Business's man

House speaker Thom Tillis is North Carolina's most focused free-market legislative leader in a long time — maybe ever.
By Edward Martin


The Haw River sluices around mossy boulders as it flows through rural Alamance County north of Burlington. On the south side, under murals of bluebirds in skies of fluffy clouds, grandmothers in rocking chairs watch over squirmy toddlers in the nursery of New Hope Baptist Church, while in the sanctuary, Pastor Randy Hobbs preaches hellfire and redemption. It’s another Sunday morning in small-town North Carolina. Only this isn’t a town. Glen Raven is an unincorporated community of barely 3,000 people that grew out of the village that grew up around the mill John Q. Gant built between 1900 and 1902.

Grandson Allen Gant Jr. now runs it and 12 other plants, distribution centers and offices here and a half-dozen other places in North Carolina. About 800 Tar Heels are among Glen Raven Inc.’s 2,500 workers worldwide. It’s a company that clings to its family values, but not at the expense of innovation. Its space-age fabrics are shining successes in the gloaming of the American textile industry.

“This is Thom Tillis territory. “I’m a huge fan,” says Wally Wallace, a senior vice president and corporate counsel. “I can hardly think of anything in my lifetime that has been more positive for the people of North Carolina — and ultimately the citizens of this state — than the road Rep. Tillis has led us onto.” He’s talking about the speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives, a key player in Republicans capturing both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time in 112 years.

Not that Tillis lacks detractors. Some 70 miles east of Glen Raven on a cold January night, most of Raleigh sleeps while he paces, gavel in hand, at the front of a crimson-carpeted chamber. Many Democratic legislators, believing the day’s lawmaking done, have gone home. What follows will be known in some quarters as the Midnight Massacre. At 12:45 a.m., the House votes 69-45, overriding Gov. Beverly Perdue’s veto of legislation that would halt deducting dues from the paychecks of nearly 60,000 members of the North Carolina Association of Educators. NCAE leaders believe Tillis orchestrated the move to kill the Democrat-leaning quasi-union and try to block its implementation in court, arguing that the late-night session was unconstitutional. Public-advocacy groups decry the vote as a mockery of open government, and Democrats accuse Tillis of poisoning the political well. “I don’t trust anything he says,” snaps House minority whip Deborah Ross, a five-termer from Raleigh. “He doesn’t have a fundamental understanding or respect for the law. He sees his office as a delivery system for his agenda, as opposed to an office that’s supposed to work for the good of all of North Carolina.”

In the almost six years since voters in and around the Charlotte suburb of Cornelius dispatched Thomas Roland Tillis to Raleigh, he has inspired passion at both ends of the political spectrum. His has been a fast track, racing to a prominence few feel has peaked. Now in his third term, he vows he’ll serve only four, which would make him a free agent in 2014. He became speaker, arguably the second or third most potent political position in state government, just four years after he got there.


In his office in the legislative building, Tillis, 51, plops on a couch, fidgeting with a red rubber band on his wrist. “Jobs • Economy,” it’s inscribed, his riff on the mantra that helped Bill Clinton defeat George H.W. Bush in 1992. “I got a thousand of ’em last year, and I pass ‘em out. It’s a pain thing: Any time you catch yourself thinking about anything else, you snap the band until the feeling goes away.” He snaps the band. “I’m socially conservative, and I embrace virtually all aspects of the socially conservative Republican platform. But at the end of the day, being a free-market, limited-government conservative is the most important thing that drives me.” Others have a shorter description: He’s the most focused pro-business legislative leader in North Carolina in a long time, possibly ever.

“He doesn’t have a job, he has a mission,” says Lew Ebert, president of the state chamber of commerce. A Republican kingmaker agrees. “I don’t think you can overestimate what a breath of fresh air Thom Tillis is as speaker of the House,” says Art Pope, CEO of Henderson-based Variety Wholesalers Inc., whose stores such as Roses and Maxway dot hundreds of small towns in 15 states. A former House member himself, he touts Tillis’ accomplishments as speaker, among them exempting the first $50,000 of small-business earnings from income tax and measures to reverse workplace and environmental regulations. The conservative, pro-business Washington-based American Legislative Exchange Council named Tillis its 2011 legislator of the year.

