He loves to learn from presidents

Tim Belk, head of the department store chain his family started, recently enjoyed a weekend celebrating a friend's 50th birthday, a milestone at which he and others discussed a fitting best-seller.

“The Last Lecture,” released this spring, was the book version of terminally ill Professor Randy Pausch's farewell lecture that became an Internet phenom and made him famous worldwide. He died last month at the age of 47, of complications from the pancreatic cancer that prompted the speech at Carnegie Mellon University.

“He experienced a lot of life's ups and downs in a very short period of time,” said Belk, who is 53. “He talks about enabling the dreams of others, leaving a legacy.”

Belk, named CEO in 2004, leads the nation's largest privately held department store company, which includes stores across the Carolinas and in 14 other states. He gained insight into current events from the Pulitzer-winning “The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” by New Yorker magazine writer Lawrence Wright.

“I love reading about the presidents,” said Belk, who unwinds with bedtime reading. “There's a lot of leadership examples to learn from.”

He reads trade magazines along with the Observer and The Wall Street Journal, and picks up news on his Blackberry when traveling. His kids loaded the music on his iPod.

His uncle and predecessor, Charlotte civic giant John Belk, was a fountain of useful advice. A store poster also stands out in Tim Belk's mind as terrific, succinct advice: Companies aren't successful, people are.

“You can have great strategies, make good investments, but it's the people that are going to make the difference,” he said.

Stella M. Hopkins