Q&A with Rick Rothacker

Rick Rothacker will be celebrating the release of his new book Banktown: The Rise and Struggles of Charlotte’s Big Banks at 7 tomorrow evening at Park Road Books in Charlotte. (Want to go? Find more details here.) We know some you won’t have the chance to meet Rick while he’s on tour, so we decided to ask him a few questions to share with you. Enjoy!


You’ve been writing about Charlotte’s banks for the Charlotte Observer for nearly a decade. What made you decide to put it all in one book?

Since starting the beat, I’ve been interested in the history and the personalities behind the creation of these two banking giants. A lot of the executives are still around Charlotte, so when I talked with them I would often ask them for their war stories from the deal-making days of the 1980s and 1990s. There have been a number of good books about the rise of Bank of America, but less about Wachovia and First Union and the competition between the two banks. I already was thinking there was room for another book on the subject when the financial crisis came along, adding a lot more drama to the story and more reader interest. I would have been kicking myself if I didn’t try to write a book about it all.

When did you first notice something was wrong in these banks?

The Observer did a good job of looking at problems with subprime lending and foreclosures as far back as 2005, so I think we had a basic understanding of some of the pitfalls in mortgage lending and the housing market. In the case of Wachovia, starting in January 2008, I started hearing concerns from the bank’s own loan officers about some of the alternative mortgages the bank was selling after its Golden West acquisition. I started writing about these concerns, and the stories spurred more calls from loan officers and customers. In April 2008, we wrote a story that said Wachovia faced a “Moment of Truth” from rising loan losses and literally the next day the bank disclosed much higher-than-expected losses, and the bank’s troubles really started to come out into the open. I can’t say I could have predicted how bad things got, but we were among the first to raise red flags. In the case of Bank of America, the bank seemed to be one of the stronger players after buying Merrill Lynch, but obviously a few months later, a lot of problems started spilling out.

What do you think the rest of the nation will find most shocking in this book?

I think people will be fascinated by how deeply involved the government became with these banks when they ran into trouble. Wachovia was the fourth-biggest bank in the country and essentially became a bystander to its own sale and its potential dismemberment. Bank of America was told in pretty uncertain terms to go ahead with its Merrill Lynch deal, although the regulators seemed to truly believe it was necessary for the financial system. The government also isn’t one uniform entity – there were a lot of different regulators involved and they weren’t always on the same page.

What are you filling your time with now that Banktown is published?

I’m staying pretty busy trying to get the word out about the book. I’ve heard from a lot of people already who have bought the book or who are interested in it, so that has been gratifying. The banking beat has also stayed pretty hectic, as we try to keep up with financial reform and other developments. And of course, my wife and I have two boys, so school is starting, and T-ball and soccer and all of that. Also, the Phillies are trying to get to the World Series for a third straight year….

What are you reading now? Or, what’s the last book you read?

When I was working on the book, I didn’t have much time to read, other than books that I needed to research for the book. So I’ve really been enjoying having time to read all kinds of things. I don’t read a lot of fiction, but I read a neat book called “The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.” I also read “Game Change” about the 2008 campaign and am now reading a really gripping book about the Martin Luther King assassination called “Hellhound on His Trail,” which was recommended by one of my colleagues at the paper.

Are there any recent books or authors that you admire?

I mostly read nonfiction – history, military, business books. This may be a little insular, but I really enjoy books by journalists. They usually bring a fresh look to a subject, and some of them are just amazing writers. People like David Maraniss, Mark Bowden, Rick Atkinson, David Wessel, Andrew Ross Sorkin, Hampton Sides. There are a lot of good ones out there.

Ever read a book that changed your life? What was it?

That’s a tough one. I think I would go back to being a kid when everything from the “Call of the Wild” to the Lord of the Rings to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Isaac Asimov to C.S. Lewis to the Hardy Boys showed me how great books and reading could be. They made you want to go write stories of your own. I think in the business world, books like “Barbarians at the Gate” and papers like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times show how you can make business writing interesting to the masses, while still shining an important spotlight on the practices that affect the economy and society.

You’re stranded on a desert island. What’s the one book you’d want to have with you?

That’s an even tougher one. Maybe “Rabbit, Run.” Updike is pretty amazing, and he’s a Pennsylvanian. Faulkner is also pretty hard to beat.


If you’re in the Charlotte area, your chance to meet Rick and ask him your own questions is tomorrow night at Park Road Books. You can find more details on Rick’s upcoming tour of the Southeast here, and he’ll also be appearing at a few other spots in Charlotte:

Thursday, Sept. 16 at 7:00 p.m
Park Road Books
4139 Park Road
Charlotte, NC 28209

Thurs., Oct. 7 at 7:00 p.m.
Friends of Library of Queens University in Charlotte
Sykes Auditorium at Queens University Campus
1900 Selwyn Ave.
Charlotte, NC 28274
Tickets: Free for members, $10 for guests

Mon., Oct. 11 at 6:30 p.m.
“Bibliofeast” for the Women’s National Book Association
Sante Restaurant
165 North Trade Street
Matthews, NC 28105
Tickets: $35

Sat., Oct. 16
2 p.m.
Joseph-Beth Booksellers
4345 Barclay Downs Rd.
Charlotte, NC 28211