Charlotte Observer: GE Capital Touting, Wooing Middle-Market Businesses in Charlotte

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Hissho Sushi CEO Philip Maung launched his business in Charlotte because he figured its many banks would help him get a loan. They weren’t too keen on the idea then. But now that it’s grown into a sizable company, the banks are clamoring for his business.

In many ways, they’re a poster child for middle-market companies around the country. The sector is hot in banking circles as commercial banks look for strong balance sheets to make loans.

That made Hissho Sushi a natural fit to host executives from GE Capital, who stopped in Charlotte on Thursday as part of a nationwide bus tour the company’s hosting with Slate touting middle-market businesses. The rapidly growing sushi bar operator and distributor with its headquarters in Steele Creek was the first stop of the day.

The Norwalk, Conn.-based company plans to host at least 100 middle-market business executives at a dinner in the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Thursday evening. Team owner Joe Gibbs will take questions over a light dinner.

GE Capital has held similar events in cities like St. Louis, Kansas City, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.

The goal is to come up with a list of problems keeping middle-market businesses from growing, whether they are related to a “skills gap” between what employers need and what workers know how to do or new regulations. At the same time, GE Capital gets to host some clients and potentially bring on some new ones.

“Everybody talks about big business or small business,” said Ian Forrest, vice president of global marketing at GE Capital. “Nobody talks about the middle-market. This is core to our space.”

Why Charlotte? With about 1,300 middle-market businesses, Charlotte ranks among the top 20 markets in the number of businesses in that space, Forrest said. The sector makes up about 20 percent of the city’s economy, but is skewed a bit low because of the presence of major employers like Bank of America.

Hissho Sushi served the out-of-towners Bojangles biscuits before taking them on a tour of the 46,000-square-foot office complex. They toured freezers and a test kitchen before the bankers got to try their hands at rolling their own sushi.

GE Capital’s executives asked Maung and communications director Andrea Lee about the company’s innovation, regulatory burden, and expansion plans. Maung said Hissho is testing a retail store concept that could launch a location in Charlotte by the end of the year.

Hissho is getting used to being a shining example. Press clippings fill the foyer in its headquarters building, and President Barack Obama invited Maung as a guest to a September 2011 speech to a joint session of Congress about jobs.

GE Capital has about 4,800 employees in North Carolina, the bulk of whom are in Charlotte at an office on West Tyvola Road. It has a large commercial banking team in the city, as well as retail bankers who serve clients like Lowe’s Home Improvement and Belk. GE Capital manages those companies’ private-label credit cards.

The middle-market in Charlotte has been pretty attractive for outside financiers lately. JPMorgan Chase made a big splash two months ago by building up its team in that segment and moving into a new uptown office. Chase’s commercial bank CEO said it wants to be a player in the middle market here for the next 50 years.