N.C. State University picked multinational contractor Skanska to build the $136.7 million Integrative Sciences Building, marking one of the biggest UNC system projects of the year.
The 164,947-square foot building will be used to promote STEM teaching and research as part of the university’s efforts to expand science education. It will include classrooms, teaching and research labs, faculty spaces and a cafe. Departments using the building will include chemistry, biochemistry and biotechnology research.
The buildingwill “revitalize the marquee Brickyard, one of the nine hallowed places on the north campus,” Mark Balling, Skanska’s executive vice president for North Carolina and Virginia building operations, said in a release.
Richmond, Virginia-based Moseley Architects is the building designer. The project is expected to be completed in September 2026.
Skanska, which is based in Stockholm, Sweden, has previously built several N.C. State structures, including Fitts-Woolard Hall; the Golden LEAF Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center; the James B. Hunt Jr. Library; and Engineering Building III at N.C. State.
An Internal Revenue Code requirement concerning research and experimentation expenditures could slow innovation in the state, North Carolina’s Department of Commerce secretary stated in a letter to North Carolina Congressional delegation members.
The new requirement would mean entrepreneurs and organizations across the state would have to amortize costs associated with research activities over time. Entrepreneurs and organizations would not be able to deduct research expenses, resulting in businesses having a higher reported income and, in turn, higher tax costs, per Sanders’ letter. Sanders argued in her letter that this is akin to a “tax on innovation.”
Section 174, originally enacted in 1954, was created to “eliminate uncertainty in tax accounting treatment of research and experimentation (R&E) expenditures, and to encourage R&E as a way to stimulate innovation,” per Sanders’ letter.
In the decades since the section was enacted, businesses have been able to deduct certain R&E expenses immediately to reduce their taxable income — something that, Sanders argued in her letter, “helped increase their competitiveness and drive toward greater technological advancement and commercialization.”
The “Innovation Tax” would negatively impact North Carolina, Sanders stated.
“This is also a devastating blow to Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) recipients, which could owe taxes on up to 90 percent of their SBIR/STTR award,” she wrote. “Small businesses are not allowed to use any of the grant funds (often their only source of funds in their early years) to cover the tax expenses. This is creating an insurmountable financial strain and bankruptcy for many innovators.”
In 2022, 114 North Carolina companies brought $126 million to the state for R&E activities from the federal SBIR/STTR [Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer] program, Sanders wrote. The One North Carolina Small Business Program – which catalyzes and leverages SBIR/STTR funded companies in the state – “couldn’t even absorb the negative financial impact that Section 174 will bring to these companies,” the letter states.
This is an op-ed by John P. Preyer, a Chapel Hill entrepreneur and chairman of the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees.
One thing North Carolinians can be grateful for this holiday season is the professional commitment to accuracy and fairness by at least some in the state’s news media, including Business North Carolina.
Paul Fulton’s Nov. 22 BNC guest column, however, includes a major misstatement amid his meandering speculation why Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz might want to leave UNC-Chapel Hill for another university: “A surprise resolution by the Board of Trustees to create a conservative School of Civic Life and Leadership, blindsiding the chancellor and the faculty.”
Top university administrators and key faculty members – including Guskiewicz and Provost Chris Clemens – visited similar schools elsewhere for inspiration. Last year they drafted a memo outlining the new school and its funding needs before our Board of Trustees adopted a resolution in January urging its acceleration. The school is an excellent idea, but it wasn’t ours.
This is not a minor distinction. People might disagree about the value of a public university’s promoting respectful political discourse and civic engagement in a democracy – particularly if they’re used to dominating the campus debate – but they shouldn’t misrepresent its genesis.
More important, Chancellor Guskiewicz has consistently supported the new school publicly and privately. Its launch by him and others can’t logically be a reason why he would leave UNC Chapel Hill.
“This is not something that dropped out of the sky,” Guskiewicz noted during the university’s Oct. 6 Faculty Council meeting. “I’m excited about the opportunities that I believe it presents. …This is something that we can be very, very proud of in the coming years.”
Guskiewicz explained how the concept grew out of the university’s Ideas in Action curriculum.
