Politics & Government

Jay Faison hopes his latest start-up can change minds on climate change

Charlotte businessman Jay Faison, shown at his office near uptown Charlotte, is trying to convince Republicans of climate change - and he has vowed to spent $175 million to do it.
Charlotte businessman Jay Faison, shown at his office near uptown Charlotte, is trying to convince Republicans of climate change - and he has vowed to spent $175 million to do it. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

Jay Faison has never been afraid of risk.

From trekking through East Africa to launching a business in Portugal and a series of start-ups back home.

Now Faison, 47, is taking his most public risk – betting $175 million that he and his ClearPath foundation can convince fellow Republicans that man-made climate change is real, and that they can do something about it.

Since the Charlotte businessman announced the campaign last month, he has contributed more than $800,000 to GOP politicians who support the cause.

That vaults Faison to the top ranks of donors across the country. Almost overnight, he has become a new power player in the 2016 elections and in a political landscape increasingly influenced by super PACs and wealthy donors.

If you want to change the system, if you want to advocate, you have to play politics.

Jay Faison

It’s an unlikely role for a man more accustomed to staying in the background.

“I thought I would be sort of behind the scenes,” he says in a conference room overlooking the Little Sugar Creek Greenway. “Our energy systems are highly regulated. So if you want to change the system, if you want to advocate, you have to play politics.”

He already has drawn fire.

Last month Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and is one of Capitol Hill’s most outspoken deniers of man-made climate change, warned that Faison’s money could appeal to some lawmakers.

“When they see how much money is there … they might be tempted to give them a vote,” he told a conference of fellow climate skeptics. “This is why you have this last guy with $175 million claiming to be a Republican, and all it takes is one or two or three of the senators to say, maybe I’ll appease them.”

Climate change seems an unlikely cause for the son of the late Charlotte developer Henry Faison.

On the web site of his new venture, ClearPath, Faison recalls the time 15 years ago when his wife, Olga, “dragged” him to a speech about what was then called global warming.

“As the son of a real estate developer who loved the outdoors but disliked ‘crazy environmentalists,’ I followed suit,” he wrote. “I had seen the overreach of the government stopping good real estate deals in the name of the environment.”

When he gets an idea that he seizes and is passionate about, he’s going to figure out how to get it done.

Peter deVries

But the speaker was persuasive. Faison began his own research. He read reams of studies and talked to scientists from MIT. Then he began figuring out how to make a difference. Intense and driven, he approached the effort with the same methodical planning that he’d devoted to a string of successful start-ups.

“When he gets an idea that he seizes and is passionate about, he’s going to figure out how to get it done,” says Peter deVries, a friend and business colleague. “When he gets hold of an idea like (climate), he’s going to go after it.”

Faison plunged into his new venture. He put together a team of techies, entrepreneurs and climate experts. He has hired New York marketer and political consultant Tucker Eskew, a South Carolina native and veteran of the George W. Bush White House.

Deciding to give back

Faison grew up in Charlotte, attending Country Day and later boarding school in Virginia. He studied economics at UNC-Chapel Hill and went on to get an MBA from the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business in 1995.

From there he went to Portugal. Without knowing the language, he started a chain of Blockbuster Video stores. Three years later, he returned to Charlotte and bought a small home technology company that went on to become SnapAV, a national supplier to custom audio-video visual dealers.

“Once we created SnapAV, he was the one who had the vision of where the business would go,” says partner Adam Levy of Charlotte. “He was always able to see around corners. He could see where our industry was going before it got there.”

But a few years ago, Faison decided to stop chasing profits and try to change the world.

Even before his own business success, Faison had led a comfortable life. When his father, Henry, died in 2013, court records showed he had a net worth of $224 million. Jay Faison had enjoyed the perks that come with money: an outdoor adventure program in Kenya, heli-skiing in British Columbia.

“I didn’t need to make more money, so I asked myself, how can I give back?” he recalls. “I’ve been given so much.”

Faison began finding answers in Dallas.

That was where he attended a retreat about six years ago sponsored by the Halftime Institute, a faith-based program that helps successful people transition from “success to significance.” With him was his friend John Putnam, founding president of the National Christian Foundation, a group that helps clients plan charitable giving and philanthropy.

Drawing ideas on a white board, Faison joined a handful of other middle-aged entrepreneurs in planning their next steps. For him it led to climate change.

“It’s not like it was a massive ‘Aha,’ but it threw fuel on fire,” Putnam says. “He really wants to make a difference.”

In 2013, Faison sold the majority share of SnapAV. With most of the proceeds from the sale, he founded the ClearPath Foundation to work on climate issues. He would later tell an audience he did it against the advice of attorneys and financial advisers, who called the decision to give so much “inadvisable.”

“Entrepreneurs get creative and push the edges of the system,” Faison says. “That’s needed in philanthropy.”

Reframing an issue

Almost inevitably, ClearPath led to politics.

“In order to solve this huge problem we need policy, and frankly a lot of policy is about politics,” he says.

He knows there’s resistance in his own party.

“Republicans fear more government control,” he says. “Republicans think this is a Democratic conspiracy to create a bigger government. There’s good evidence that is not the case.”

It was former Democratic Vice President Al Gore who became most identified with climate change with his 2006 documentary on the subject. Eskew, the GOP consultant, says many Republicans believe Democrats have hijacked the issue and proposed solutions Republicans find abhorrent. He says Faison has a chance to reframe the issue.

“He embodies some really powerful values for Republicans – businessman, entrepreneur, a faithful community leader,” Eskew says.

My dad cared about conservatism, the Republican Party and fiscal debt. I care about those things. But I care about safeguarding my kids’ future more. Climate change is the biggest risk and biggest opportunity of our time.

Jay Faison

To Faison, a father of three, his effort is entirely consistent with his own politics.

“My dad cared about conservatism, the Republican Party and fiscal debt,” he says. “I care about those things. But I care about safeguarding my kids’ future more. Climate change is the biggest risk and biggest opportunity of our time.”

Friends such as Charlotte real estate investor Clay Grubb aren’t surprised. “Jay is somebody who, when he sets out a goal, is laser focused on trying to achieve that goal,” he says. “His goal is to leave the world in a better place.”

His friend Adam Levy likes the way Faison is using his resources.

“When people ask me about Jay, I usually say he’s the kind of guy you want to be wealthy,” Levy says. “He’s the right kind of rich guy.”

Faison’s latest donations

Jay Faison has made over $800,000 in recent political contributions. Some notable ones:

▪ $500,000: to Granite State Solutions, super PAC for U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.

▪ $100,000: to Security Is Strength PAC, super PAC for U.S. Sen. and GOP presidential candidate Lindsey Graham.

▪ $50,000: to Right to Rise, super PAC for GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush.

▪ $10,400: to U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida.

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