“He’s a straight-forward and common-sense guy,” says Pope, whose political-action groups such as Real Jobs NC pumped more than $2 million into candidates like him in 2010. Tillis, who logged more than 40,000 miles in his blue Toyota pickup to get them elected, won’t argue. Since he was 8, he has made business, including now the business of governing, his business.

Rain would send the boy scrambling. Selected by his teachers in Jacksonville, Fla., where he was born in 1960, he learned flag etiquette and, as a fifth-grader, would dash out to lower the stars and stripes when skies threatened. Forty-odd years later, in a small frame on the end table in his office, he displays his patch: Office of the Sheriff, Jacksonville School Safety Patrol. “That gave me a taste for public service.”

The oldest boy among six children — he had three older sisters — he moved with his family 20 times by age 17. His dad, born on the eve of the Depression, had grown up in orphanages after his father — Thom Tillis’ granddad — died. Thomas Raymond Tillis, his son says, married young and joined the Army. He learned drafting in night school, then helped design boats, going wherever work called. One place was New Orleans, where Thom Tillis started pet-sitting. One customer was an elderly neighbor whose cat he walked for cash or a batch of biscuits. “My brothers and sisters said, ‘Who walks cats?’ I said, ‘Anybody who wants to make some money.’”

In delta dawns during the late ’60s, his father left an indelible mark on him. “I had a newspaper route for the Times-Picayune. My dad and I would get up at 4 on Sunday morning to fold papers. My basket would be so heavy he’d have to give me a running start on the bike. I had to deliver a third of the papers before I stopped. If I didn’t, I couldn’t get going again.” Two things shaped him. One was his dad’s work ethic and loyalty to family. The other was money. “I started buying my own clothes for school, mainly because I wanted a say in what I got. If your parents buy it, you get what you get. From about the 10th grade on, I provided for myself, everything from my first automobile to my clothing for school.”

He graduated from Antioch High School, near Nashville, Tenn., in 1978. He had been student-government president, and his classmates voted him most likely to succeed. But his family — which he says tilted between middle and lower-middle class depending on his father’s work — didn’t insist he go to college. “I went to work in a records warehouse for Service Merchandise [a now defunct catalog-store chain based near Nashville]. After six months, I realized I’d made a horrible, horrible mistake.”

He turned into a technocrat in training, signing up for courses at local technical schools. One weekend, he bought dress clothes. “I went into my boss’ office, and he said, ‘Why are you all dressed up?’ I said, ‘I’m here to talk about my promotion.’ I was 20 or 21.” He got promoted, and his boss steered him into membership in the Association of Records Managers and Administrators International, where he came upon an ad for a records-management specialist at Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Provident Life and Accident Insurance Co., now Unum Group.

In what many saw as drudgery, Tillis saw good pay and potential. Estal Fain, who hired him at Provident, says he wasn’t afraid of the computer technology emerging to track records, and he was aggressive. He continued his piecemeal education, enrolling in Chattanooga State Community College. “I was blessed with being interested in technology, and that was highly sought after in the ’80s.” Fain dumped a project in Tillis’ lap, organizing and cataloging records in conjunction with Wang Laboratories Inc., a now defunct computer company based outside Boston.

Wang soon offered him work, and he spent 2˝ years in Boston. “I couldn’t stand another winter there,” so Wang moved him to Chattanooga, then Atlanta. In 1990, he was recruited by PriceWaterhouse, the international accounting and consulting firm that became PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. The job required a four-year degree, so he enrolled in an extension program, graduating from the University of Maryland in 1996 with a B.S. in technology management. By then living in Fairfax, Va., he had focused on banking, with Charlotte-based NationsBank Corp. his major client. In 1998, the year NationsBank took over San Francisco-based BankAmerica to become Bank of America Corp., he’d had enough of commuting and moved with his wife and two children to Cornelius. It was half a country from Houston.

There, in the glass-and-chrome Enron Center, fraud had become a business model destined to land its top executives in jail and end in the energy giant’s 2001 bankruptcy. The year before, it had claimed $100 billion revenue, and Chicago-based Arthur Andersen LLP was its accountant. Enron’s fall took Andersen down too and sent shivers through PwC, which also mingled accounting and consulting. In 2002, it dealt Tillis and about 500 other consulting partners, along with some 30,000 staff, to IBM Corp. for $4 billion. He was on his way to making $500,000 a year by the time he formally left IBM in 2009 to pursue the job of speaker of the House. Pay: $38,151 a year, occasional late-night work required.

