When Pat McCrory left office after 14 years as mayor of Charlotte, and after he lost the 2008 gubernatorial election to Beverly Perdue, LendingTree CEO Doug Lebda helped lift him up with a board seat that led to a couple hundred thousand dollars of compensation from 2009 to 2013.
Three years later, with Gov. McCrory’s political future hanging in the balance, Lebda again came through. LendingTree said Nov. 2 that it would add 314 jobs at its Charlotte offices over the next five years — an announcement that came six days before the general election.
Lebda says politics had nothing to do with the expansion. “Absolutely not. Governor McCrory was not involved with this decision or the incentive process. We worked directly with the N.C. Department of Commerce,” he said in an email.
The announcement benefits McCrory because it underscores his point that concerns over the controversial House Bill 2 are overstated. It came on the same day that Site Selection magazine ranked North Carolina the second-most business friendly state, noting that HB2’s impact had been exaggerated. (Georgia won for the fourth straight year; South Carolina ranked seventh.)
The expansion and magazine rating refutes a central focus of McCrory’s opponent, Roy Cooper: That HB2 has hurt state recruiting efforts. Polls show the race is too close to call.
Like many businesses, LendingTree is playing the incentives game, ringing $4.9 million in promises from state government amid threats that it would leave its longtime home. Payments hinge on meeting employment targets. Lebda says the company considered South Carolina and other locations. Its current Ballantyne offices are almost spitting distance from incentives-crazy South Carolina.
The company’s expansion is terrific news for Charlotte and SouthPark. The company that matches online borrowers with lenders plans to move its staff of about 290 to offices there. It is a shift from Ballantyne, where Lebda launched the business in 1998 and rents space.
The timing of the announcement “was driven by our entry to a contingent contract to purchase buildings in SouthPark,” Lebda says. Owning and renovating property there, instead of building a new campus, will speed the moving process.
LendingTree is among Charlotte’s best tech success stories, a pioneering online company that has shown resilience over the years. IAC/Interactive Corp., which owned Match.com and other online brands, bought LendingTree for $743 million in 2003.
Five years later, with the housing crisis mounting, it was spun off. Its employment peaked at more than 900, and it now has a full-time staff of about 370. It remains independent and publicly traded with its shares valued at about $960 million, of which Lebda holds 21%. It has diversified beyond mortgages, with other services making up 43% of revenue.
The expansion comes a week after the company’s quarterly conference call with investors and analysts. The company’s shares declined 13% after LendingTree reported profits that didn’t meet expectations. The stock is down 9% this year.
Many commercial real-estate and tourism executives in North Carolina — including lots of Republicans — share Cooper’s view that HB2 has dented North Carolina’s brand, particularly in the tech community. Most hope the law will be modified when the legislature convenes next year.
Lebda says LendingTree doesn’t discriminate and values everyone. “We only care about performance and meeting the goals and objectives that have been set. It doesn’t matter about who you love, how you look, what you wear, where you’re from or what your personal beliefs are,” he says.
“Regarding restrooms, our employees will continue to use the facilities in which they feel most comfortable,” he says, referring the debate over which bathroom should be used by transgender people. “My personal political views have no impact on our company’s business operations.”
Assisting politicians is a nonpartisan practice of businesspeople, of course. State Treasurer Janet Cowell, a Democrat, sparked bipartisan criticism for accepting two corporate board seats before stepping down in January. One company is run by Raleigh investor Adam Abram, a veteran supporter of Democratic politicians.
Their politics may differ, but McCrory and Cowell must agree: It pays to have friends in high places.