Atlanta is a real estate town.
The airport made the city what it is today.
No, it’s good old Southern hospitality, all of that convention business — the city too busy to hate and all that.
All of these may be true. But what would our city be without the Braves or Coke? What if there was no Woodruff Arts Center, no award-winning symphony, no world-class art collection? Worse, what if the Ku Klux Klan continued to meet on top of Stone Mountain to regularly burn crosses?
There is one industry we can point to that played a pivotal role in all of these disparate things. More than the institutions, the men behind them shaped our city for generations.
Before it was real estate, or the airport, or the convention business, Atlanta was a banking town.
Last month that era came to an end. SunTrust — formerly Trust Company Bank — is merging with BB&T and moving to North Carolina, following a familiar pattern established years ago.
This week, I want to remember the stories of these institutions, and the men behind them, who were instrumental in putting Atlanta on the map.
Several businessmen established Commercial Travelers’ Saving Bank in 1891 with $285,000. It started so slow the first president cautioned it would be “best not proceed with the enterprise,” according to the book on Georgia banking, “To Wield a Mighty Influence.”
The next year, Joel Hurt took over the struggling bank, changing its name to Trust Company Bank. He thought they could better use their capital for investments as a large trust company. and they did.
Under the presidency of Ernest Woodruff in 1919, the bank acquired a controlling stake in the Coca-Cola Co., making it one of the best capitalized financial institutions in the country. The relationship created the foundation on which the world’s largest beverage company is built.
Woodruff’s son, Robert Woodruff, would eventually run the Coca-Cola Co. and usher in a new era in the city of Atlanta through is leadership and philanthropy, including providing the funds for the then-Memorial Arts Center, now the Woodruff Arts Center.
Trust Company of Georgia became SunTrust in 1995, following a merger with SunBanks of Florida a decade earlier.
As much as Robert Woodruff impacted the city, there wasn’t a larger personality in Atlanta than Mills Lane Jr.
The Lanes were a banking family. When his father Mills Lane Sr. showed up in Savannah to start a new national bank with $250,000, the president of Citizens’ Bank of Savannah told him he could come to his bank and have any job he wanted. With Lane’s guidance, it became the second largest bank by deposits in the state and merged with its rival, the Southern Bank of the State of Georgia. Thus, C&S Bank came into being.
His son, Mills Lane Jr., was the crown prince of banking. He answered his phone, “It’s a wonderful world. Can I sell you some money today?” He was constantly cooking up ways to grow the bank through promotions, through showmanship and through aggressive tactics.
When he got tired of the KKK gathering at Stone Mountain, he bought the land. Lane decided Atlanta needed a professional sports stadium and gave the city $650,000 to design it. That was before there even was a team.
C&S merged in 1989 with a Virginia-based bank, and eventually became a part of NationsBank based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The final bank on our list is one close to my family. My great-great-great-grandfather was Alfred Austell, the founder of Atlanta National Bank. Through a series of mergers — 10 to be exact — it would become First National Bank. Austell’s was the first, though, founded in 1865.
His bank played a critical role in Atlanta’s rise from the ashes of the Civil War. Indeed, his was the first nationally chartered bank in the South following the war. Significantly, Atlanta National made the loans that helped the city rebuild.
First National became Wachovia in 1993. What was left of the bank following the collapse of the housing market in 2008 was absorbed into Well Fargo & Company.