The host of public television’s Carolina Business Review selects the key figures influencing the Tar Heel economy.
 

Chris William didn’t know what he was getting himself into. “There was no problem finding the 30 most influential people in business and industry,” he admits. “The problem was not finding 100 of them.” Since 1990, he has been sitting down — and getting down to business — with top executives, economists, government officials and public-policy experts on his weekly television program, now seen on 22 public-broadcasting stations across the two Carolinas. For our 30th anniversary issue, we wanted to use what he has learned from 21 years of having a front-row seat to the state’s economic development as he produced and hosted nearly 1,000 shows. “When Business North Carolina Editor in Chief David Kinney asked me if I would be willing to produce such a list, I thought it would be an honor. What I didn’t expect was how truly difficult it would be to actually winnow it down to those final few names.” To do so, he considered people’s leadership, not only in their organizations but also in the greater community. “As you can imagine, subjective as this is, this was as much art as science. And in the end, if it serves no other purpose than as a catalyst for debate over who should have been on the list or left off, I will feel it was well worth the effort.”

Health care is big, big business in North Carolina, not only in the development and delivery of medical care and products but determining how they’ll be paid for, a major concern for every business owner and employee, no matter their field. Leading one of the nation’s largest providers is Michael Tarwater, whose health system employs nearly 50,000, including some 1,700 physicians, in 30 hospitals and about 600 practices, clinics and other medical sites and services it owns or manages in the Carolinas. All this to the tune of $6.5 billion in annual revenue. It’s the third-largest health-care system in the nation. But it is no monopoly. Competing with it in many markets, including its Charlotte home, is the not-for-profit system headed by Paul Wiles, which has 13 hospitals, a medical group with nearly 1,120 physicians and 360 sites in the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia. Both pursue a steady but determined approach to health-care empire building, driven by positive patient outcomes and passion for the business. On the other side of the ledger is Brad Wilson, who runs the state’s largest health insurer, which many consider the dominant player in the state’s $60 billion-a-year medical marketplace. A lawyer who honed his political skills as a close adviser to former Gov. Jim Hunt, he doesn’t hesitate to wield them, along with his command of public policy and strategic thinking, in his company’s behalf. Another key figure in the broad health-care continuum is Fred Eshelman, one of that rare breed of entrepreneurs who stays with a company through maturation, helping transform North Carolina’s economy from heavy reliance on manufacturing to higher technology. PPD, around which swirls talk of a possible sale, employs 11,000 people doing contract research on drugs with offices in 44 countries and, by its most recent measure, brings in close to $1.5 billion of annual revenue. With his name on UNC Chapel Hill’s pharmacy school, he is another on this list who contributes to the state as both a philanthropist and an executive.

When it comes to power, these men, as utility executives, generate it. Two of them, Jim Rogers and Bill Johnson, are teaming up to form the nation’s largest electric company. Upon its completion, Rogers will retain the position of chairman for two years, while Johnson assumes the role of CEO and president. Since arriving at Duke as part of its marriage to Cincinnati-based Cinergy five years ago, Rogers has been more the outside guy, working to shape national energy policy. But he’s also had an impact here at home, most recently playing a key role in Charlotte’s winning bid to host the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Johnson, a leader in the industry and the Triangle, will take an expanded national role, and with his UNC/Duke pedigree, legal connections and leadership experience with the state chamber of commerce, he no doubt will be one of the Old North State’s go-to guys for the foreseeable future. Though it’s 50 years old, Piedmont Natural Gas is a relative newcomer compared with its Carolina utility cousins, but Tom Skains has transformed its staid, predictable and almost boring business model into something more progressive and flexible, with potentially higher growth. He’s also led the influential American Gas Association as it wends its way through the vital public-policy issues affecting the energy industry.

