By its own admission, CCB Financial Corp. would rather follow than lead.

Though surrounded by some of the toughest competitors in the business, most of them pioneering some form of electronic banking, CCB is content to keep up with trends rather than blaze new trails.

"We're usually not the first into something," said CCB's chief executive, Ernest C. Roessler. "Somebody else takes the arrow, and we learn and watch."

It may not be sexy, but CCB's slow-but-sure approach to the business suits Wall Street just fine. The Durham-based company delivers consistent, reliable earnings, and has boosted dividends for 31 consecutive years.

"They're going after routine base hits - not doubles, triples, or home runs - and that's not necessarily a bad thing," said R. Harold Schroeder, an analyst with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc.

Whatever sex appeal CCB might have, analysts agree, relates to its role as a potential acquisition target. With $5 billion of assets, CCB is one of North Carolina's four midsize banks, a group that has long been viewed as takeover bait.

Any of these four - CCB, Centura Banks Inc. of Rocky Mount, First Citizens Bancshares of Raleigh, and Whiteville-based United Carolina Bancshares - might appeal to one of the "big four" North Carolina banks looking to expand in-state.

The big four, ranked by in-state deposits, are Winston-Salem's Southern National Corp. and Wachovia Corp. and Charlotte's two regional megabanks, First Union Corp. and NationsBank Corp.

Alternatively, an out-of-state regional might view one of the "middle four" as a good entry point into North Carolina.

This guessing game among analysts took on renewed urgency with the advent of national interstate banking last year. So far, each of the middle four continues to go its own way, but odds are increasing that one may eventually succumb to an offer.

North Carolina had six midsize banks until last year, when Southern National and Wilson-based BB&T Financial Corp. joined together in a merger of equals.

Mr. Roessler said he would consider a such a deal for CCB, because mergers of equals improve efficiency and increase market share. But resolving the social issues - who runs the merged company, where the headquarters will be - is "not easy," he said.

What about an outright acquisition of CCB? "That would be really tough on our social fiber," he said.

As CCB or Central Carolina Bank and Trust Co., its major subsidiary, the company has been a pillar of society in Durham since 1903. For most of these years the company was controlled by the family of founder John Sprunt Hill.

Mr. Hill's son, George Watts Hill, helped plan and donated land for famed Research Triangle Park, a high-tech industrial zone that has spurred much of the region's economic growth.

Such is the Hill influence on CCB that former chief executive W.L. Burns Jr., now its third chairman, is the first from outside the family.

The Hill era at CCB ended for all practical purposes in January 1993, with the death of George Watts Hill. His controlling interest in the bank, more than 600,000 shares (then 12% of the total), ended up in the hands of CCB itself and Concert Capital Management, a subsidiary of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co.

CCB is the No. 2. bank in the booming Triangle, a region defined by Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. Its 15% share of the area's deposits is exceeded only by Wachovia's.

"The old adage 'location, location, location' is pretty important here," Mr. Coffey said. "They're lucky to be in a great market, with some of the best growth characteristics in the country."

One of Mr. Roessler's priorities since he assumed the presidency in 1993 has been to expand CCB into two other hot growth areas: the Triad region, which encompasses Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and High Point in the industrial Piedmont; and Charlotte, the state's financial center. He did this through a series of acquisitions, culminating last year in CCB's largest ever, of Charlotte-based Security Capital Bancorp, a $1.2 billion thrift.

The result of these deals has been to boost CCB's market share in both the Triad and Charlotte to fifth place, with 8% of deposits in the Triad and 7% in Charlotte.

CCB also moved aggressively to cut costs during the '90s. Advised by the Atlanta-based consulting firm BEI Golembe, the bank made 600 changes in the way it did business, including centralizing loan processing and simplifying teller job routines.

The effort paid off. CCB's efficiency ratio has fallen dramatically, reaching 52.68% in the first half of this year, from 65.72% in 1993.

Adding assets while reducing overhead has done wonders for CCB's bottom line. Return on assets improved from 1.08% in 1993 to 1.48% in the first half of this year.

CCB's current focus is to gain leverage through technology enhancements and alternative delivery systems. The company initiated a seven-day-a-week telephone banking program in May and expects to unveil its PC banking service next year.

CCB recently returned to supermarket banking, after a failed effort in the 1980s, by opening branches in six Harris Teeter grocery stores. CCB's gradualism contrasts dramatically with the in-store buildup of midsize rival Centura, which in May announced plans to install 24 branches in Hannaford Brothers stores within 18 months.

"I'll gamble, but I want to gamble where I have a very high probability of winning," Mr. Roessler said.

About the only CCB effort that might be considered innovative is its auto lending operation. Since the early '90s, the company has developed a relationship with State Farm Insurance Co. in which State Farm agents in North Carolina, Georgia, and half of Virginia refer customers to CCB in return for a finder's fee.

The partnership has proven so successful that CCB was able to jettison its traditional dealer-based indirect auto program. Ninety-four percent of CCB's total $187 million auto loan portfolio was generated through State Farm agents.

Since dealers usually demand that lenders take on some bad auto paper with the good, costs are lower and credit quality much better in the referral program, according to chief administrative officer J. Scott Edwards.

An emphasis on personal relationships permeates CCB's corporate culture. On the retail side, CCB operates as a branch system but in a decentralized manner, allowing its officers wide discretion in dealing with customers.

A CCB bank customer or prospect might be wooed with tickets to see the Durham Bulls, the local minor league team, from the vantage of the bank's box on the first-base line. (The Bulls, a farm club for the Atlanta Braves, gained outsize fame in the acclaimed film "Bull Durham," which starred Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon.)

Mr. Roessler, formerly chief financial officer with Lane Financial Inc. and before that a senior vice president with Mellon Bank, describes CCB's approach as "high touch and high tech.

"First Union will probably out-high-tech me," Mr. Roessler said, referring to one of North Carolina's most aggressive champions of electronic banking. "But as long as I keep the high touch supplemented by high tech, I think I can be successful."

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