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Charlotte Business Journal: First Trust takes the high ground for new quarters

First Trust takes the high ground for new quarters

UPDATED: Jul 19, 2007, 9:32am EST

First Trust Bank is at the height of its game — repeatedly doing better than other local banks in stock performance.

So it was fitting the bank built its new headquarters on one of the highest points in central Charlotte, overlooking uptown.

First Trust’s headquarters at 1420 E. Third St. gives visual identity to an eight-year-old bank that has rewarded investors by delivering an average annual return of 54% on its shares.

First Trust is primarily a commercial bank serving professionals and small businesses with annual sales of up to $25 million. It does little retail banking, so its new location, along the heavily traveled corridor to and from uptown, wasn’t meant to attract drive-by traffic. Instead, the red-brick and glass building gives the bank a high-profile setting to serve its clientele.

First Trust, which has assets of $379 million, was formerly headquartered down the street in 7,500 square feet of rented space at 100 Queens Road. Bank President Jim Bolt says the company outgrew its space and started looking for other locations.

When bank executives found the East Third Street site, a board member measured the spot on his GPS. It read 700 feet above sea level, making it one of the highest points in Charlotte. The bank bought the tract from Presbyterian Hospital and Grubb Properties. A hospital warehouse was demolished to prepare for construction.

With an ideal site in hand to raise the bank’s profile, Bolt turned to veteran architect Clay Elder of ESD Architecture & Interior Design, a firm that derives about 85% of its work from designing banking facilities.

Bolt says after the initial design meeting, Elder came back with a plan that required little tweaking.

Elder says the biggest design challenge was working with the tight fit of the site while achieving the required number of parking spaces and keeping a logical circulation pattern. Instead of an attached canopy for the drive-through window, drive-up traffic is routed under the second floor.

“The tricky thing about banking that is often overlooked is the site plan,” Elder says. “If a bank is difficult or confusing to navigate, people will drive down to the next bank.”

Contractor Don Moore of Heartland Contracting in Indian Trail says the biggest hurdle he faced in constructing the steel-framed building was finding labor. Four months into the project, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.

“Workers left the area and headed down to help with the cleanup and rebuilding,” Moore says. “We had a hard time finding enough people to complete it on time.”

The labor shortage, especially for drywall contractors, extended the construction schedule to seven months from six. But otherwise, Moore says, building the bank went remarkably smoothly.

The key to the building’s design was a look that fit the bank’s personality — to reflect its stability and professional clientele without seeming arrogant.

Bolt — ever conscious of how he’s spending money — wanted the facility to be comfortable and classic without any over-the-top luxury touches.

“We look and act and feel like a private bank, but we didn’t want to seem intimidating,” Bolt says. “We wanted it to be very welcoming.”

The lower level of the two-story building includes a marble-floored lobby with a brass inset of First Trust’s logo.

The open floor plan features glass-topped partitions that separate customer-service areas.

Bankers’ offices have storefront windows to the interior and exterior. Instead of being hidden away near the executive washroom, Bolt’s office is in a corner of the lobby, where he can greet customers and work among the bank’s employees.

Upstairs houses the boardroom and service kitchen as well as the operations center for loans and deposits.

The bank includes an increasingly common feature among banks catering to business and professional customers, Elder says — a secondary, private waiting area equipped with flat-screen TV and fireplace.

“It’s more like a living room and informal conferencing space,” he says.

Bolt says the facility provides the infrastructure for the bank as a whole to continue to grow organically. But instead of expanding at the midtown headquarters, Bolt expects the bank will grow regionally, including transitioning its Monroe and Concord loan offices into full-service branches.

Meanwhile, First Trust has achieved a key consideration for its new building. “We’ve gotten so many compliments on the new bank,” Bolt says. “It has elevated our presence in the community.”

FIRST TRUST BANK

Owner/developer: First Trust Bank

Architect: ESD Architecture & Interior Design

Engineer: Structural: WGPM Inc.; mechanical, electrical and plumbing: Optima Engineering; civil: Eastover Engineering & Surveying Inc.; landscape: Solo Design Group

Contractor: Heartland Contracting

Construction cost: $4.8 million

 

 

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