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BB&T here to stay, even if they talk a little funny

It took my love of the Philadelphia Phillies to realize a prejudice I never even knew I had.

In a 2004 move that surprised no one, the Phillies fired embattled manager Larry Bowa and hired Charlie Manuel. The only surprise was that no one, seemingly ever, sounded like Manuel in Philadelphia.

His thick West Virginia country twang nearly required subtitles during his press conferences, almost like Noel Gallagher interviews in the ’90s. Because of that, he was often labeled a country bumpkin or a hick. His players constantly stood up for him as mercurial, but I followed right along with all the unintelligible sports radio and television impersonations, letting his backwoods accent cloud my vision of a very smart baseball man.

It wasn’t until four years later when he took the Phillies to their second World Series championship that Northerners finally gave him the benefit of the doubt. “OK, maybe he might not be dumb, but it still sounds like he is.” Geez, what’s he have to do, cure cancer?

So maybe that’s why people in Pennsylvania didn’t take BB&T Corp., parent company of North Carolina-based BB&T Bank, completely seriously when it bought Susquehanna Bancshares Inc., formerly of Lititz. Most BB&T executives, including Chairman and CEO Kelly King, have moderately deep Southern accents, something Pennsylvanians — especially in the state’s banking community — just aren’t used to dealing with on an everyday basis.

Just how rare is it? Of the top 15 banks doing business in Pennsylvania in 2014, want to guess how many came from south of the Mason-Dixon Line?

How about none? Yeah, none.

Oh, sure, we have no problem letting in West Coasters like Wells Fargo & Co. They can even sponsor our sports arenas. New Yorkers? Welcome, M&T Bank and First Niagara. Hmm … Canadians? Canadians, Canadians (thinking) … sure, why not? C’mon down, TD Bank. The hockey rink is over there, lace up your skates!

But Southerners? Apparently our stance was somewhere around here: “Umm … hey, guys? Maryland is reeeealllllly nice. Why don’t you just hang out there for a while and let us mull this over? Thanks, you’re the best!”

Granted, there hasn’t been a lot of opportunity. Of the 30 biggest banks in the country, only BB&T (No. 11), Atlanta-based Suntrust Bank (No. 13) and Regions Bank (No. 18) of Birmingham, Ala., have rooted, long-standing Sun Belt ties. Before BB&T, none of them ventured past Maryland.

“It was hard enough for Southern banks to get over the Potomac (River, the natural border between Virginia and Washington, D.C.), let alone the Mason-Dixon Line,” said Garland McPherson of investment banking firm Garland McPherson & Associates LLC, based in Towson, Md. McPherson is a North Carolina native and is understanding about the possible, “Can you repeat that, please?” responses BB&T executives might initially get in Pennsylvania. “BB&T really is the first.”

So maybe we just thought BB&T would be out of sight, out of mind, keeping local Susquehanna management in place as the head honchos presided over the kingdom from down in North Carolina. But anyone who thought that the bank wasn’t taking Pennsylvania seriously better think again.

If its proposed $1.8 billion acquisition of Allentown-based National Penn Bancshares Inc. announced this week comes together as expected by this time next year, BB&T will be doing the fourth-highest amount of business in Pennsylvania. And it might not be done with its state acquisitions.

“It’s such a fractured state,” said McPherson, who predicted in December that BB&T wasn’t done in Pennsylvania. “There could be some wonderful targets left for BB&T to acquire.”

So whether you like the way they sound or not, one thing is for sure — these Southern intruders aren’t being pushed back at Gettysburg. BB&T loves Pennsylvania, and the bank is here to stay.

Michael Sadowski

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