“We as a faculty recognized that we were not doing enough to educate our students on, number one, how to have difficult conversations – how to engage with somebody that you know disagrees with you, how to listen, how to form your own opinion and your own values and defend those,” he said. “And then also how to be really a part of the civic life of a democracy.”
Dean Jim White of the College of Arts & Sciences likewise emphasized to the Faculty Council the school’s vital role in reinforcing civil discourse and responsible citizenship.
“We’re very much in the arena of trying to not just educate our students in the major or majors in which they’re interested, but also take seriously our responsibility to produce for this state and for this country well-educated citizens who own and know how to nurture a democracy,” he said.
Consider, too, the university’s job posting for the school’s inaugural dean:
“Faculty will aim to provide the productive culture of free and civil discourse, open inquiry, and scientific literacy necessary for members of a democratic society to explore humanity’s highest purposes and potential. The curriculum will invite students to develop democratic competencies and key virtues such as intellectual humility, curiosity, and generosity as they engage perennial questions of morality, aesthetics, religion, politics, economics, health, law, and science.”
That’s far from the right-wing barrio its fevered critics claim, but rather a fundamental function of public higher education in a pluralistic society. (And, for that matter, of journalism.)
Meanwhile, nine UNC-CH faculty members are developing the school’s vision and curriculum while leading the search for its dean.
As Carolina climbs in higher-education rankings and its applications and enrollment are surging, the university’s unique national leadership on civic engagement will only add to its luster. Chancellor Guskiewicz knows this, and that’s why he supports the new pro-democracy school.
Meanwhile, encouraging signs suggest that the dyspeptic, status-quo, insider power crowd exemplified by Mr. Fulton’s elitism has gone from throwing cold water on Carolina’s pro-democracy curriculum to its new stance of “we’ve never taken issue with the idea of the school itself” – belatedly accepting the fact that true intellectual diversity and freedom of thought at the university of the people of North Carolina are bound to produce light and liberty for everyone.
Perhaps there is hope for reason over hysteria in Chapel Hill after all.
The mall is 93 percent occupied, and it includes an Apple Store and apparel, footwear and beauty brands such as Lululemon, Sephora, Lovesac, Dry Goods, Victoria’s Secret, Athleta, Anthropologie, Altar’d State, and Ulta.
Bridge Street also has larger format retailers, including Barnes & Noble, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Old Navy, H&M, and Belk.
“The addition of Bridge Street Town Centre is a natural extension of our capabilities and consistent with our long-term strategy of investing in dominant open-air retail centers in markets which benefit from outsized residential and tourism growth,” said CEO Stephen Yalof in a statement.
Bridge Street Town Centre is located within Cummings Research Park, the second-largest research park in the U.S., and close to Redstone Arsenal, a 38,000-acre federal research, development, testing and engineering military base.
The center is part of a larger mixed-use development that includes more than 500 hotel rooms, over 240 multifamily units with 300 more planned, and a fully leased 144,000-square-foot office tower, which are separately owned by other parties. The seller was Miller Capital Advisors of Skokie, Illinois.
Tanger, which now has 39 malls, said the mall is expected to deliver a first-year return in the mid-8% range. The company has been a public real estate investment trust since 1993 and operates in 20 states and Canada.
Huntsville is in northeast Alabama and has more than 215,000 residents.
Selecting Business North Carolina’s Small Businesses of the Year offers an inspiring look at the entrepreneurial spirit that helps the state thrive. Many of70 or so nominees offered compelling stories of achievement, but these enterprises topped the judges’ list.
Dry Otter Waterproofing, a Lincoln County-based company that protects crawl spaces and basements.
VPC Builders, a Banner Elk firm specializing in commercial and residential construction and remodeling in North Carolina, Tennessee and South Carolina.
Taylor’s Wine Shop, a Raleigh convenience store that offers a wide selection of fine wine and craft beer, locally roasted coffees, local products, live bait and gasoline.
MODE Consignment Boutique of Raleigh, which enables customers to buy and sell clothing and accessories at affordable prices.