Cows grazed along N.C. 115, and farmers’ trucks bumped across rusty train tracks in front of S.W. & C.S. Davis General Store, circa 1908, to pick up chicken feed and garden seed. A few years later and a mile up the road, Cornelius exploded. Its population skyrocketing from about 12,000 in 1990 to more than 24,000 in 2010, the lake-oriented Charlotte suburb was a magnet for corporate migrants like Tillis. Overnight, this became Republican country — 92% white, with a median household income of nearly $75,000, almost double the state’s. More houses, less space for bicycles

Tillis, a water-sports enthusiast and mountain biker who lives in a $850,000, 4,800-square-foot brick home, complained. “I put in a proposal to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board for more trails. They tricked me into taking an opening on the board.” That was 2002, and Tillis soon began banking grassroots political capital. He was a PTA president, then, a year later, won a seat on the Cornelius town board, serving on committees overseeing emergency services, economic development and other concerns.

In 2006, he ran against Republican incumbent Rep. John Rhodes in the primary. Rhodes, a native Tar Heel, was a confrontational legislator — Democrats called him a political bomb thrower — who billed himself as an arch-conservative and outsider in Raleigh. Tillis out-outsidered him, appealing to the swarms of newcomers like himself flooding the region and suggesting that Rhodes was “old” North Carolina. His campaign was unemotional, characteristic of his style: spreadsheet methodical. “We knew getting the vote out would be a key factor,” says Jayson Polo, who managed his campaign. Tillis won 2-1 and, facing no Democratic opposition, went to Raleigh, tucked himself into a back-row seat reserved for new members and began paying his party dues.

He arrived as the reign of Democratic Speaker Jim Black was crumbling in scandal. Black, who had accepted paper bags of campaign money in a restaurant bathroom, would serve more than five years in federal prison on corruption charges. Under him, insiders say, the place was run more like a school playground than where the people’s business is conducted. In his second term, Tillis became GOP whip, the enforcer and floor boss. He had also become the party’s point man for business, traveling around the state cultivating contacts. “I got to know Thom not by approaching him directly but by meeting him at a tax conference,” says Wallace, the Glen Raven executive who’s a member of the nonpartisan North Carolina FreeEnterprise Foundation. “It was an environment conducive to talking back and forth, so I got to understand his philosophy. We’ve been able to say, ‘Let me tell you why we think this is a problem and why your suggestion is not a good one,’ and they’ve listened. They’ve been wide open.” They’ve also opened checkbooks.

Tillis worked tirelessly for the party, raising money and campaigning for other candidates. Filings for his 2010 race — when he was unopposed — show he raised more than $400,000, mostly from political-action committees associated with health care, energy, real estate, banking and other business sectors. He shared much of it with the state GOP, promoting other candidates. It paid off. In 2010, Republicans gained 16 seats in the House, winning 68 of 120 to control it and cinching Tillis’ selection as speaker.

MPope, who served four nonconsecutive terms in the House between 1989 and 2002 and ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 1992, says Tillis’ time with IBM and PwC made up for political inexperience. “He might have been naďve because he’s been caught off guard by some of the things in the legislature, but he’s more than made up for that by being a quick learner and relying on a strong team.” And he’s reached across the aisle, Pope says. “Even before his outright corruption became public, Jim Black was a tyrant in running the House. Often bills, even with bipartisan support, pro-business and otherwise, he’d just use the power of the speaker to leave in committee. Thom isn’t like that.”

Democrats disagree, claiming Tillis metes out favors and punishment, just on a higher ethical — and legal — plane. Black was convicted of bribing Walkertown Republican Michael Decker to switch parties in 2003, creating a 60-60 split in the House and robbing Republicans of the majority. Decker was sentenced to four years in jail. Tillis, for his part, has rewarded five conservative Democrats who’ve sided with Republicans — four of them voting for Tillis as speaker — letting them keep millions of dollars in pork-barrel projects and permitting one to retain a key committee chairmanship that normally would have gone to a Republican.

