Tar Heel Tattler - September 2005

Kannapolis biopolis will be on the Dole
By Dail Willis

When it comes to Dole Food Co. owner David Murdock, Kannapolis has long been of many minds — some of them angry ones. That could change if the California financier’s plan to turn the town into what he calls a biopolis comes to fruition.

Molly Broad, president of the University of North Carolina, says Murdock wants to establish three biotechnology research centers on the site of two shuttered Pillowtex mills he owns. That, she says, would make the city “a viable player in the biotechnology economy.”

Well, Murdock has been hailed as a hero before in Kannapolis. In 1982, he bought what was then Cannon Mills and spent $200 million to modernize the company and make it profitable. He promised in 1985 he wouldn’t sell Cannon if workers rejected unionization, and they did. A few months later, he sold out to Eden-based Fieldcrest Mills.

As part of the sale, he closed Cannon’s pension plan, pocketing about $39 million in excess cash, and moved the rest of the fund’s assets into insurance annuities. When the insurance company collapsed, workers suffered a 30% cut in benefits while a buyer was sought. In 1990, Murdock paid $1 million to settle a lawsuit over the pension fund. He later agreed to send about $800,000 in personal checks to 9,000 Cannon retirees to make up for the pension cuts.

Dallas-based Pillowtex bought Fieldcrest Cannon in 1997 and moved its headquarters to Kannapolis. As the company’s problems became public, many hoped Murdock would buy it, but he didn’t. When Pillowtex shut down in 2003, more than 4,800 lost jobs.

Murdock resurfaced late last year when he bought the two plants. Rumors about biotechnology have swirled around the city since, intensifying after Murdock said in August that he would build a $54 million Dole plant in Gaston County to process vegetables and fruit. But Broad’s letter was the first public sign of Murdock’s plans for Kannapolis. City Council member Richard Anderson, a former mayor and Cannon Mills employee, likes what he has heard but remains cautious. “What Mr. Murdock says he will do and what he does sometimes is not exactly the same thing.”