Judges for the contest were Byron Hicks, the state director of the N.C. Small Business and Technology Center; Jennifer Curtis, co-founder and CEO of Firsthand Foods, a Durham distributor for local farms and meat processors, and one of the 2022 Small Businesses of the Year; and Business North Carolina Publisher Ben Kinney.
The judges considered creativity, community impact, persistence and other factors in making the selection. The business had to be in operation for at least five years and have fewer than 100 employees. The four selected businesses employ between 15 and 31 employees. “This was not an easy job to select just four,” says Curtis.
Judges also noted their favorites: “MODE management went through an extensive rebranding and overcame significant obstacles in moving locations, twice, and through all of this was able to increase sales,” says Hicks. Taylor’s Wine Shop rose to the top of the list for Curtis because of “their family owned business model, their connection to place and community, and that they have grown a fixed retail business during difficult times. They have a colorful story to tell and some hard-won lessons learned.”
This marks the 28th year Business North Carolina has published the Small Business of the Year award, sponsored this year by Duke Energy. The goal is to honor smaller businesses that form the backbone of the state’s economy.
The state had more than 157,000 companies with between one and 19 employees in 2022, about 2,000 more than the year before, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. There were also about 816,000 sole proprietorships.
Click on the images below to read about this year’s Small Businesses of the Year.
When the work day is done, Matt Vincent often goes for walks near his home in Boone. The mountains are serene, particularly in the evenings. “This is the place I love,” he says. “I have three boys and we go on hikes. I grew up here. It’s a beautiful place and you can see why so many other people want to live here.”
As the son of Jay Vincent, owner of Vincent BerkshireHathaway, one of the region’s oldest and most prominent real estate agencies, he’s the echo of his own youth.
Indeed, the lure of the Tar Heel high country is the magnet that has made his VPC Builders of Banner Elk a successful builder of high-end residential, commercial and other properties. Vincent’s business has enjoyed revenue gains of 20% to 30% in recent years, and is on track to top$30 million this year.
Clients, suppliers and others that deal with Vincent and his 30-member staff every day say that the business reflects values sometimes missing in modern commerce. His company’s name reflects that with letters standing for value, professionalism and communications.
“Matt’s real serious, but level-headed,” says Alex Hooker, executive director of the Watauga Habitat for Humanity. The agency builds homes for the needy and Vincent has been a long-time supporter. “I like the fact that he’s local. A lot of the builders here are from out of town. He comes from a great family.”
Vincent, 41, graduated from Appalachian State University in 2004 with a degree in banking and finance. He admired his father’s work ethnic – up at 4:30, a workout, then his day job – but discovered real estate was “not my cup of tea.”
Among other things, he laughs, he dug perk holes that enable builders to determine if the soil of a lot will perk, or absorb moisture for septic tanks. That put him closer to the community. “I enjoyed doing things with my hands,” he says. “Here in a small town, you get to know everybody and everybody is somebody you are proud to call your neighbor.”
He obtained his general contractor’s license in 2003 and created VPC in 2010.
“At the time, we were doing mainly residential building but have since diversified into commercial,” he says.The company has a home products division that does roofing, windows and similar work.
New, high-end residential construction still makes up about two-thirds of VPC’s work, but the company has segued into other ventures such as converting basements into heated living space.
That, Vincent says, can keep employees busy even during the high country’s tough winters, one of the challenges his company faces. Count rugged terrain, sloping lots and high rainfall among others.
“In the flatlands you can take just about any house and put it on any property,” he says, “Up here in the mountains you can’t do that. You have to design the house around the lot.”
The result in VPC houses is often striking. The company has won more than a half-dozen industry awards this year for design originality. It also been recognized as one of North Carolina’s best places to work. That’s notable given the lack of affordable housing in the state’s mountain areas.
Mountain Building Supply owner Tammy Mantooth, one of VPC’s suppliers, says she knows of at least one worker living in a tent because he can’t affordmore permanent housing. VPC has responded by paying higher than national wages and upping other compensation, Vincent says.
Most of VPC’s residential construction is in the $2 million range, while its biggest project exceeded $7 million. It has its own drafting staff, relying on outside architects for design-build contracts.
