Old & in the sway
Even in the South, where the mythological is never very far from the real, the memory of the feudal county boss is but a scant echo of an earlier time. Ours is a modern society now, with all the trappings of democracy, economic equality and self-determination. We are the lords of our own lives, in a way that our forebears never were. What to make, then, of the influence and power two elderly men have wielded over a single suburban county in North Carolina?
The men are Bruton Smith and David Murdock, whose names are likely familiar to you. Their sway over Cabarrus County has been profound, so much so that both Flem Snopes and Leander Perez might find themselves envious. Snopes, of course, was novelist William Faulkner’s creation, the ubercapitalist of modest beginnings who came to be, for a time, the most powerful man in Yoknapatawpha County. Perez was the all-too-real incarnation of Snopes, ruling Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish as an unchallenged lord for a half-century. Snopes, a fictional banker, collected his power by stealth, marrying the pregnant daughter of a rich man and maneuvering his unseemly but useful kin. Perez, a real-life judge, used intimidation and voter fraud to give his rule the patina of legitimate authority. What Faulkner’s invented patch of Mississippi and Perez’s actual patch of rural coastline had in common were isolation, poverty and relatively small populations — in short, lands ripe for domination.
Cabarrus is neither isolated nor poverty-stricken nor lightly populated. But a couple of recent unhappy events — the closing of the textile manufacturer Pillowtex in 2003, resulting in the loss of 2,600 jobs in the county, and Philip Morris USA’s announcement six months ago that its 2,500-employee cigarette plant in Concord will close in 2010 — left officials apprehensive (if not altogether panicked). In that situation, neither Smith nor Murdock had to work very hard to get what each wanted. They were dealing with people in no position to say no.
For those of you fuzzy on the geographical and historical details of Cabarrus County, here they are in summary: It sits hard on the northeast flank of Charlotte and is home to something in the neighbor-hood of 150,000 souls, many of whose ancestry, if it can be traced back far enough, is the typical Southern mixture of Scottish-Irish-German origin, Protestant religious leanings and general cantankerousness. (Befittingly, racing legend Dale Earnhardt, possessor of all those qualities and most particularly the last, was a native son.) One of its municipalities, Kannapolis, is remarkable for once being possibly America’s largest company town — unincorporated and literally owned by the resident textile manufacturer for most of its existence — disgorging an uncountable number of towels and sheets from its midst. Nearby Concord is best known as the epicenter of the NASCAR world, home to Lowe’s Motor Speedway, with many of the racing teams based nearby. Interstate 85 slices between the towns and is a notorious chokepoint for traffic, especially on race weekends.
Both men are in their 80s, and each holds sway over one town. Smith owns the speedway in Concord. Murdock owns the property where the mill stood in Kannapolis, along with nearly all of its downtown. Together, they are this magazine’s Mover and Shaker of the Year. But they split the award rather than share it. We’ll call Smith the mover, for his demonstrated ability to ruthlessly wield the threat to do so, and Murdock the shaker, as a nod to his uncanny knack for shaking money out of public coffers.
Read on, friend. It’s always worthwhile to learn about the capitalistic colossi who stride the earth.
Smith is a man of modest beginnings, the son of a Stanly County cotton farmer and a mother who pleaded with her boy not to become a race-car driver and, when he resisted, took her case to a higher authority. (Smith has been quoted as saying, “She didn’t just put her foot down, she started praying on it. I said, ‘Well, Mom, you’re fighting dirty when you start that.’ I quit racing then.”) But if he couldn’t race cars, he could sell them and arrange for others to race them. From those two entrepreneurial urges grew the Sonic Automotive Inc. empire, currently consisting of 174 car dealerships and 36 collision centers, and Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns six racetracks with a total of 775,000 seats.
As recent events suggest, his heart never really left the track — specifically that part of it where drivers settled their post-race disagreements the old-fashioned way. Smith has a clear fondness for the days when fighting was part of the sport and regrets that its governing body discourages it. “NASCAR is wrong in what they’ve been doing in the past,” he told a writer for Nascar.com last year. “You push somebody, oh my goodness, it’s $3,000. What happens if you slap the crap out of somebody? We used to have some great events after the events. Look at A.J. Foyt. He’d win the race and then get out of his race car and still whip you. I’m not saying it’s going to be a free-for-all, but … well … .”
