By Vanessa Wolf
From Jennings Street to the executive suite, a Bennettsville native makes a mark
While well-known as an influential Charlotte resident and businessman, former Bank of America CEO Hugh L. McColl Jr. got his start in Marlboro County.
“It really sort of began when my great-grandfather, Duncan Donald “D.D.” McColl, came down to Bennettsville from North Carolina,” says Hugh, who was born in Bennettsville in 1935. “He moved in and studied law—or read law, as they used to say—with his uncle, Peter McColl.”
D.D., for whom the town of McColl is named, fought in the Civil War. He returned to Bennettsville when he completed his service.
He was admitted to the South Carolina Bar in 1866, but his career eventually moved well beyond law. In December 1884, he started the Bank of Marlboro with 10 other local businessmen and went on to run it—a tradition that continued for generations.
“My great-grandfather started the bank because there wasn’t one in town,” Hugh says. “He started the textile industry and he started a railroad. When I was a child, I didn’t know too much about my family’s cotton and banking businesses. All I really understood was that my father was respected in the community.”
Hugh says he grew up on the “wrong side of town,” a happenstance he feels positively impacted his life.
“The McColl compound was on the west end of Bennettsville,” Hugh says. “Our homes had been down there since the late 1800s. In 1905, my grandfather built the house on Jennings Street. My father moved there when he was a year old, and then lived his whole life there. I was born there as well.
“I grew up with kids from working-class families, and I believe I was able to be successful in my career because I was able to get along with people from all walks of life.
“I remember every now and then my mother would send me to play up in east Bennettsville. Arguably, these were play dates with people from my own socioeconomic background, but I was never as comfortable there as I was in my own part of town.”
Hugh fondly reminisces about growing up a “typical country person.”
“I played basketball, baseball, and football with a wide array of people,” he says. “I have always attributed my success in business to growing up with such diversity. My mother always told me that if you gave your word that you were going to do something, then you do it. A man’s word is his bond. I grew up that way. The whole town was that way—honest and hardworking.”
Along with the character and open-mindedness developed from his childhood in Marlboro County, Hugh says he is grateful for the superlative education he received.
“I’ve said this a lot: I got a really good education at Bennettsville High School,” Hugh says. “The teachers were highly qualified. You couldn’t fake it, and they held us to high standards. I further educated myself after I graduated from college by carnivorously reading and traveling all over the world, but that intellectual curiosity was first stimulated by my parents and my teachers. My mother read to us all the time, so I had a big imagination, which included having bears living under the house and then later imaginary friends under our house.”
Hugh earned a degree in business administration from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1957. After serving two years as a troop leader in the United States Marine Corps, he returned home eager to work in the family’s cotton and ginning businesses.
Hugh’s father, Hugh Sr., served as president of the Bank of Marlboro, but liquidated it during the Great Depression to pay off depositors. Nonetheless, he urged his son to choose banking over cotton and move to Charlotte and work for American Commercial Bank. Hugh was hired as a trainee and became an officer of the newly merged North Carolina National Bank in 1961.
In 1974, Hugh was promoted to president of NCNB and began to make moves to fulfill his vision of a bank serving the entire country. During the next two decades, NCNB grew into a seven-state franchise, culminating in July 1991 when he cosigned an agreement to create NationsBank, America’s third-largest bank at the time.
Seven years later, Hugh orchestrated a merger with San Francisco-based BankAmerica, resulting in the creation of what is still known as Bank of America, headquartered in Charlotte. He retired in 2001, shifting his focus to investment and philanthropic efforts.
Hugh recounts the best advice anyone has ever given him.
“A very strong impression was made upon me by my high school English teacher, Miss Reese,” he says. “I had a paper due, which I didn’t turn in on time, so I got an F. This was my senior year, and I went in to explain to her that I was president of the student body, in the school play, and on the basketball team. I didn’t have time to complete the paper as assigned. She said to me, ‘Mr. McColl, everyone has the same amount of time: 24 hours a day. It’s what you do with it that counts. And you will keep an F.’ So, my senior year, I made a D in English. Today, that might have kept me out of college, but I learned a tremendous lesson from her that day, and I think back on her fondly. What Miss Reese told me back then I’ve taken to heart.
“Also, I always give the Marine Corps a lot of credit, but something else that’s been very influential on me I learned at home: Everybody puts their pants on the same way. This affects how I treat other people. I don’t think I’m better than someone else because of skin color or whether or not they have money, which I didn’t always have. I think what my parents always taught me was your word was your bond, and what you shook hands on, that was the deal.”
When Hugh got into the business world, he learned not everyone abides by those words.
“As a young banker, I had some bad experiences with people,” he says. “I learned— and the advice I give my own kids—is that being smart is nice, but you’ll meet tons of people smarter than you. It’s really the person that works the hardest, pushes the hardest, and is working when other people aren’t that’s going to succeed.”
Now 85, Hugh says he has learned a lot over his lifetime. He has learned people are not nearly as important as they think they are, and that in the overall scheme of things, we are here for a short time. He advises people to do their best, and to try to leave the world a little better than they found it.
Considering a world in the midst of challenging times, Hugh is optimistic.
“I’ve been thinking about it, and none of us really had anything coming out of the Great Depression, but we didn’t really feel deprived,” he says. “We didn’t feel poor or destitute, and people helped each other. We were bound together as a community.
“I see that happening as part of this pandemic—people helping each other. It’s helping us to remember what matters, as opposed to things that don’t matter.”
Hugh says people are looking out for one another and helping those who don’t have enough food or medicine, or who need a little help. He says it reminds him of the period during the war when Americans were united as a country.
“I may be over-romanticizing that, but that’s what I feel,” he says. “I know that my family helped others coming out of the Great Depression. We had farms and chickens in the backyard, so we could share. If you had a sweater, you didn’t worry about buying another one. We all had hand-me-down bicycles and wagons, but we weren’t unhappy. We had happy childhoods even in the middle of war and even not having a lot of things. In a way, what I think—what I hope—is that we will come out of the other side of this pandemic with a different behavior pattern where people spend less money on frills and focus more on the things that really matter. Some of that will be born out of necessity, but necessity gives over to invention.”
Hugh moved to Charlotte in 1959, but is still connected to the Pee Dee region through memories and lifelong friends.
“I went through Marlboro County the other day on my way to the beach and came back through on my way home,” he says. “In a funny sort of way, nothing has changed. But in another way, things have changed for the worse. Like a lot of small towns, Bennettsville’s businesses on Front Street and Main Street have suffered. The Wal-Mart moved a lot of retail and restaurants elsewhere. I regret that for a lot of small-town America. It doesn’t feel the same without the activity on the street. Still, Marlboro County really is a unique place to live, and a lot of people from there have done well for themselves. For example, Marion Wright Edelman is not to be ignored.”
Marion is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund, a nonprofit that serves as a voice for the disabled, poor, and children of color, working to protect those who are neglected, homeless, or abused.
Marion is four years younger than Hugh.
“We grew up 200 yards apart, yet worlds apart due to segregation,” Hugh says. “I met her for the first time seriously in 1990, and we’ve been friends ever since. You end up finding people from your hometown who have done well that you didn’t get the chance to know and didn’t have contact with back when you were young. It’s a really positive thing. I can say that I am proud of her, and grateful and proud to have come up in Marlboro County.”