The bulk of VPC’s clients, says Vincent, are business owners from Charlotte and Raleigh. Absentee owners are still common, though, and covering all bases, VPC offers a home-watch program for seasonally vacant homes.
Increasing costs, material scarcities and high interest rates have hammered even top-end builders, and though easing recently have taken its toll.
“We have had a lot of good friends who went out of business and bankrupt,” Vincent says.
However, more than good market strategy and placement has served the company. Some who deal with it on a daily basis say its professionalism is noticeable.
Mantooth says VPC is a longstanding customer, never missed a payment and that Vincent is known for his integrity. “All I’ve ever needed was his word,” she says.
Vincent concedes that professionalism is important to him. Employees wear what he calls the uniform, and though not formal, it’s effective – knit shirts, same colors, cut. “It looks like in the morning; you got ready to go to work for the day. And the simplest things my dad taught me, many people have forgotten – following up on your emails, returning calls and always doing what you say you’re going to.”
Such measures are more than superficial. VPC routinely sends employees to sales-training courses, seminars and similar exercises. Clientsnotice the result.
“I’ve never interfaced much directly with Matt, but I work mostly with his senior staff,” says Bob Pudney, Beech Mountain town manager.The town recently awarded VPC a $2.1 million contract to build a city hall and visitor center.“It’s going extremely well and I would call them the top tier contractor in our area. Their attention to detail is great, and their customer service is impeccable.”
Vincent enjoys his hikes with his three sons, but he’s determined not to push them into following his steps.
“But one of things they most enjoy is going to work with daddy.” ■
Kevin Sanders wasn’t mad, but it was time for a change. So without much thought about his Plan B, he quit his job working for a national waterproofing company.
The company treated him well, he says, but at age 44 he didn’t think he earned enough to support his wife, Wendy, and their young son. After 16 years working for someone else’s company, he felt he had hit the top rung of the ladder. That was 10 years ago.
Sanders credits his wife and her parents with giving him the encouragement to start Dry Otter Waterproofing in Denver, a Lincoln County town about 25 miles north of Charlotte. He put the “small” in the term small business, he recalls.
“In October 2013, I got a 1,000-square-foot office in this same area, actually right across the street from here,” he says while seated in Dry Otter’s storefront space off N.C. 16 Business. “I had two offices, a desk, a computer, a truck and zero employees. My name was in every hierarchical box – CEO, accountant, installer – my name was in every single box.”
Sanders survived by hiring hit-or-miss temporary workers and getting people he knew who worked for other companies to help him finish jobs on the weekends.
“At first, you’re doing everything and you’re working all the time,” he says. “But at (his former employer) Dry Pro, I worked 70-75 hours a week, so I was used to that.”
Sanders’ drive continues to push the company forward, says Dry Otter marketing director Erin Blackburn. “He has grit and that’s made this company a success,” she says. “He is generous and is always teaching us important things about business and life.”
A real business
Sanders’ company posted $250,000 in sales in its first year. In 2015, Dry Otter more than doubled that amount to $600,000, then topped $1 million the next year. In 2022, Dry Otter sales reached $3.4 million. This year, the company will top $4 million, Sanders says.
Dry Otter now has 25 employees – almost all of them having been with the company more than two years. To grow real equity, Sanders says, Dry Otter should reach $6 million to $8 million in annual revenue. He thinks the company is poised to hit that mark. Dry Otter leased a Charlotte office in November, and is mulling a Winston-Salem location. For now, the company services a 50-mile radius – an area Sanders describes as being from north to south, Lenoir to Rock Hill, South Carolina, and from east to west, Albemarle to Shelby.
“If you’re not expanding, you’re going backward,” Sanders says.
Sanders hired his first employee in 2014. A year later, Dry Otter had three laborers, including himself, and a salesperson. He hates sales, he says, so he counted that as a win. His wife helped out with the books and ensured everyone got paid on time. By 2016, he hired someone to answer calls and he felt like he had created a real company.
“It took a few years before I could start putting other people’s names in those boxes,” Sanders says. “The real trick is, with all those boxes, you put somebody else’s name in there, and hopefully they’re better than you.
“And that’s what’s helped lead to Dry Otter’s success. We’ve been able to hire some really good people and retain those people,” Sanders says.
