Charles Bowman grew up on stories of hard times.
Long before he became North Carolina’s face for one of the world’s largest banks, he was just a boy from Thomasville. And if you know anything about Thomasville in the second half of the 20th century, you know he had a window seat to the American economy.
He saw tobacco be king and saw it crumble in the 1980s. Same with textiles and furniture in the 1990s. And of course the banks, where he’s spent his career, went through a worldwide humbling in the 2000s.
Now here is the first year of the 2020s, and the coronavirus, and the national reckoning on racial injustice, and a tense election, and everything else this year’s washed over us.
As he’s watched 2020 unfold, Bowman, North Carolina’s market president for Bank of America, called on all those past experiences to stay optimistic.
“I have a friend, he’s older than I am, and every now and then he grabs me by the collar to give me advice. He’s always saying, ‘Just remember, where there’s change, there’s opportunity,” Bowman says. “And when things get dark and bleak, I always remember, ‘OK, things are changing. Somewhere in there, there’s opportunity.'”
Heading into the final months of 2020, I talked with Bowman about what he expects going into 2021.
Few people in Charlotte are in a better position to provide insight. Bank of America has teams that work with doctors to consider health risks for workers. It has financial experts dotting the world. And Bowman is as plugged into Charlotte as anyone, regularly counseling nonprofit, business, and government officials on how to effectively invest in the community.
It’s been seven years since Charlotte was ranked last among major U.S. cities in economic mobility. Bowman and other corporate leaders have shoveled money and resources toward closing the gap. But as he watched the world shut down in March, he knew that the virus was coming to widen it.
In any financial fallout, vulnerable people suffer most. Sure enough, Covid-19 came hardest for people without health insurance, low wage workers in the service and hospitality industry, and small business owners just starting up. Meanwhile, wealthy investors’ money snowballed in a generous stock market.
In other words, while millions of workers suffered and scrambled in 2020, money made money.
Days into the shutdown, the bank gave $1 million to the local Covid-19 relief fund, which then distributed it to nonprofits and other affected organizations. Then in June, Bank of America committed $1 billion to helping communities across the country solve economic mobility, with a focus on supporting minority-owned small businesses.
“Whenever there’s a shift, workers have to shift. (In the past) there were always the base manufacturing jobs that gave you the ability to support your family. You weren’t going to get rich, but you were able to exist,” he told me during a pair of interviews last month.
“Today, it’s a lot more uneven. If you’re at the top rung, you’re doing really, really well. If you’re at the bottom, it’s a lot harder, and the hill just got a lot steeper.”
Bowman thinks of a functioning city as a three-legged stool — business, government, and philanthropy.
His message for all three legs, as they look toward a post-Covid economy, is similar to what other local leaders have preached in the years since the economic opportunity report was released: solutions come from within.
“The cavalry is not coming,” he said. “We are the cavalry.”
North Carolina was built on a handful of dominant industries.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, people drained tar and turpentine from longleaf pines and shipped it off to help seal naval vessels. In the late 19th and 20th, tobacco and textiles and furniture ruled.
Bowman grew up at an intersection of farming and manufacturing in the 1960s and 1970s.
His grandparents owned a subsistence farm in rural Alexander County. His father grew up pulling tobacco.
His dad left the farm and made it all the way to Thomasville, the small town that’s just south of High Point, the small city that’s just south of the only slightly larger city of Greensboro, in the furniture alley region of North Carolina that’s about 80 miles north of the big city of Charlotte.
Bowman’s dad was the treasurer of Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina, and his mother was an administrator there, too. Charles earned a Morehead scholarship to UNC and went off to Chapel Hill, which is sort of like the ivory tower for kids from Thomasville. He liked it so much he stayed and earned his law degree there, and then a master’s in public policy from Duke.
As he climbed, he witnessed the economy around him swoop up and down.
Thomasville and High Point made up the furniture capitals of the world. Just outside of those cities, tobacco stretched over the rolling hills of Randolph and Davidson counties.
Then came the 1980s and the 1990s: Suddenly people realized the dangers of smoking. Suddenly manufacturing jobs were going to Mexico and China.
And here was Bowman, coming into his 30s and 40s then, a scholar one generation removed from hard farming life, and he was rising in the industry that would help save the state from financial ruin, and then damn near ruin it again — banking.
Bowman joined the bank in 1996, at around the same time CEO Hugh McColl helped eliminate interstate banking laws that allowed the bank to gobble up smaller banks like Pac-Man. In 1998, Bank of America was officially born after Charlotte’s NationsBank acquired BankAmerica, forming the first coast-to-coast bank in the country.
Meanwhile, McColl’s fierce but friendly competition with First Union CEO Ed Crutchfield led to the skyscrapers we know today to popping out of center city, as each company tried to outdo the other.
(Those old rivalries are one reason Bowman says he welcomes Truist — the merger of BB&T and SunTrust — as it brings its corporate headquarters here. Truist purchased the Hearst Tower, adjacent to the Bank of America center, last year. “We thrive on competition,” Bowman says.)
By the turn of the century, Charlotte was growing into the second-biggest finance center in the country, just behind New York. In 2008, that meant Charlotte was at the center of the greatest economic collapse in a generation. Predatory loans with adjustable-rate mortgages left housing developments speckled with foreclosure signs. Thousands lost their jobs. Suit-wearing bankers spilled out of those skyscrapers looking for ways to build new lives.
