A group of the city’s prominent chief executives has formed a leadership council to tackle issues such as economic mobility and education, and fill what some have called a vacuum left by titans of industry who retired or companies that moved away.
Chaired and co-founded by Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good, the Charlotte Executive Leadership Council includes more than two dozen chief executives, such as co-founders Tom Skains of Piedmont Natural Gas and Michael Tarwater of Carolinas HealthCare System.
The group harks back to an era in Charlotte when an informal network of executives known as The Group promoted civic initiatives such as forming the Arts & Science Council and funding the uptown transportation center. Good said this group will be more open, more inclusive and reach out to a broader cross-section of the community.
“There are members of the community who remember when it was a handful of people who really drove the business engagement issues,” Good told the Observer on Thursday. “We can’t re-create it with two or three people, given how the city’s changed.”
Still, the group will retain some confidentiality: Meetings won’t be open to the public. Good said that’s to give council members the ability to discuss issues candidly.
Council members represent a variety of sectors. From retail, there’s Tim Belk, CEO of Belk. From development, there’s Ned Curran of Ballantyne developer Bissell and Peter Pappas of Pappas Properties. Premier’s Susan DeVore and Novant’s Carl Armato are from health care, while Charlotte Hornets president Fred Whitfield is from the sports sector. Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan is the most high-profile banking name. Four of the group’s members are women, four are African-Americans and two are Hispanic.
Independent from the Charlotte Chamber and elected bodies, the group will set its own agenda and decide what issues to promote. The council could wield considerable influence, delving into issues such as education and transportation.
The group has met twice and is still learning about issues and deciding where to focus, its leaders said. For now, the group has no budget or expenses, and is receiving administrative and program support from the nonprofit Foundation for the Carolinas, led by CEO Michael Marsicano.
The new executive council intends to help fill the gap left by leaders such as former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl Jr., a generation that helped mold modern Charlotte.
“We heard it from a variety of areas: Where is the business community? Where’s the voice, where’s the leadership in the community?” Good said.
Ideas from Minneapolis
The push to start such a group gained momentum last year after the Charlotte Chamber’s annual inter-city trip brought business and elected leaders to Minneapolis. There, they heard about the Itasca Project, a group of about 50 Minneapolis-area CEOs who meet several times a year to discuss solutions for issues facing the community. They don’t employ any staff, and CEO groups lead the individual initiatives.
The Itasca Project has focused on areas such as finding ways to close transit funding gaps, providing consultant teams to help improve the local school system and closing the socioeconomic gap between white and non-white workers in the region.
Skains said the Charlotte council is still figuring out where to direct its energies.
“We’re getting grounded,” said Skains. “We’re taking stock of what’s already being done so we can ascertain what we need to focus on.”
R.T. Rybak was Minneapolis’ mayor from 2002 to 2014. He said the Itasca Project has played an important role in supporting initiatives such as pressing the state legislature for transit funding.
“We needed a business voice that was about more than just tax cuts,” said Rybak. “The Itasca group is seen as a neutral safe zone for business leaders where they can set partisanship aside.”
But he said maintaining a cohesive group long-term can be tough, and that the Itasca Project has been successful because of extensive help from McKinsey & Company consultants.
“It is hard to sustain CEO-level investment over a decade,” said Rybak. “It works only because of a tremendous contribution from McKinsey.”
Steve Berg, an urban design consultant in Minneapolis, said the group’s focus on a few specific areas has helped. He also praised them for not just focusing on the bottom line.
“Itasca has been special because it really picked out specific, hard-edged problems,” said Berg. “It’s not just the low-tax song-and-dance you get tired of hearing all the time.”
Still, he said the Itasca group’s tendency to keep out of the public spotlight can make it hard for the public to know what they’re doing.
“The downside of the organization has been they’re really shy,” said Berg. “The public wouldn’t say, ‘Look at what Itasca says about this.”
Echoes of ‘The Group’
The Charlotte council is reminiscent of a past collection of local CEOs sometimes known as The Group – capitalized for a reason.