Sanders hired Mark Johnston in 2015 to help with sales and installations. The company wasn’t making any money at the time, so Sanders gave Johnston equity as part of his compensation. Johnston later invested in the company and now owns a 25% stake, with Sanders owning the rest.
From Mississippi to North Carolina
Sanders is a native of Tupelo, Mississippi, the birthplace of Elvis Presley. Sanders started playing soccer in elementary school. He was still 5 foot 2 in eighth grade so when his bigger classmates gravitated toward football and basketball, he says he stuck with soccer.
In 1987, he was the state’s Gatorade soccer player of the year. “Mississippi was terrible in soccer back then, so that wasn’t that big a deal.” He was good enough to play soccer at Belmont Abbey College, where he earned a business degree.
After college, Sanders took a restaurant job. “I was making at best $150 a week, living in Pineville, with no furniture,” he says. Two waitresses had boyfriends with jobs for a waterproofing company.
“They were making 800 to 1,000 bucks a week. Digging ditches under houses. It was purely monetary,” Sanders says. “It took six months of me bugging them for them to hire me. I started in January of ‘93 with Professional Waterproofing doing installs.”
The owner of the company had two sons who were helping him, so advancement proved difficult. “Before I knew it, I had been there 10 years, just digging ditches, and I had a college degree,” he says.
Sanders moved to Dry Pro in 2007, and stayed there until starting Dry Otter. At Dry Pro, Sanders worked on the business side, helping him understand the finances of waterproofing.
Beyond his great experience at Dry Pro, he credits Michael Gerger’s book “E Myth – Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work And What To Do About It’ as a big factor in his success. The book attempts to explain the “entrepreneurial myth,” noting that it
takes more than skillful technical work and a good idea to form a business foundation.
“Most businesses start up because you’ve probably met somebody who’s great at making cookies and someone says, ‘Oh, you should start your own business.’ Or you’ve met somebody that’s the best plumber in the business. He’s the one they always call when there’s a problem no one else can solve. So he says, “I should start my own business.’
“But he doesn’t know how to manage. He doesn’t know how to get the leads. He doesn’t know how to sell them and convert them into a job once he gets them. He’s a great plumber, but you learn that business is made up of about 10 other things you’ve got to be great at. Or at least hire somebody who’s great at it.”
Growing a company
Taking advice from Gerber’s book, Sanders transitioned from a person who did everything to someone focused on growing equity. For the past two years, he has emphasized budgets, streamlining processes and moving Dry Otter toward an $8 million-a-year company. Hehasn’t done any of what he calls the “in company” work.
“Once I decided to start a business, I said I wanted to own a business, I don’t want to work in a business. That’s the only way the business will grow,” says Sanders. He still comes into the office five days most weeks, but no longer at 6:30 a.m. or earlier. When he leaves the office, he heads out to watch his son’s sports practices or games at North Lincoln High School.
“If I don’t come in on Monday, Dry Otter’s still going to work all day. Now I don’t do any in-company tasks on the business. No payroll, no marketing. I hire someone to do those jobs,” he says. “The company isn’t me. I have a lot of friends who own their own company, but they are the company. If they go on vacation for two weeks the company stops.”
Dry Otter budgeted $30,000 a month this year on marketing, and Sanders says he’ll bump that to $35,000 in 2024. Chasing leads, he says, is constant.
“The saying is 50% of marketing works, you just don’t know what 50% it is, and I definitely believe that because we struggle,” Sanders says. “You have to keep up with your cost per lead, and last year our cost per lead was $245 per lead. We’d love to drive that cost down.” Dry Otter only does waterproofing, and contracts out other work. Its average job costs about $10,000.
Making it happen
During his talks to high school students about business, he rarely mentions Dry Otter. Instead he tells them what it takes to be a success.
“I tell them, ‘You can really start anywhere and kill it just by showing up everyday with a Get ‘er done attitude and a little pride in whatever you’re doing. Every trade out there is hiring. You guys at 18 can start tomorrow, and you can be running the company by the time you’re 25 if you show up every day for work and work hard. You’re 100 miles ahead of everybody.’”