Despite his successes, he’s finding governing can be as volatile as merging banks. Democrats insist that the budget cuts he counts as major accomplishments come at the expense of thousands of state jobs, boosting already-high unemployment rates and hurting public education. He’s caught flak for raising the salaries of some of his staff while teachers and state workers are let go. And while winning accolades for his frequent town-hall meetings across the state, he has found they can backfire. Like the one last fall in a break room at Mars Hill College.

Tillis strips off his coat and circulates among the several dozen attendees. He describes visiting the office of Rep. Mitch Gillespie, a Burke County Republican who has a bull’s eye painted on his window aiming at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources across the street. Regulation, he’s found, is a common gripe of business owners at gatherings like this. He shifts topics. “We must divide and conquer,” he says, wagging a finger. Defending public aid to “the woman in a wheelchair with cerebral palsy,” he suggests pitting unfortunate people like that against unwed mothers and those in need due to their own actions. Some clap, but he seems to realize he’s lighting a powder keg. “That’s one of the reasons I might not ever be elected to office again,” he trails off, with a shrug. “Some of these things might get me railroaded out of town.” A man in the room speaks up. “Way to go, Thom!” The crowd laughs. And applauds.

Five-term Democratic Rep. Ray Rapp, a Mars Hill administrator and former mayor of the college’s namesake hometown, is usually soft-spoken, but he reddens when he hears it suggested that Tillis has reined in partisanship. “I’m the one who keeps count of how many times the question is called in the House,” says Rapp, who, like Ross, is a Democratic floor boss. “Calling the question” is parliamentary procedure to halt debate, in short, saying we outnumber you, so shut up and vote. “In our first 12 months under Speaker Tillis, we’ve had the question called 35 times. By comparison, under his predecessor, Joe Hackney, we called the question seven times in four years.”

Where some see bullying, Tillis sees himself using business skills to streamline lawmaking. “A democratic institution is by definition not a business. But there is the business of running the legislature, which I think we’re doing pretty well.” For instance, his staff color-codes bills: green, proceed; yellow, perhaps; red, no way. “It stems from working on large projects where your career could easily be ended by allowing a project to go off the rails.” But like much of what Tillis touches, supporters and opponents see opposites.

Pope praises Tillis-led tax cuts and regulatory relief but says — and Tillis agrees — more is needed. “Even at current rates, we’re still uncompetitive with our neighbors in South Carolina. We need fundamental reform.” Nonsense, say Rapp and Ross, the two Democratic veterans. Ross cites more than 30 polls, ratings and rankings since 2009 naming the state the nation’s best for business. The breaks for business have come at the expense of education and other services that earned those rankings, they argue.

Critics also contend that Tillis, the champion of smaller government, has stretched that band around his wrist almost to the breaking point with his support of social issues such as the referendum on amending the constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Political insiders, who place him to the left of Jesse Helms but to the right of GOP moderates such as former governors Jim Martin and Jim Holshouser, say he appears to have been pulled into treacherous waters by his party’s right wing, and, in fact, he seems uncomfortable with the issue. “The fundamentals are, the institution of marriage, which has traditionally been defined as the union of man and woman, is something I’m at peace with. If you go to states that have those laws on the books, they’re rated by gay-lesbian-transgender entities as some of the most desirable states to work in. They’ve found ways to work with them.”

Rapp is among those who say such a ban would frighten off progressive industries that want to move to North Carolina. “I didn’t bring it up — a CEO did. But his company had just moved here, and he was nervous. He said people in his home office were getting nervous about moving here.” That argument could earn Rapp a flying pig.

In his Raleigh office, Tillis rummages in his desk and pulls out a bag. It contains scores of small boxes, not much larger than jewelry-store ring boxes, each containing Penelope, a crystal pig with wings. Tillis laughs. It’s his way of breaking the news to lobbyists, legislators and others who come to him with anything that doesn’t fit his conservative, free-market program. “I say, ‘Here you go. Take this back to your office, set it on your desk, and when you get it to fly, come back to see me and we’ll put in on the agenda.’ I do that as a way of saying not necessarily that your idea is bad, but that we have to set priorities.” And business, Tillis says, is his top priority.