When it comes to state economies, North Carolina's banks have it better than most.

The Tarheel State escaped the worst of the 1990-91 recession and is now showing solid gains, with a surge in manufacturing employment.

A recent Conference Board report predicted that "public and private investment, as well as a favorable business environment, should be helpful in continuing to attract new businesses" to the Carolinas.

But even in the home of such banking stalwarts as NationsBank Corp., First Union Corp., and Wachovia Corp., the recovery seems more sluggish than is typical of post-recession economies.

"Relative to what's happening across the country, I would say we're going a little better," said Richard B. Roberts, executive vice president and treasurer at Wachovia, the third-largest bank company based in the state. "But relative to where in this stage of a recovery one would expect to be, we're probably trailing."

Ted Matney, chairman and CEO of Bankers Trust of North Carolina, an $83 million-asset bank in Greensboro unrelated to Bankers Trust New York Corp., said customers are still nervous and restrained in their borrowing, despite the area's very low unemployment rate of 3%.

"Business hasn't been as good as it could be because of that fear," he said.

Business activity in North Carolina rose 0.8% in the second quarter, for the eighth consecutive quarterly gain since the mid-1991, according to an index compiled by Wachovia. Over the past 12 months, its North Carolina business index has advanced 5%.

Manufacturing led in nonfarm job growth, with a gain of 0.7% for the quarter - compared with a 0.7% decline for the nation as a whole. Year-ago comparisons are similar: Manufacturing employment was up 1.6% in North Carolina but down 2.1% in the rest of the country.

North Carolina "has always enjoyed a very good business climate," said Mark Vitner, economist at First Union Corp., the state's second-largest bank company. "The partnership between government and business is very, very strong, while in other parts of the country that's been lacking."

Indeed, North Carolina's relentless solicitation of new business, particular foreign-based companies, is credited with weaning the state from its traditional dependence on textile and furniture manufacturing.

Between May 1991 and May 1993, North Carolina led the nation in adding factory jobs. While California lost 170,800 and New York 81,500, North Carolina gained 21,700.

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