For Sanders, it was a push from his wife and her parents to start a business.
When Taylor Cash bought a country store on Six Forks Road in north Raleigh in 1980, it was in the middle of nowhere. The street hadn’t been paved, and Interstate 540 was just a dream, more than two decades away. The nearest residents were miles away.
Cash made the business work by adapting to the times. When construction started on nearby neighborhoods, he did a brisk lunch business selling hot dogs and hamburgers to carpenters and electricians. In the 1990s, he switched to movie rentals and then video games.
Now, the store is called Taylor’s Wine Shop. In addition to the BP gas available at the pumps outside, the spot carries 1,500 types of wine from all over the world, plus a healthy selection of breakfast sandwiches, made by longtime employee “Biscuit” Bill Brown. There’s also typical convenience store fare. Some of Raleigh’s largest residential neighborhoods, such as Sutton Estates and Bridgepoint, now surround the property, reflecting one of the fastest-growing U.S. cities over the past 30 years.
And fish bait is still available for those going to nearby Falls Lake.
The store is now run by Taylor Cash’s son, Ben Cash, and manager Kelli Beck, and it ships wine purchased through its website across the country every day. It also partners with local restaurants on wine dinners and holds wine tastings on Fridays, when customers can sit in a rocking chair on the front porch. Cash and Beck visit the Sonoma and Napa Valley areas each year to check out the latest wines. Taylor’s sells about 140,000 bottles a year, and the best sellers are California cabernets.
How did the store get into shipping wine nationally through online sales?
Kelli Beck: It mainly came about because of COVID. It really ramped up then because people weren’t able to get wine, or were not comfortable coming in to get wine. They would pick up in the parking lot, and then we just expanded across the country, any state that allows wine to be shipped.
How did your dad get into wine and expanding
Ben Cash: In the late 1990s, once [Interstate] 540 was finishing, all of the construction had shifted to the north, so the lunch business wasn’t prominent any more. For years, we had movie boxes on the walls, renting videos. We did that for 10 years, and then Blockbuster opened up down the street. So then we had a full videogame arcade with Joust and Donkey Kong, and that was a lot of fun as a kid. But then people started to stay home to play them. So in the late ‘90s, my dad was kind of thinking, we need some kind of profit center that is a draw for people. My dad got into wine, and he started with a little end cap. It quickly grew, and he started making trips to California with this wine group and met these boutique winemakers that pretty much only sold from their location. He convinced them to send him two or three cases a year. Once those wineries sold out in California, the only place you could get it was here. People would come in and say, “Gosh, I can only get this in California.”
Do the wineries now come to you?
Cash: They do. We met with four wineries last week. They’re just coming back to the state post-COVID for distribution and want partners that can give them exposure. Kelli and I try to go every year, or every other year, and my dad goes the year we don’t go. We refer a lot of people when they travel and help a lot of customers set up tours. Wine is just a lot of fun. When I was a kid, it was primarily a bait shop and a convenience store.
Do you still sell a lot of bait?
Cash: Just worms and nightcrawlers. The minnows just weren’t working. Kids would go by and put their hands in, and minnows are communal. If one gets sick, they all die. So almost weekly, you’d lose your whole batch. And crickets are so noisy. It just wasn’t worth it.
Does gas bring in customers?
Cash: Fuel is like an amenity. Since we only have one location, there’s really no profit. You can sell 3 million gallons of fuel, and if you break even, you’re in good shape. We did a pretty substantial remodel, right before COVID, in October 2019, and shifted the pumps from the front to the side of the building. That opened up the front for parking lot parties and wine tastings. With the fuel customers lined upfront before the remodel, it was kind of chaotic.
How have you partnered with others?
Beck: We have great relationships with restaurants around here, and we love supporting other family-owned restaurants. So we would partner with them to do wine dinners and work with the chefs to make custom menus. Our customer base loves those off-site wine dinners. They crave them. We just got creative during COVID, and we’re working with large venues. It’s a way to create more business outside of this footprint. It does take a lot, me, especially, to work it in our schedule.
Have you considered adding another location?
Cash: Oh yeah. I have two picked out.
