UpFront: June 2014

Genuine article

Keith Crisco's life could be described as fanfare for the uncommon man.

I wasn’t close friends with Keith Crisco, 71, who died May 12 after falling at his home. But I had the pleasure of his company a few times when he was former Gov. Beverly Perdue’s commerce secretary. Business North Carolina was fortunate enough to have him participate in one of our business round tables, and he was the featured speaker at two of our Small Business of the Year award lunches, where we sat at the same table and discussed business, the economy and his hometown.

I have lived in either Charlotte or Raleigh most of my adult life and often travel between the two via N.C. 64 and 49. “Since you’re from Asheboro,” I once asked him, “I suppose you know all about Sir Pizza?” His eyes lit up at the mention of the restaurant on 64. I was amazed at how crowded it seemed every time I drove past. And how, I asked, had someone come up with pairing pizza and the Middle Ages? Keith laughed, then confided: If you really want a place where the fare is good and the company even better, try Dixie III, right across the street from Sir Pizza. “The food is great,” he said, “and that’s where business gets done. I take everybody there.”

I wondered about the deals getting done in that Asheboro diner and, on my next trip from Charlotte to Raleigh, stopped there for lunch. The place was packed, with all sorts of folks pouring in and out. Blue-collar, white-collar, families — everyone seemed to know everybody else. I found out later that Pat McCrory stopped there for a bite to eat and to press the flesh while campaigning for governor in 2012. Smart man.

Since Keith’s passing less than a week after his narrow loss to Clay Aiken in the 2nd Congressional District Democratic primary, there have been many accounts of his humble background. He grew up on a farm in the Stanly County community of Aquadale. Neither of his parents finished high school, but his mother worked on a chicken farm to send him to college at Pfeiffer in nearby Misenheimer. He went on to earn an MBA from Harvard and serve as a White House Fellow. After stints with several textile companies, he started Asheboro Elastics Corp. in 1986. It grew into a global business, with products distributed worldwide and manufacturing operations in Central America. It made him a wealthy man.

Still, thinking back on my lunch at Dixie III and my time with Keith, I don’t think there was anybody in that diner he would have felt awkward talking to. He seemed to have a gift for relating to people from all walks of life. It could be a knitting-machine operator or the CEO of an international aerospace corporation at the Paris Air Show. I’m sure this is one reason he was so successful in business and in Raleigh, where he was able to reach across the aisle and work with politicians of both parties. Many people in public life aspire to having the common touch, but most come across as glib, even patronizing. Keith did what he did without changing his demeanor or delivery.

I didn’t always agree with his policies and might even have rolled my eyes upon once again hearing his joke about running a company “that keeps people’s underwear up.” But I’m thankful we had him to represent our state during a tough time for our economy. He was smart, he cared about North Carolina and its people, and he was genuine.

 

bkinney@businessnc.com