In some ways, the financial collapse was a blessing. Many of those weary bankers opened now-beloved small businesses.
Suzie Ford, for instance, was laid off from her job at a community bank during the recession. After that, she and her husband, Todd, took their retirement accounts and started a little beer-making place called NoDa Brewing. You may have heard of it.
Stories like that played out all over Charlotte.
And they’re what gives Bowman hope for a recovery after the pandemic.
Instead of being reliant on one or two big industries, the city has assembled a range.
Fortune 50 company Centene is bringing 3,200 high-paying jobs here over the next several years. Atrium, Wake Forest Baptist Health, and Wake Forest University have announced a medical school will open here. Honeywell posted up its headquarters here. Fintech has exploded. And companies such as Red Ventures are retraining the workforce for a digital future.
There are countless differences between a crisis caused by a virus and one caused by the people holding the money themselves. But the biggest reason to believe 2020 is not 2008, Bowman says, is the that the city’s financial foundation is stronger.
“The fundamentals had to be re-corrected,” Bowman says of the 2008 crash. “So it took about 10 years to fully get back. I don’t think it takes that long (this time). It won’t take 10 years to recover.”
So who recovers? And when?
In June, Bowman sat down for an interview with WCNC in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing in Minnesota. A reporter asked Bowman what he’d say to people who don’t think corporations care about injustice.
Bowman choked up while responding.
“We’re not just standing behind tall buildings,” he said. “We’re people. And we have the same kind of emotions and feelings. And we hurt, too. You have to think about companies as groups of people, as teams, and when individuals hurt, the company hurts.”
Since the days when it was North Carolina National Bank, Bank of America has been ahead of other larger corporations on matters of race and equity. While federal and local governments battled over affirmative action plans in the 1970s, for instance, the bank went ahead and set its own standards for hiring Black and brown workers.
This summer, though, the calls for justice were happening right outside the bank’s corporate tower, night after night.
“I think you do have to take this on personally first. And you have to be willing to reexamine or open your mind, open your heart,” he says. “Even for people like me who’ve grown up and lived in the South, some of the things I took for fact that I may have learned when I was 12 years old, maybe I need to re-examine.”
The movement led to a call to support Black-owned businesses. That included banks. North Carolina has one Black-owned bank, M&F out of Durham. Seven Black businessmen founded it as Mechanics & Farmers Bank in 1907. It was, along with North Carolina Mutual, integral in creating Durham’s Black Wall Street in the 20th century.
This year some Black businesspeople began moving their earnings to M&F, including Global Data Consortium CEO Bill Spruill.
Instead of countering that shift, Bank of America invested in it, committing $500,000 to M&F. After all, Bowman says, M&F is in better position to create wealth for Black workers and business owners because it’s closer to those individuals.
“Our desire is to make this a movement and not a moment in time,” Bowman says.
Toward the end of one of our conversations, I asked Bowman, the optimist, what his other concerns were: He was quick to list the arts.
Many organizations were already weak because of a falloff in workplace funding to the Arts and Science Council over the past decade. Now for a year, they’ve had little to no ticket sales.
It worries him for the same reason it worried all the business leaders who built Charlotte before he came along. They funded organizations like the opera and symphony because they believed a healthy, diverse workforce demands a healthy, diverse culture.
A company could offer the world’s finest suite of benefits, they knew, but if a city isn’t interesting, smart people won’t want to live here.
“Most people when they move, they’re looking for three things: Where do I educate my children? Can I get good health care? And what do I do with my spare time?” Bowman says. “Continuing to move forward because the intellectual and cultural drivers I don’t think ever been more needed.”
Another concern is the economic health of rural areas. While Charlotte can list its economic development successes this year, outlying counties continued to struggle.
Forty-three of North Carolina’s 100 counties have actually lost population since 2010, according to the recent Carolina Demography report. Also, 11 rural hospitals have closed in the state since 2005.
Time and again, we’ve learned that if Charlotte succeeds but the areas around it don’t, problems will find their way here. That’s evident in the city’s homeless population. If you have five conversations with folks in tent city, you might get five different hometowns.
“It doesn’t do the state any good for Charlotte and the Triangle the prosper, and nobody else,” Bowman says.
As committed as Bowman is to the belief that things always progress, he’s less committed to the timing of the next recovery.
Bank of America shifted 85 percent of its 213,000-employee workforce to working from home, delivering 90,000 laptops in the process. And he says the bank will continue to be cautious in bringing workers back.
If you think about it, that decision has as profound an effect on a local economy as some government stay-home mandates. Bank of America has 16,000 employees in the Charlotte area. And it has 60 stories of offices in its main tower, most of them now empty, and Uptown’s restaurants and shops are aching for them to come back.
The problem, Bowman says, is that we still don’t know when Covid-19 will let us free. The number of cases skyrocketed nationwide in the past two weeks. Most indications are that we’ll be in its grips until spring.
So for all the ways 2020’s a year unlike any other, the formula to get through it is similar to the other recessions he’s seen in his life: patience plus optimism leads to real progress.
“We’ll get through this and I think there’s a bright future for Charlotte ahead,” he said. But first, “Let’s be smart until we can run hard again.”