Beck: We go back and forth on this. My personal opinion is I don’t want to own a bar. Staffing has been an issue since COVID, and we have employees who have been here 10 and 15 years. I feel like if we were having to staff a later evening establishment, I would be stuck working that. If we had another wine shop, that would be fun and most likely not involve a gas station.
How difficult has staffing been?
Beck: It has been extremely difficult. We want people that want to come to work, be reliable, work hard, and return. We will pay well. We want to pay people what they’re worth and are great with our customers. We are such a small family business that it’s important that everyone gets greeted when they come in and gets great service. It’s not a convenience store where you come in and get your coffee and then check out and leave. Every person that comes in here is important. We need someone who can manage the cash register and sell a $500 bottle of wine. We need those kinds of employees. The reason we have weathered COVID well is because we have these long-time employees who are like family.■
Lauren Elmore was working as a district sales manager for Jones Apparel Group, now known as Nine West Holdings, in 2009 when “everything went sideways for a lot of companies.”
The Great Recession caused retail sales to drop sharply. Plus, Elmore had a 9-year-old son, and the company she worked at wanted her to travel almost every day. So she began looking for a position that would better accommodate her family.
That’s when Elmore says she found a job listing on Craigslist for a small store in south Durham that was looking for somebody to work Thursdays. “And my schedule was wide open,” says Elmore, who grew up in Wilmington and spent her senior year of high school in Raleigh.
Elmore got the job and became friendly with the store owner, who she says didn’t live in North Carolina. The owner was planning to close the store because it wasn’t generating any revenue — unless, Elmore says, Elmore was interested in doing somethingwith it.
“I was up for the challenge,” she says. “I took over the store, changed locations, eventually rebranded to the name MODE, and then I moved it to Downtown Durham, that was my
About a year and a half later, she says, MODE bought a second location in Cameron Village, now called Village District, near downtown Raleigh.
“And we’ve just continued to expand and grow from there,” Elmore, now 44, says.
The store has faced its fair share of challenges – like when it was forced to relocate to a temporary space as new projects arrived in the Village District last year. The move came on the heels of a major rebrand for the store, Elmore wrote, in addition to the new, permanent site for the store being upfitted.
To ensure customers and consignors continued following the store despite all the chaos, the staff had to think fast. MODE staff got to work on flyers, announcements and banners to alert customers about the shifts, Elmore wrote, and offered incentives for people to visit the temporary location, like a raffle and gift card giveaway.
With the support of loyal customers and dedicated staff, MODE’s sales skyrocketed beyond its record-breaking 2021 numbers and hit almost $2 million.
Why did you select the name, MODE?
When I was rebranding, there was a lot of pressure. I’m like, “Oh, what if I pick a name and everybody thinks it’s stupid, and I think it’s the coolest thing ever.” I have no marketing background, so I was also thinking about how this [name] would look on business cards and on a sign on the front of the store. I wanted to keep it simple. The word “mode” means fashion in French, and I just thought it was fun, easy and relatable. The word looked really cute in print when I was playing around with it. It’s really not much more than that.
What resources did you use when you reopened the store?
I didn’t qualify for the Raleigh up-fit grant because I already had permits and things when the grant became available. I had already started a few things, which automatically disqualified me.
Through COVID, I definitely got some assistance with Paycheck Protection Program loans and Small Business Administration loans, just the general stuff that I think a lot of small businesses used. That definitely helped me get back on track to be able to run my business profitably.
Really, when I did upfits or remodels with my store, luckily I had enough personal capital to fund it myself. But it’s always good to look for any grants you can get. I’m always on the prowl for stuff.
Why did you decide to focus on reused clothing?
For a long time there was a stigma against thrifting, if you will. I remember being a teenager and going to Goodwill — and I didn’t do that a whole lot with my friends, but we always thought it was fun to see what we could find. Finally, through boutiques like mine, we’ve kind of mainstreamed this reuse concept to where it’s not shameful anymore to buy used clothing.
