When it was announced in 1994 that Lumberton-based Southern National Bank would be merging with Wilson-based Branch Banking and Trust and the new bank would be named BB&T and headquartered in Winston-Salem, city residents and their neighbors across Robeson County feared the worst.
The timing of the announcement could hardly have been worse, following as it did a pretty devastating 1-2 punch. The county was reeling from the federal government’s assault on the tobacco industry, which has contracted locally since then by about 80 percent, and we were in the early stages of losing thousands of textile jobs to NAFTA.
No one was buying Southern National’s pledge — which we are sure was negotiated by the late Hector MacLean — that the bank’s commitment to Lumberton and Robeson County would remain strong. But as the 20-year anniversary of the merger was marked on Aug. 1 of last week, the new bank, BB&T, is employing more Robesonians than did Southern National in 1994.
That is not to say Lumberton and Robeson County have benefited from the merger, but the fall hasn’t been as long and as hard as it seemed ticketed for two decades ago.
The city and county have suffered from “brain drain” — the migration of Southern National’s top executives to their new headquarters in Winston-Salem. The highest-salaried employees who lived in the nicest homes, those more prone to serve their communities in civic groups and through their churches, the ones who had the acumen to serve in public office or on local boards, left and have never been replaced.
That damage is incalculable.
The abandoned Southern National Bank headquarters, now owned by the county, stands empty in downtown Lumberton and will require costly renovations before it can again serve the community and is no longer an annoying reminder of better times.
But there is the good news: According to BB&T, it now employs 597 people in Robeson County, most of them in Lumberton, at a newer and more modest headquarters, two city branches, a collections call center, and a deposits administration and treasury services center. In addition there are branch offices in Rowland, Fairmont, Red Springs and St. Pauls.
These are mostly rank-and-file employees, many of whom might have struggled to find jobs in our locally depressed economy.
“That is big for us. That’s a lot of employees, ” David White, a BB&T spokesman in Winston-Salem, said.
BB&T also remains a strong corporate citizen, with its commitment to the United Way of Robeson County, which MacLean helped establish, being just one of many examples.
It’s clear now that Southern National’s promise has been kept, that the new bank, the 12th largest in the country with $188 billion on assets, has not abandoned Lumberton and Robeson County.
Twenty years later, it’s probably OK now to exhale.