Charlotte’s emergence in the global marketplace
When I was golfing with friends in Scotland a few weeks ago, a caddie asked where we were from. “I know Charlotte!” he responded with delight. “I flew into your airport on holiday and discovered the city.”
We got that kind of reaction all week. One caddie knew about the Carolina Panthers. Another knew Michael Jordan owns our basketball team. Some of these caddies seldom travel 100 miles from home, but they recognized Charlotte. Fifteen years ago when I golfed in Scotland, people didn’t have the foggiest idea where I meant when I talked about my hometown.
Just as Charlotte is becoming better known, we feel the effects of globalization at home in everything from our schools and restaurants to commerce. As a native Charlottean who has practiced law here for more than 40 years, I’ve had a unique vantage point on how newcomers and international companies have shaped our region.
In 1973, when I was getting started, there were maybe 500 lawyers in the whole city. Charlotte was the biggest urban area in the Carolinas but still fairly sleepy. Attorneys rarely specialized because the demand wasn’t there. Young lawyers were required to do civil and criminal cases, tax issues, incorporations and whatever else came up. As for international work, the farthest we got was South Carolina.
Yet the city began to emerge as a regional center in the 1970s, laying the beginnings for a global Charlotte. Much of my law firm’s work began to focus on real estate. Our clients were the developers who were building Charlotte’s suburbs and shaping the uptown skyline. What changed to create this climate? Two words: the banks.
After the high inflation of the late ’70s, leaders at First Union Corp. and North Carolina National Bank pushed their companies to expand. That attitude, coupled with changes in laws, led to new markets for our homegrown banks. As the reach of our financial institutions grew, so did the scope of the legal work.
Airline deregulation in 1978 accelerated the growth of our airport so that it became a major hub. Charlotte had access to new places, and people elsewhere had access to Charlotte. International commerce became more of a possibility.
Since then, Duke Energy has grown, other energy-related companies have developed, and our pro sports teams have carried Charlotte’s name to all parts of the country and beyond. The Democratic National Convention in 2012 raised our profile. But I also attribute Charlotte’s growing internationalism to a change in mindset. I’ve seen Charlotte transform from wanting to stay a quiet town to embracing other peoples and the opportunities they bring. Today, we have almost 1,000 foreign-owned companies in the region.
The new dynamic has brought unexpected opportunities for local businesses. We joined Primerus, an alliance of law firms from around the world, because we saw Charlotte developing a stronger global economy and wanted to be part of it. The alliance allows us to access legal talent throughout the world, wherever our local clients have a need. Occasionally, we get inquiries from potential clients outside the U.S., too.
I’ve seen that trajectory at many local businesses, and I expect these trends to continue. Charlotte in 2025 will be more of a global business leader as more foreign-owned companies locate here and local companies become bigger players internationally. We have the talent, and the momentum is on our side.
Smithy Curry's column "Charlotte’s emergence in the global marketplace" originally appeared in the September 18 print edition of the Charlotte Business Journal.