From where Jeff Emory sits, the merger wave in banking is hardly something to cheer about. In fact, the city manager of this community of 5,700 is downright glum.
Following this week's announcement that Southern National Corp. plans to buy Whiteville-based United Carolina Bancshares, Mr. Emory and others here are bracing for true economic upheaval.
For starters, there are 391 jobs at United Carolina's headquarters. "The people who work at UCB are the people in the Chamber of Commerce and the folks who support our churches and everything else," Mr. Emory said. "All that will be lost."
Asked about the $985 million deal's effect on the local tax base, he winced. "To be honest, I've been afraid to look," he said. "I can tell you this: UCB is our largest corporate taxpayer."
Although Southern National has promised to create lower-paying jobs in Whiteville, the anxieties in the community stand as a vivid reminder that for all the benefits bank mergers bring to shareholders, the damage to local economies can be considerable. Communities around the country, especially smaller ones, are finding bank mergers can cost jobs and tax revenue, deplete sources of credit and sap local charitable organizations of volunteers and donations.
The jobs at UCB's headquarters represent the only large block of white- collar postions in this eastern North Carolina town, not counting employees at six branches. Though Winston-Salem based Southern National has promised to create a $1 million trust fund for economic development in Whiteville and 500 new positions, including up to 250 in a telephone center, that hardly consoles community leaders. "Those jobs aren't going to be anything like the corporate jobs we're losing," said Whiteville Mayor Horace Whitley, a retired United Carolina executive. "That call center is not going to use highly paid people. It's more clerical in nature."
Tony Plath, director of the Center for Banking Studies at the University of North Carolina, agreed. "Places like Whiteville are never going to be the same again," he said. "These are good jobs that pay well over minimum wage."
This is not the first time Southern National has eliminated jobs in a small North Carolina city. Between 1992 and 1994, the bank moved its headquarters and 200 positions from Lumberton to Winston-Salem. When it merged with BB&T Financial Corp. last year, Wilson, another eastern North Carolina town, lost its BB&T headquarters.
While acknowledging the pain a merger might bring to a community, Southern National spokesman Robert Denham said that the deal still makes sense.
"There's no denying it's a tough issue," he said. "There's no question that the nature of the work being done in Whiteville will be different, but it's a simple fact that Southern National already has its headquarters in Winston-Salem.
"Still, we're talking about a commitment of 500 jobs," he said. We're committed to remaining part of the community. You don't pull the plug and leave."
More small N.C. cities may soon find themselves in the same predicament. Rumors are now flying that Charlotte, N.C.-based NationsBank may buy Durham, N.C.-based CCB Financial Corp. in the next six months. The stock prices of $5 billion-asset CCB and another rumored takeover target, Rocky Mount-based Centura Banks Inc., surged this week on the talk.
Paul Stock, executive vice president of the Community Bankers Association of North Carolina, said it's increasingly tough to predict what will happen to the banks in the middle, and in the little cities they have helped to build.
"We're in the trees, and I don't have a good feel for the forest," he said. "We know there will be big and small banks, but beyond that, it's unclear."
Mr. Plath agreed. "Because North Carolina is such a competitive market, we're seeing it first here. The mid-tier banks don't have the same efficiencies as the big banks, and they can't offer the same personal service as the smaller community banks. Now we have to ask what we are going to do when the mid-tier banks are gone."
Meanwhile, Whiteville waits to see what the fallout will be from the deal to sell United Carolina, which was founded nearly 70 years ago as Waccamaw Bank and Trust Co.
Mayor Whitley said he is concerned about the empty offices Southern National could leave around town. The bank has made no promises about United Carolina's four-story glass headquarters, its 40,000-square-foot administration building, a three-story insurance operations center, and a sprawling processing center on the town's outskirts.
From the steps leading to his office in the town police station, Mayor Whitley points to an office building that Raleigh-based First Citizens Bancshares abandoned after buying its occupant, Pioneer Bancorp, in 1993. First Citizens also acquired Pioneer's next-door neighbor, First Investors, the following year. "I think we're going to see more of that," he said.
United Carolina chairman and chief executive E. Rhone Sasser, who standsto gross $4.76 million in the deal from his stockholdings, said he's not surprised by the town's reaction.
"I certainly don't expect the community to be happy about losing the headquarters," he said. "I'm a native of this area, and I recognized the devastating effect the merger could have on a community this size."
When his bank's talks with Southern National got serious, Mr. Sasser pushed for money to start an economic development trust fund, and Southern National chairman John A. Allison agreed. (Mr. Sasser serves as chairman of the local economic development commission, which is developing an industrial park next to a community college.)
Mr. Sasser conceded that the jobs Southern National would create here won't have the same prestige or pay levels as the corporate jobs expected to be eliminated or moved to Winston-Salem.
"But those jobs and the grant should offset the economic impact long term," he said. "We're just going to have to get out there and work hard to make it a better community, and the people will do that."
They may also scramble to start a new community bank. "There's a movement afoot already," said Hyman Kramer, a local haberdasher.