Their first meeting came in 2007 as part of what would turn out to be one of the Triad’s darker moments. David Powell met Don Kirkman when the Piedmont Triad Partnership, the 12-county economic-development partnership that Kirkman headed, was recruiting Columbus, Ohio-based Skybus Airlines Inc. to the regional airport outside Greensboro.
Powell was representing NetJets Inc., which like Skybus operated out of Port Columbus International Airport. The thinking was that whatever affected the discount airline would affect NetJets, the seller of fractional ownership of business aircraft owned by Berkshire Hathaway, uber-investor Warren Buffett’s holding company. Powell, NetJets vice president of corporate and public affairs, and other Columbus executives wanted to evaluate Skybus’ potential hub. “That was my first interaction with Don,” says the man who recently replaced him as the partnership’s CEO. “He was professional and provided all the information we needed.”
Skybus chose Piedmont Triad International Airport for its hub, a great recruiting coup for the region. A year later, the airline folded, and the airport has struggled to recruit another discount carrier, leading to steep reductions in passengers. Though that project didn’t turn out as planned, the Piedmont Triad Partnership is counting on a new collaboration of Powell and Kirkman to take the region to new heights.
Effective Aug. 23, Powell became chief executive of the partnership, the nonprofit that markets the region. Reporting to him is Kirkman, now chief operating officer after 10 years in the top job. The change resulted from a merger earlier this year of the partnership’s board of directors and the executive committee of Piedmont Triad Leadership Group, a group of executives that included BB&T CEO Kelly King (cover story, June). King, who led a drive to raise more than $7 million for recruiting, became chairman of the new board.
Soon afterward, the organization announced it was seeking a new chief executive — while retaining Kirkman to run day-to-day operations — and hired a headhunter to find someone with both corporate and economic-development experience. “Our idea was that the CEO would need to spend 40% of his time traveling around the country and world, promoting the region and attracting companies considering this area for relocation, another 40% in this region spending time with donors and sponsors, being a fundraiser, and about 20% in transaction matters running the organization,” says High Point University President Nido Qubein, who chaired the search committee.
Before taking the NetJets job, Powell, 46, had been the chief business recruiter for the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, which works on behalf of a seven-county metro with about 1.8 million residents. He also was an economic developer in Durham.
He’s a Winston-Salem native, son of former City Manager Orville Powell, though they moved when he was 14. (His dad became city manager of Gainesville, Fla., then held that job in Durham from 1983 to 1996.) Powell got a bachelor’s from Elon in 1985 and master’s from N.C. State in ’96, both in public policy. But Triad roots didn’t help his candidacy, Qubein says. “In fact, if any thought crossed our mind, it was that we would not be as excited about someone who was connected with any one city. We wanted a neutral person.”
Powell, who observed the intraregional rivalries during his days in Durham, says he won’t ignore them. “The Triad hasn’t leveraged its regional assets as it needs to. They haven’t progressed as much as their neighbors in the Triangle and Charlotte. Regionalism is something that you work on day in and day out. That’s true in any region of the country. The challenge is developing a strategy with widely shared visions.”
Meanwhile, he doesn’t expect an interoffice rivalry with Kirkman, 55, a High Point native and lawyer who spent a decade as executive director of the Carteret County Economic Development Council before taking the Triad job. “Obviously, it’s an unusual situation,” Powell says, noting that board members assured him Kirkman would work with him. “It was brought to me as, ‘This has been worked out.’ My interactions with the board and with Don have demonstrated that to be true.”
Kirkman didn’t take a salary cut — his pay for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2009, the latest for which the nonprofit has filed an IRS Form 990, was $231,848. Qubein declined to reveal Powell’s salary but says the $7 million funding commitment allows the organization to keep both men. “It doesn’t matter how much it costs if, at the end of the day, everybody’s happy with the results.”
He expects Powell and Kirkman to work out the division of duties. “When you hire a CEO, you say to him, ‘We expect you to be the boss. And we expect you to produce.’ We didn’t tie his hands. We said, ‘We prefer you come in and there’s collaboration and cooperation.’” But he adds, “David Powell is the man we hold responsible for the growth and support of the Piedmont Triad Partnership.”