The Group referred to leaders of the city’s biggest businesses who met informally throughout the 1980s and 1990s to tackle civic issues. Its members included such household names as bank CEOs McColl and Ed Crutchfield, Duke Energy’s Bill Lee, Observer publisher Rolfe Neill and department store CEO and former Charlotte mayor John Belk.
“We’d see something that needed to be done and, hell, we’d do it,” McColl told the Observer in 2009.
Members of The Group pushed projects that helped shape Charlotte, such as abandoning railroad tracks so a convention center could be built, financing a possible NBA franchise, finding land for an NFL stadium and building the uptown transit center. McColl and former Mayor Richard Vinroot worked together on that last project, which resulted in a privately funded, $10 million transit center built on a $7 million parcel of city land.
But as Charlotte, and its biggest businesses, grew, some of that local focus was lost. Even though local businesses still contribute to prominent civic initiatives and charities, many of the region’s biggest companies have outgrown their regional footprint or aren’t even around anymore. Belk is exploring selling itself. Family Dollar was sold to Virginia-based Dollar Tree this year, and Wachovia disappeared more than six years ago, bought by San Francisco-based Wells Fargo. Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan lives in Boston.
McColl said Thursday that he supports the new group.
“I’m crazy about it,” said McColl, who said he went to the group’s first meeting and has talked with Good about the idea. “What we need is a forum in which people with goodwill and interest in the city get together and agree on priorities, and put their muscle and their money behind priorities.”
While companies have grown, changed – and in some cases, moved their headquarters – Tarwater said that hasn’t diluted those companies’ commitment to Charlotte. Most of them still employ hundreds or thousands of people locally, such as Wells Fargo, which didn’t move Wachovia’s workers out when it bought the Charlotte bank.
“Those companies are still very invested in this community, and there’s somebody at a very high level in the C-suite of those companies who are interested,” said Tarwater. “They still represent those companies, even though the corporate headquarters may be somewhere else. There’s not really a void in that respect.”
And the city is more racially, culturally and geographically diverse than in decades past, with different communities growing and sprawling from UNC Charlotte to Ballantyne. Including voices from those communities – and not just focusing on the narrow wishes of CEOs – will be important to the initiative’s success, the new group said.
“It’s not a handful of leaders driving the business community in Charlotte,” said Skains. “This is designed to tap into that broader leadership in the community.”
CEO leadership council members
The new Charlotte Executive Leadership Council:
▪ Lynn Good, CEO of Duke Energy (chairwoman and founding member)
▪ Tom Skains, CEO of Piedmont Natural Gas (founding member)
▪ Michael Tarwater, CEO of Carolinas Healthcare System
▪ Francisco Alvarado, CEO of Marand Builders
▪ Carl Armato, CEO of Novant Health
▪ Tim Belk, CEO of Belk
▪ Wil Brooks, owner of State Farm – Wil E. Brooks Agency
▪ David Carroll, Senior EVP of Wells Fargo
▪ Ron Carter, President of Johnson C. Smith University
▪ Ned Curran, CEO of Bissell
▪ Susan DeVore, CEO of Premier
▪ Frank Dowd, CEO of Charlotte Pipe and Foundry
▪ Phil Dubois, Chancellor of UNC Charlotte
▪ Frank Emory, Partner of Hunton & Williams
▪ Frank Harrison, CEO of Coca Cola Consolidated
▪ Chris Kearney, CEO of SPX
▪ Michael Lamach, CEO of Ingersoll Rand
▪ Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America
▪ Tom Nelson, CEO of National Gypsum
▪ Peter Pappas, founder of Pappas Properties
▪ Ernie Reigel, Managing Partner of Moore & Van Allen
▪ Pat Riley, President of Allen Tate
▪ Pat Rodgers, CEO of Rodgers Builders
▪ Fred Whitfield, President of Charlotte Hornets
▪ Lucia Zapata-Griffith, CEO of Metro Landmarks
▪ Michael Marsicano, CEO of Foundation for the Carolinas (Administrative and program assistance)