Skvarla to succeed Decker at Commerce Department

Sharon Decker, a longtime fixture on the Charlotte business scene, on Tuesday said she is stepping down as state commerce secretary at a time of transition for the agency that recruits new jobs to the state.

Decker, a former Duke Energy executive who oversaw the shift of some Commerce Department functions to a public-private partnership, will leave her post Dec. 31. John Skvarla, head of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, will take her place.

Decker will become president at NURAY Media, a digital media company dedicated to the restoration and preservation of classic movies and television. The company is owned by former Charlotteans Rick and Dee Ray, who founded and later sold the Raycom sports programming company.

“It’s still in the startup phase but at a point where we are really ready to see some significant growth,” Decker told the Observer in an interview.

Founded in 2010, NURAY is based in Bluffton, S.C., near Hilton Head. But Decker, who has been commuting to Raleigh, will remain in Rutherford County, where she has lived since 1999. “You can sure bet that I’ll hope that our growth will be in North Carolina,” she said.

Decker, whose career has included business and ministry, was appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory in January 2013. Rumors that she might be leaving his Cabinet have circulated for most of the year, and McCrory said Tuesday that she told him months ago that she wanted to move on. He asked her to “stick it out” until the end of the year, he said.

McCrory teared up as he announced Decker’s departure, and he credited her with helping lower the unemployment rate and bringing 157,000 new jobs to the state.

“She has left a legacy of jobs for North Carolina, and she’s been the best salesman for North Carolina,” McCrory said.

Decker was also responsible for moving corporate recruitment and other Commerce Department divisions into a public-private partnership.

Former Charlotte City Council member John Lassiter, who chairs the partnership’s board, has said the new structure gives North Carolina a competitive advantage because it will use public and private money to promote the state. But critics have said the approach has had mixed results in other states, and the structure has led to abuses elsewhere, including misuse of taxpayer money and conflicts of interest.

On Monday, the governor’s office announced that Christopher Chung would begin work as CEO of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina on Jan. 12.

“She stepped on a lot of toes to make that happen, and the results are already starting to show,” McCrory said about the partnership.

Ronnie Bryant, CEO of the Charlotte Regional Partnership, on Tuesday praised Decker for “her personality, her drive and her determination.” But he said commerce secretary “is a tough job, and I’m not totally surprised she’s taking a new opportunity.”

Secretary’s role changing

Decker, 57, told the Observer that her departure was purely a personal decision and that she was leaving at a time when a transition “made sense.” She acknowledged the commerce secretary’s role will be changing but that she would have still enjoyed the position had she stayed.

“In the new structure, the partnership will be cracking open the cases, making the contacts and doing the networking around the country,” Decker said. “The secretary’s role will be more in the close, which I certainly have been doing. Companies want to hear from the senior level officers of the state.”

The commerce secretary will also be involved in setting policy and securing funding for economic development efforts, she said.

Decker brought more than 30 years of business experience to her role at the Commerce Department, including 17 years at Charlotte’s Duke Energy.

After her Duke tenure, she led The Lynnwood Foundation, which bought Charlotte’s historic Duke Mansion from the Rays in 1996 and now maintains the venue as a meeting facility. In 1998, she chaired the Charlotte Chamber. She is also a lay pastor in the Presbyterian Church.

At Commerce, Decker had focused on landing automobile manufacturing plants, major prizes in the economic development world because they also attract suppliers and logistics companies. In September, she visited Japan in a bid to bring more jobs to the state.

Decker, who made $136,000 a year as commerce secretary, said she was proud of the progress the state has made in reducing the unemployment rate but said more improvement is needed. “There are still unemployed North Carolinians, so there is still a lot of work to be done,” she said.

While leading the department, she continued to serve on the board of Matthews-based retailer Family Dollar Stores, which has been fending off a takeover bid from Dollar General as it tries to merge with Dollar Tree. That role has faced scrutiny because as commerce secretary, her task is to grow jobs, but as a board member, she owes shareholders the best return on their investment.

“I can perform both roles and meet my responsibilities,” Decker told the Observer in September.

The state’s ethics law requires disclosure of such positions, which Decker had done. Decker is also a board member at Charlotte-based Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated.

New role for Skvarla

Skvarla’s tenure at DENR has been rocky. His appointment was met with skepticism by environmental advocates. They noted that he had expressed doubts about the science behind climate change and argued that under his leadership, DENR served the interests of industry.

But McCrory said Skvarla has done a good job at DENR and thinks he’s a good fit for Commerce. “I’m very lucky to have John take on this very important job,” McCrory said.

Skvarla said he’s looking forward to the new role, noting that jobs are “the only issue that 100 percent of our residents care about.”

“Going to Commerce, it’s just another adventure,” he said. “I have had the most marvelous rocket ride of opportunity.”

McCrory said he’s interviewing internal and external candidates for the DENR post and plans to appoint someone later this month. Staff writer Ely Portillo contributed.

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