Up Front: February 2008

The new order

This, our annual Business Handbook issue, is when we take measure of the Tar Heel economy, sizing up where it has been, trying to figure out where it’s going. As such, it’s a magazine full of charts, graphs, lists and rankings. To produce them, our editors must find, collect and analyze reams of data. But numbers, if not put into proper context, are no more than cryptic ciphers. That’s why we try to illuminate them through the perspective of people and places. We turn them into stories.

The tales we have to tell this year concern what is actually happening — not what those who try to shape the state’s economy wanted to or thought would happen — as North Carolina continues its transformation from a state dependant upon agriculture and its homegrown manufacturing to one that turns increasingly to the new industries springing up to provide jobs for its people.

We decided to focus on the Triad not only because it is the heartland of the textile, tobacco and furniture industries — the three-legged stool that propped our economy up for so long — but because it’s a microcosm of the state itself, a place confronting an array of challenges and opportunities that, in one form or another, people face across North Carolina. As one of its chief economic developers says, “We are the poster child for a region in transition.” To show how another place is reacting to this transition, we chose Rocky Mount, hardest hit of the state’s metro areas by those forces of change.

In compiling our annual listing of the largest private-sector employers, we wanted to dig deeper, so we included nonprofit companies, a sector that has become a significant source of jobs and, especially in the realm of health care, offers a degree of economic stability to a community. After all, major medical centers don’t shut down and move when the economy cools or an attractive incentives package beckons elsewhere.

We also wanted to provide a personal perspective on what one editor called a seismic shift in the state’s economic bedrock, so we solicited key figures — many of them icons of their industries, both traditional and emerging — to talk about what they considered “tipping points.” You’ll find their narratives scattered throughout the package.

What I think you’ll come away with is a sense that this transformation is no metamorphosis but a cycle, one in which new sectors will keep rising to supplant their elders, and that none will rule as long as the old-line manufacturers did. It is almost laughable to hear politicians, liberal and conservative, hawk themselves as harbingers of change. Change is here. Change is constant. The challenge is trying to manage — and failing that, cope with — its consequences.


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