WHEN Julia Taylor was a child, she felt a personal pride, not only in the bank where her father was an officer - but in all the black-run businesses that thrived in her community. This tobacco town was segregated then. Black families could look only to one another for resources and strength. No resource was more important to the community's prosperity than Mechanics and Farmers, the state's oldest black-owned bank.
Times have changed. Now black businesses prosper throughout this town of 100,000. Successful business people can get financing from any bank in the state. But Mechanics and Farmers still plays a special role.
``There is a certain segment of disadvantaged people who maybe have not had the training, but they have viable skills,'' Mrs. Taylor explains. Now president and chairman of Mechanics and Farmers, she continues the longstanding commitment between the bank, her family, and her community.
The bank provides not only money, but financial and management counseling - sometimes over a period of months - to entrepreneurs whose ideas are stronger than their business backgrounds. Taylor has made Mechanics and Farmers one of the most stable and profitable banks in the country while developing human potential.
For the steadying hand that 80-year-old Mechanics and Farmers has offered small, primarily black-run businesses, the United States Department of Commerce last October named Taylor national Minority Business Advocate of the Year. The award also noted Taylor's support for education and community development.
Taylor, a businesslike woman with a soft drawl and down-to-earth manner, learned her activism from her father, J.H. Wheeler, who was president of Mechanics and Farmers from 1952 to 1978. ``My father had a lot of pride in the black community,'' recalls the executive, leaning back in her neat, modestly furnished office. ``He made sure than no one thought of anybody as a second-class citizen.''
He also had high standards and expectations. ``His philosophy was that there was nothing you can't do.''
But to achieve their potential, those from disadvantaged backgrounds may need extra help. In North Carolina, 29 percent of black families were living below the poverty level in 1980. Ninety percent of Mechanics and Farmers customers are black.
So the bank takes a special role in helping innovative black entrepreneurs overcome any lack of training and run successful businesses.
One entrepreneur who took advantage of the bank's services was Locke Moore, inventor of an antipollution device for cars. ``I had needs for guidance in all areas,'' recalls Mr. Moore, president of the newly formed Moecodine Industries of Raleigh, N.C. Bank officers advised Moore on how to market his invention and to plan for product development.
``A lot of big banks are too busy for small people,'' Moore observes. ``You need personal contact.''
The bank has also supported nonprofit and educational institutions. One of its most dramatic rescues was that of historic Shaw University in Raleigh. Founded in 1865 as the first institution of higher education for blacks in the South, Shaw approached Mechanics and Farmers two years ago when on the edge of financial collapse.
The university meant so much to so many people that 12 local families had mortgaged their homes and personal assets to raise money for the school. One of those families was that of Dr. John H. Lucus. ``We didn't have time for the procedures and clearance involved at other banks,'' recalls the Shaw graduate, who served as interim president during the crisis. ``We needed help fast.''
Mechanics and Farmers responded characteristically. In addition to extending a $1 million loan, bank staff met with the university's executive management board on an ongoing basis to help solve the university's financial woes. Taylor became personally involved with the university's fund-raising committee.
``Shaw fills a need in the black community that perhaps some of the other schools don't fill,'' the banker comments. ``I've seen Shaw take some of these students who could not get in other colleges, and when they come out, they are viable business people, and in other areas of life are very successful.''
``She helped us to generate not only finance, but enthusiasm and confidence,'' says Dr. Lucus. Shaw has since repaid the bulk of the loan, hired a new president, and recently received a favorable audit.
In addition to working with institutions, the bank makes small loans to families. Many banks find small loans too costly to bother with, says Taylor. ``But a lot of our customers can't pay back $2,000. So they get involved with credit cards at 18 percent. So we have to listen to something under $2,000.''
And the bank serves the poor, who have nowhere else to turn. On the third of every month, long lines of people wait at the bank's downtown office to cash their welfare and social security checks. ``These people, a lot of them have very little to put in the bank. But they are here because nobody else will cash those checks,'' Taylor says.
``This takes a lot of time,'' the banker acknowledges. ``It truly does.'' But under five years of her leadership, Mechanics and Farmers has prospered.
In 1987 the bank earned a blue-ribbon rating from Veribanc Inc., a bank research firm in Wakefield, Mass. Out of all commercial banks in the United States, only 1 out of 14 meets the blue-ribbon criteria for assets, profitability, capital strength, and liquidity.
The bank has benefited from deposits and lines of credit from some Fortune 500 companies that have become sensitive to the issues of minority banks. The deposits allow the bank to lend out larger amounts than might otherwise be possible. In addition, Taylor tightly controls expenses.
Some, noting the bank's cautious growth, have described Taylor as fiscally conservative, but she raises a dubious eyebrow at the term.
``You can't address yourself to all needs and run a strong bank,'' she concedes. ``But with some of the risks we have taken,'' she adds calmly, ``I don't see how we could really be called conservative.'' Instead, Taylor is a leader who demonstrates the value of taking a calculated risk to help others. And here in her hometown, she is known for the effect of her policies on people.
At family-run Eagle Inn Restaurant, W. Stuart Scott, wearing a white apron over his vest and red tie, pauses in the midst of clearing a lunch table to discuss the bank president. ``Julia Taylor?'' he repeats, straightening to attention. ``You don't find no better quality of person.''
A year and a half ago Taylor approved the loan that enabled Mr. Scott to open his restaurant, but that is not the only reason for Scott's admiration.
``When I see her on the street, she speaks to me like I'm human,'' the gray-haired entrepreneur says simply. ``That hasn't got anything to do with my business at the bank.''
``She has integrity, forthrightness, and honesty,'' says John Lucus, principal for 24 years of Hillside High School, which named Taylor outstanding alumna four years ago. ``She's quite a role model.''
Taylor began working for the bank at age 19, as a secretary and teller. After five years, unsure of whether she could advance in the face of her father's strict opposition to even the appearance of favoritism, she moved to Los Angeles, where she rose in the ranks at Broadway Federal Savings & Loan.
But after her marriage ended in divorce, she returned home to find support from family and old friends. She has supported that community ever since.
At Mechanics and Farmers, where most of the 25 officers have also worked their way up through the ranks the commitment to developing human potential is strong.
``Our kids go astray when they have nothing to aspire to,'' says Taylor. ``The bank shows not only young blacks, but whites, that we can do something, and we can do it well.''