting effort rather than an article about NationsBank."

Mr. Parsons agreed recruiting is "the most difficult issue this industry faces" as banks search for "a new kind of knowledge worker."

He had a ready metaphor: the development of the long arrow in the Middle Ages, and how it changed the face of combat.

"Instead of big, burly guys beating each other up and the biggest, burliest would win, the person who had the long arrow and the most hand-eye coordination was able to change the rules," Mr. Parsons said.

NationsBank, he said, is looking for more long-arrow specialists.

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On a recent weekday morning, several nervous-looking job applicants were waiting in the reception area at the main Charlotte office of Central Carolina Bank and Trust Co. The facility is an old-fashioned-looking bank, the very definition of bricks and mortar, with a few drive-through windows.

Central Carolina, with $5 billion of assets, has headquarters in Durham and 154 branches. Later this year it will grow to $6.9 billion and 194 branches by acquiring American Federal Savings and Loan in Greenville, S.C.

How does a middle-tier bank survive amid giants?

"We try to combine high-touch and high-tech," said Tom Ficquette, director of retail delivery development.

He is keenly aware of First Union's high-visibility advertising campaign and all the strides that the large banks are making in alternative delivery. His bank is not trying to compete on the technology end-Mr. Ficquette acknowledged that other banks in the market usually set the pace- but it is attempting to offer better service.

Targeting a growing elderly population, Central Carolina has placed branches in five of the state's 43 retirement centers.

The bank is installing more automated teller machines and plans to offer telephone and computer-based bill payment by yearend. It has eight branches in Harris Teeter supermarkets and plans to open more.

The in-store branches, which Mr. Ficquette said were the first branches in the state to be open seven days a week, were inspired by Charles Schwab & Co. They use desks instead of teller windows. To draw customers in, each branch has four television monitors over its entrance.

Before moving to North Carolina, Mr. Ficquette worked for SunTrust Banks Inc. in Florida, a very different banking environment.

"In Florida," he said, "we always felt like the other banks hadn't figured it out."

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Driving around Charlotte, some people might find it hard to fathom the need for yet another bank. Not Wesley W. Sturges.

He founded First Commerce Bank last July, opening shop in a strip mall across from a much larger shopping complex, Southpark. He raised $8.8 million for the venture. The bank now has assets of $30 million.

Mr. Sturges, who previously worked at United Carolina Bank and First Union, said it was about two years ago when he started noticing that consolidation in North Carolina had left certain voids. Southern National had merged with BB&T, for instance, and Republic Bank became part of Central Carolina. Those banks as well as the superregionals were withdrawing from some markets, he said.

In May 1995, Mr. Sturges decided to open a bank that would serve the 19,000 businesses in the state with fewer than 100 employees. Stability would be the watchword.

"The biggest thing our customers want is a banker who's going to stay with them, a bank with low turnover," said Mr. Sturges, the bank's president.

Mr. Sturges said the big banks in town are very good, but he contends First Commerce and his 13 employees can offer something they can't.

"One customer said, 'I'm glad you came because I'm training my fourth loan officer at a big bank,'" Mr. Sturges said. "Larger bank employees are working up the totem pole, but here we have experienced loan officers who visit customers and have ownership opportunities in the bank."

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What major banking center would be complete without technical support? Several major vendors are right in town.

"The only thing we do here is service the financial industry," said Sharon L. Kofmehl of International Business Machines Corp.'s executive briefing center. "Sometimes, on occasion, we do insurance companies."

IBM's 4,000-person facility lies on the outskirts of Charlotte, next to First Union's operations center. It is one of 34 briefing centers the computer giant has around the country, and the only one geared specifically to banks.

Ms. Kofmehl holds briefings for about 200 companies a year, 45% of them from abroad.

Guests are led through a demonstration room occupied by video kiosks, a mock call center, an Internet banking bay. They tour a bank-like "operations room" to view hot technologies in action.

One technology IBM is pushing is what the company refers to as "reco," or handwriting recognition on checks. The computers can identify handwriting so fast that IBM has to simulate the process in slow-motion so people can see how it works.

The briefing facility was built in 1978, and IBM is adding an area that will deal exclusively with Year 2000 conversion issues.

"IBM saw this as a good place to do business for the same reasons that NationsBank, First Union, and Wachovia decided to locate here," said Robert J. Page, an on-site IBM spokesman.

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