Atlanta loses a key Fortune 500 HQ with SunTrust merger

By Maria Saporta

This one really hurts.

Losing the corporate headquarters of SunTrust hit Atlanta below the belt – just as the city was basking in the light of hosting a successful Super Bowl LIII.

After all, one goal in hosting the Super Bowl was to promote the Atlanta’s brand as a great place for business.

But just five days after the Super Bowl, Atlanta-based SunTrust and Winston Salem-based BB&T announced they were merging and that the new corporate entity would be based in Charlotte, N.C.

SunTrust Plaza

The elegant sculpture outside of SunTrust Plaza – the current headquarters of SunTrust Bank (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

That means Atlanta will lose one of its oldest Fortune 500 companies. It also bursts another bubble in the claim that the Atlanta region is a top center for Fortune 500 headquarters.

Some local boosters continue to inaccurately state that Atlanta has the third largest concentration of Fortune 500 companies in the country. That simply is not true.

Including SunTrust, the Atlanta region had 15 Fortune 500 companies in 2018. According to City Data, Atlanta is tied with Washington, D.C. – ranking eighth among cities with Fortune 500 companies – hardly giving Atlanta bragging rights of being a leading corporate headquarters region.

SunTrust’s roots in Atlanta date back to 1891 when the Georgia General Assembly granted a charter for the Commercial Travelers’ Savings Bank in Atlanta. Two years later, it changed its name to Trust Company of Georgia – a name it kept until 1985 when the bank merged with Florida-based SunBank – and became SunTrust Banks, headquartered in Atlanta.

SunTrust has been the largest independent financial institution still based in Atlanta – a mainstay that survived after many of its historic competitors in Georgia – First National Bank of Atlanta and Citizens & Southern – were gobbled up by North Carolina banks among others.

And it has been Georgia’s only bank on the prestigious Fortune 500 list.

In Atlanta, we’ve gotten used to seeing corporate headquarters come and go.

SunTrust Plaza

A view of SunTrust Plaza looking through the water feature at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. The Center played an important role during Super Bowl LIII (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Remember Newell-Rubbermaid? It moved its headquarters to Atlanta in 2003; changed its name to Newell Brands and then decided to move its headquarters from Atlanta to Hoboken, N.J. in 2016.

According to the Fortune 500 list, First Data was based in Atlanta in 2017. But the company, which was largely invisible in Atlanta’s civic work, quietly moved its headquarters to New York and was not included as one of Georgia’s Fortune 500 companies in 2018.

Watching the ebb and flow of Fortune 500 companies in Atlanta is almost a sport. Norfolk-Southern just announced last December that it will move its corporate headquarters from Norfolk, Va. to Atlanta.

WestRock also officially moved its headquarters from Richmond, Va. to Atlanta in early 2018 (in time to make the 2018 Fortune 500 list of Georgia companies).

Shortly after AGL Resources became a Fortune 500 company, it was acquired by the Atlanta-based Southern Co.

Atlanta also got a new headquarters when Veritiv, a spin-off of two other companies, picked Atlanta as its headquarters.

Other relatively new Fortune 500 company headquarters to Atlanta include NCR, which initially moved to Duluth in 2010 and then relocated its headquarters to Midtown in 2018.

And in 2013, PulteGroup announced it was moving its headquarters to Buckhead from Bloomfield Hills, Mich. – a suburb of Detroit.

So we have come to expect relocations of corporate headquarters – but some hurt more than others. SunTrust hurts because it has been so embedded in Atlanta history – serving as the lead bank for the Coca-Cola Co. for decades.

Bill Rogers Jim Hannan

SunTrust CEO Bill Rogers was with Jim Hannan, then CEO of Georgia-Pacific, in Houston at a party before the 2017 Super Bowl, when the Atlanta Falcons lost a heart-breaking game (Photo by Maria Saporta)

The bank’s top executives in the last 40 years also have been key  civic leaders: Robert Strickland who served as CEO from 1978 to 1990; Jimmy Williams who served as CEO from 1990 to 1998; L. Phillip Humann, (1998 to 2007); James Wells III (2007 to 2011); and William H. Rogers, who has served as CEO since 2011.

“No one is more attached to Atlanta and the brand than I am,” Rogers said in a phone interview on Feb. 7, the day the deal was announced. “That sadness is more than overshadowed and compensated by the excitement we feel today. There’s no way I could let that opportunity pass.”

Rogers will survive and thrive as a result of the merger. Initially he will be president and COO of the combined bank until 2021, and then he is slated to be the CEO of the Charlotte-based bank.

With 15 Fortune 500 companies based in metro Atlanta, it still is a much larger headquarters city than Charlotte, which only had six companies on the 2018 Fortune 500 list.