BofA’s boss calls Boston home, and with Wachovia part of San Francisco-based Wells Fargo, it was a tough job assessing who at either big bank should be included on this roster. The case can be made that neither of their chief executives has been engaged in North Carolina to the degree that others before them have, which raises the question: Is this the new norm for CEOs? Or were we just lucky for so many years to have native leaders with such a deep sense of familial connection to the region? With Bank of America still headquartered in Charlotte, we will default to Brian Moynihan. For Wells Fargo, we’ll pick David Carroll, who runs a division that is second in size only to the general bank and is still based in the Queen City. Not only does he report directly to the CEO, but his banking DNA traces back through the new Wachovia to the old First Union. BB&T, with its roots in the eastern part of the state and now stretching from its present base in Winston-Salem into the Southeast and beyond, is arguably the last major North Carolina bank still standing. Kelly King has consistently shown a special brand of leadership and commitment to the bank’s ranks and its involvement with the communities it serves. Then there is the publicly traded company that is a family dynasty. For decades, First Citizens under the Holdings has quietly grown and maintained an enigmatic sense of leadership in North Carolina. With a new generation in charge, there’s little to hint that this will change. Like BB&T, First Citizens not only survived the 2008 financial evisceration but also has used robust cash reserves for strategic acquisitions, much of it under Frank Holding Jr.’s leadership. And when it comes to leadership: Hugh McColl. Because he is Hugh McColl. Not only did he build what was once North Carolina National Bank into Bank of America, but he has never stopped building. He and Temple Sloan have a lot in common. For years, Sloan sat on and even chaired the board at McColl’s bank. But the similarities go beyond common commitments. Through his patent force of will and energy, Sloan has nurtured some of the Tar Heel State’s most robust employers, including General Parts, Highwoods Properties and Ready Mixed Concrete, to name a few. And like McColl, he continues to actively and ardently participate. Also in this retirement-age demographic is another former banker turned civic patriarch: Jim Melvin, whose position with the Bryan Foundation provides a bully pulpit (not that he needs the boost) to sway policy and impact real development at a time when he could relax and bask in the respect a community’s senior leader has earned.

The sports business is no game, but these players are winners. By sheer force of personality, Jerry Richardson compels his players and coaches to take the high road. Reputation and credibility are paramount in the Panthers organization, and his role in the recent NFL collective-bargaining pact cemented his status among team owners. Rick Hendrick’s passion is automobiles, and that drive has taken him to the top as owner of one of the nation’s largest privately held dealership chains and of racing teams that rack up championships. It would be hard to find a more likeable CEO, who despite his personal losses has managed to live a public life with grace. John McConnell is an entrepreneur. Not only did he launch two health-care companies but used much of the proceeds from selling them to pursue a passion of millions of Carolinians — golf. He owns a portfolio of premier courses and clubs across the state, applying the economies of scales and creative thinking that made his startups so successful.In every community there seems to be a spousal team that occupies a special place. In the Triangle, Jim and Ann Goodnight have struck a balance between corporate and cultural interests. Part of their influence comes from SAS, the world’s largest privately owned software company. The latest Forbes list of richest Americans ranks him 38th with a net worth of $7.1 billion. But the couple’s philanthropy goes well beyond what is expected. A similar situation exists in Charlotte with Tom and Anna Nelson. It would be easy to argue that the halo effect of her father — investor C.D. Spangler, who ranks 273rd on the Forbes list with a fortune estimated at $1.6 billion — has had a major impact on this power couple’s career trajectory. But the way they have used this inherited authority has made it their own.