Smith left that last, wistful sentence unfinished. Let’s take the liberty of completing it for him here: “… but if them Concord boys get in my way, I’ll squash ’em. I’ll do a Foyt job on ’em they’ll never forget.” And that, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly what happened. After homeowners near the speedway complained about the potential noise of a drag strip that Smith had started to build there, Concord City Council ordered a halt to construction until Smith addressed their concerns. Bad move. It was like a rookie driver pulling up on the outside of Earnhardt’s 3 car and trading paint, to show he ain’t skeered. Just as the Intimidator would have done, Smith pushed the meddlesome bureaucrats into the wall, leaving them wrecked and helpless.
As a case study of strategy, Smith’s tactics were a perfect blend of raw financial intimidation and lordly munificence. His immediate reaction was to declare that he would bulldoze Lowe’s and build another track, taking the $169 million that race fans spent in Cabarrus County last year with it. “I don’t mind building a speedway. I’ve got great people. I’ve got good engineers full time. We know how to do it.” To drive the point home, he littered his desk with aerial photos of potential sites for a new track when reporters came to visit.
Even after the Concord council reversed itself regarding the drag strip, Smith allowed that the move showed “a lot of friendship” but then let the city sweat his decision a while longer. Only after $80 million worth of incentives had been put on the table — and after local leaders had performed a sufficient number of acts of contrition, among them requesting that the state rename the road to the speedway Bruton Smith Boulevard — did he announce that the track would remain in Concord. Having bludgeoned the bureaucrats into submission, Smith declared he had no hard feelings. “Mayor, I’ll tell you, we’re here forever,” he said when the deal was announced. Rarely have words of comfort carried such menace.
If Smith is a textbook example of the use (and result) of raw power, Murdock is something much different: He’s the fellow who promises health, longevity and prosperity and whose pitch is so good that public officials practically trip over themselves in their eagerness to press money into his hands.
Likewise a man of modest beginnings, he was born in Kansas City, the son of a traveling salesman. Murdock dropped out of school to work at a gas station, then served in the Army during World War II. Finding his way to booming Phoenix, he launched a career as a home builder. He expanded into commercial development, made a fortune, lost much of it in a real-estate bust and in the mid-’60s headed to California to start over. He rebuilt his stash and in 1985 acquired real-estate developer Castle & Cooke, a deal that also gave him ownership of Dole Food Co. Before that, however, he had made his first impression on Kannapolis. It wasn’t a good one.
He had bought Cannon Mills in 1982 but sold most of the company just four years later to Fieldcrest Mills. Afterward, employees learned he allegedly had used millions from the pension fund to underwrite his takeover attempt of Occidental Petroleum. He failed to win control but netted (and kept) a reported $60 million when Occidental bought back his shares. The pension fund later collapsed, prompting a lawsuit and much unhappiness. An out-of-court settlement took care of the first. Time helped fade the memory of the second. Even more helpful, though, was the eventual shuttering of Fieldcrest Cannon by its last owner, Pillowtex, a trauma that cost nearly 5,000 North Carolinians their jobs and, in hindsight, made Murdock’s pension-fund escapade seem almost benign.
In late 2004, his winning bid of $6.4 million for the huge Pillowtex Plant No. 1 complex brought him back to prominence. After briefly flirting with reviving it as a textile mill, Murdock launched the North Carolina Research Campus, a $1.5 billion project devoted to food and nutrition science. (Murdock, a noted health fanatic, claims to have never been sick, asserts that obese people “have little or no self-control” and preaches the benefits of fruits and vegetables.) Not only is the campus supposed to create 5,000 jobs — an interesting bit of loss/gain karma — but those jobs will be better than the ones the textile industry offered, Murdock said last February. “This town will be full of thousands of Ph.D.s and M.D.s. It will be a great collection of scientific brains.”
His investment in Kannapolis has been substantial. He already has spent something north of $150 million on development of the campus and pledged $35 million to Duke University to underwrite a long-term health study of city residents. But his genius has been in getting public officials to put huge amounts of money on the table. Two months ago, Kannapolis and Cabarrus County agreed to spend $168 million for roads, utilities and other improvements that will benefit the project. North Carolina taxpayers are on the hook for an estimated $29 million a year — the amount the public universities will spend to be part of the research facility. That expenditure of public money has drawn doubters, among them the county manager (who observed that the campus “is a business prospect, not a charity”) and Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert Orr, who noted: “He said he’s trying to do something for the community. That’s great, but don’t ask the public to subsidize businesses that you expect to make money for you.”
It’s probably too late for such second-guessing. The public money already committed to the campus virtually makes it a no-lose proposition for Murdock. He understood that any government is like an inexperienced poker player: It almost always will keep throwing money into the pot rather than admit to having a bad hand.