Atlanta continues to be an ideal place for corporate headquarters – primarily because of the presence of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

That’s undeniable. And Atlanta has managed to attract new Fortune 500 companies as others have dropped off the list – giving it a stable presence among cities with a concentration of corporate headquarters.

But the metro area does NOT have the third largest concentration of Fortune 500 company headquarters in the nation, no matter how many times local boosters make that claim.

For proof, here is the most accurate list of ranking of cities with the greatest number of Fortune 500 companies in 2018 – a list compiled by City Data:

By MSA (metropolitan statistical area):

1. NYC MSA:  79 companies
2. Chicago MSA:  35 companies
3. Dallas MSA:  22 companies
4. Houston MSA:  21 companies
5. Minneapolis MSA:  18 companies
6. San Francisco MSA: 17 companies
7. San Jose MSA: 16 companies
8. (tied) Atlanta MSA: 15 companies
8. (tied) Washington DC MSA: 15 companies
10. Los Angeles MSA: 13 companies
11. (tied) Philadelphia MSA: 11 companies
11. (tied) Seattle MSA: 11 companies
13. (tied) Boston MSA: 10 companies
13. (tied) Denver MSA: 10 companies
13. (tied)  Detroit MSA: 10 companies
13. (tied) St. Louis MSA: 10 companies
17. Cincinnati MSA: 9 companies
18. (tied) . Miami MSA: 7 companies
18. (tied) Milwaukee MSA: 7 companies
18. (tied) Nashville MSA: 7 companies
18. (tied)  Pittsburgh MSA: 7 companies
18. (tied)  Richmond, VA MSA: 7 companies
23. (tied) Bridgeport, CT MSA: 6 companies
23. (tied) Charlotte MSA: 6 companies
23. (tied)  Phoenix MSA: 6 companies

Here is a list of Atlanta’s Fortune 500 companies and their rank:

  1. (23) Home Depot (Atlanta-Vinings)
  2. (44) UPS (Atlanta-Sandy Springs)
  3. (75) Delta (Atlanta)
  4. (87) Coca-Cola Co. (Atlanta-Midtown)
  5. (126) Southern (Atlanta-downtown)
  6. (177) Genuine Parts (Atlanta-Wildwood)
  7. (194) WestRock )Atlanta-Sandy Springs)
  8. (303) SunTrust Banks (Atlanta-downtown)
  9. (341) PulteGroup (Atlanta-Buckhead)
  10. (346) Veritiv (Atlanta-Sandy Springs)
  11. (347) AGCO (Atlanta-Duluth)
  12. (430) HD Supply Holdings (Atlanta-Cumberland)
  13. (432) NCR (Atlanta-Midtown)
  14. (434) Asbury Automotive Group (Atlanta-Duluth)
  15. (477) Intercontinental Exchange (Atlanta-Sandy Springs)

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

9 replies
  1. Chris Johnston says:

    The loss of bragging rights so important to Chamber of Commerce types is minor compared to the coming job losses of BB&T and SunTrust employees in Atlanta. The two banks have 61,000 employees between them now and I expect at least 8,000 will go, with perhaps 4,000 in Atlanta.Report

    Reply
  2. ATLbooster says:

    And a lot of it is self inflicted. There are a lot of cranes about town but something about it all just doesn’t seem healthy. Mrs Norwood is on TV lamenting crime in buckhead, it takes 2 hours to drive 400 in rush hour and thug culture is absolutely everywhere top to bottom here. We had better be careful because you can not solve your problems for so long without consequence. It’s almost like that train left the station and sustainability and building something to last have no place here.Report

    Reply
  3. David Fisher says:

    What about Cox Communications and Chick-fil-A? They are both over $10 billion in revenue and should be on this list, shouldn’t they? I didn’t see them in the Fortune 500 list for some reason.Report

    Reply
  4. brainstar says:

    Mergers happen, and Charlotte has long been known for being an important financial center.
    Serious-minded people do not read gushing press releases from the City of Atlanta and the Chamber. If it were not for the business power structure in Atlanta, the City would not be the growth-oriented ATL that it is. Add forward-thinking governors such as Nathan Deal to the mix and this has been the model for the Metro Atlanta’s success. Most likely, it has prevented the City from being a joke. Could Bill Campbell have spearheaded the bid for the ‘96 Olympics?Report

    Reply
  5. Jon Carlisle says:

    Deeper the investigation into Mayor Reed’s hijinks (and subsequently Keisha’s) goes, the shakier the ground for any Fortune 500 calling the City home – Braves evacuation looks smarter every day.Report

    Reply
  6. Greg Hodges says:

    Another big corporate name that is visible high atop a downtown Atlanta skyscraper would undoubtedly be a Fortune 500 member, if it were not just a division of a big conglomerate : Georgia Pacific.Report

    Reply

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