That Marshall Larsen is the only industrialist on the list illustrates how dramatically the state’s economy has changed from when its mettle was measured by manufacturing might. The low-key demeanor of the CEO of this major U.S. defense contractor stands in stark contrast to the sheer size of his Fortune 500 company, but his profile can only get higher: As the economy continues to reinvent itself, one of the set goals for North Carolina, which has more military personnel based on its soil than any other state, is to reap more military spending from defense contracts. In a way, he has more in common with two others on the roster — Keith Crisco and Tom Ross — than with Buck Duke, Spencer Love or any other industrial titan of the past. As it is with the N.C. secretary of commerce and the new president of the UNC system, success for a defense contractor depends in large part on how well he can pluck the strings of public policy to ensure that his organization remains a recipient of government largesse. The only politico on the list, Crisco, though an appointee of the Democratic governor, has managed to stay in good stead — and his department in good standing — with the Republican-controlled legislature, no easy task during these days of acute partisan animosity. And he’s also earned the respect of those in the private sector. That’s due no doubt to his ability, as a Harvard-trained MBA and founder of a successful elastics company, to see things from their viewpoint. Every list should have its Renaissance man, and this one’s is Ross. A recent appointee to the job vacated by Erskine Bowles as head of the state university system, he has been a lawyer, Superior Court judge, congressional chief of staff, executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and president of Davidson College. But his real achievement was leaving each institution with a better reputation than it had when he arrived.

In such trying times for the real-estate sector, it may come as a surprise that any, let alone four, from the ranks of developers made this list. Ed Fritsch is no doubt thankful for the critical mass that his Raleigh-based REIT has amassed since 1978. The size of the company, as well as its exposure to government offices, has helped it hold its ground against the rout of the broader industry. Johnny Harris’ grandfather was governor from 1921 to 1925, and Harris has long wielded the kind of leverage that a former governor might command, much of it emanating from wealth earned by developing the land that Cameron Morrison assembled, after retiring from politics, for his farm stretching over southern Mecklenburg County. Harris’ business is feeling the same pressures as others in the commercial real-estate sector, but its size and scope likely will sustain it and provide further opportunities. His brother-in-law and former partner, H.C. “Smoky” Bissell, has long been known for possessing distinctive vision. Even more unique is his willingness to take risks. He has been the driving force behind Ballantyne, that enclave some have described as a second city within south Charlotte and stretching beyond the state line. Even during this painful downturn, Bissell has built almost 2 million square feet of speculative space and filled the lion’s share of it. Pedigree and leveraging family assets also has played a key role in the success of Jack Cecil, whose father and uncle split the Biltmore Estate’s holdings. While his cousin Bill guides the tourism-related ventures that have grown up around America’s largest private home, Jack has become a formidable force in western North Carolina, expanding his involvement beyond real estate into endeavors such as health care, sustainable development, arts, education and regional economic development.Despite great strides made by women and minorities, the tip-top tier of North Carolina’s business elite is still primarily an enclave of white men. But that’s changing. For example, there’s Richard “Stick” Williams, the Duke Energy executive who was the first African-American chair of UNC Chapel Hill’s board of trustees. A self-described reluctant leader, he grew up in a Greensboro public housing project but, as president of the Duke Energy Foundation, is a major force shaping education and philanthropy in Charlotte. Though there are not many women in the rough-and-tumble business of construction, Pat Rodgers has been president and CEO of a major builder since 1988. Guiding the company’s growth during trying times for the industry has not dissuaded her from community affairs, including currently chairing the Charlotte Chamber.

Retail is rough, especially in times like these when stalled job growth blocks the road to recovery, traditionally paved by consumers spending their way out of a recession. Add to that the drama that working in a family business can bring, and you’ll see why these two mercantile chiefs are on the list. Howard Levine’s father, who opened the first Family Dollar store in 1959, fired him in 1987. He rejoined the business in 1996 and became CEO in 1998. That year, the chain opened its 3,000th store. There are now more than 7,000. From Jan. 1, 1998, through this Sept. 20, the stock price increased nearly 270%. While statistics show only 13% of family businesses survive into the third generation, the way the second-generation Belk siblings squabbled made the odds seem even longer for this venerable Southeastern retail empire. Not only has CEO Tim Belk, who with his two brothers was groomed by their uncle John, been able to keep the nation’s largest privately owned department-store chain together, but he has managed to streamline, modernize and even grow through acquisitions an institution that, though still only in its third generation, is 123 years old.