You hear a lot of the older generation talk about their stories. If they came up in poverty, they say, “Well, we never got new clothes.” It was a sad thing, obviously. But this has definitely shifted to where it’s [buying reused clothing] healthy for the environment. It doesn’t have a stigma attached to it anymore and it can really be fun. We have a carefully curated selection of clothing in our stores to make it a really great experience.
What sets MODE apart from other thrift stores?
Logistically, just like operations, we’re different. Plato’s Closet (a Minneapolis-based chain with more than 370 used clothing stores) buys your clothes outright at a really low price, and you never have to deal with them or see them again. I think they also cater a little bit more to the younger, junior crowd.
But we have a huge demographic of people that shop in our store. We have the moms bringing in the high school girls wanting their first pair of designer shoes, all the way up to our old lady friends that need their church outfits, and everything in between.
We cater to every single female fashion out there. Anybody can come in our door and find something because we have so many amazing brands.
What challenges did you face during the pandemic?
We were closed for 56 days, in both locations. During that time, I was in panic mode, not knowing if we were going to be able to reopen or how to reopen. There are a lot of people that work for me who have families.
That really weighed heavy on my shoulders – how was I going to take care of my employees? Am I going to have to let half of the staff go just to keep the store afloat? There were a lot of unknowns that were really scary when we were closed. When we got the order from the governor that we could reopen, we opened that day. I was like, “Let’s go guys.” And we figured it out.
Financially, we had a huge hit. Obviously, there was zero money coming in. Money was still going out to pay the landlord and the electric bill and all the things that you need to just keep a building.
When we closed the store, it was March. We reopened in mid-May. So when we closed the store, we had a bunch of late winter and some early spring items, and everything just sat stagnant until we reopened in May. Then all of a sudden, it was summertime. We didn’t even have the proper inventory to sell, so that was a challenge in itself.
How have your sales trended since then?
We have, since our reopening, continuously had double-digit increases year over year, which is just more than I could have hoped for or imagined would happen.
Have people bought into the concept of MODE as a social-driven business?
Everybody that comes into the store has a different mission. Some people shop at my stores because they only buy second-hand, and we’re one of many that they shop in.
Some people come to my stores because they like really nice things and they’re on a budget – so they like the price points. And they don’t care if it’s used or new or whatever. It’s on sale, it’s the price point that works for them.
Some people like the balance where they can consign and buy, and they use their store credit. It’s almost like a swap they can trade out. That drives a lot of people to come in.
It’s not just one mission that we’re putting out there. It’s amazing that we’re a part of the circular economy – that part makes me feel like I’m doing something really great, not just going to work.
But my personal passion is retail and sales, and the customer-facing part of it. It’s my favorite thing to be on my sales floor. That fills my cup. When I’m in my flow is when I’m on my sales floor, and I’m talking to customers, and they find something that they love that fits them perfectly. ■
Greensboro-based Kontoor Brands has used professional sports to promote its Wrangler jeans and clothing for decades. Its relationship with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association dates back to 1948. The denim brand has also been a longtime NASCAR sponsor, and Wrangler recently became the official jeans of the Dallas Cowboys.
But name, image and likeness (NIL) rules for college athletes are allowing it to go after a younger customer base more aggressively.
In the last two years, the company has signed NIL deals with 10 athletes, primarily in Texas, to help promote a collection of licensed collegiate apparel. University of Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers (pictured), Ohio State University tight end Cade Stover and Texas volleyball middle blocker Asjia O’Neal post regularly on social media in their Wrangler clothes, giving the company a bigger presence with the under-35 age group.
Since Kontoor began promoting college athletes, it’s had more than 240 million media impressions for the Wrangler college collection of clothing. Sports Illustrated and The Houston Chronicle covered its deal with Ewers, for example. And it’s seen higher scores when it measures brand awareness and purchase consideration.
“It’s the evolution of sports sponsorships,” says John Meagher, senior director of marketing for Wrangler. “It is the intersection between sports marketing and influencers, engaging with audiences. That’s what we like about it. It feels authentic.”
While the company is in a “test and learn phase” with NIL, he’d like to see the marketing around colleges and college athletes become a major way it sells Wrangler clothing. He’s looking at adding deals with Southeastern Conference teams for 2024. “This is one part of a range of tactics that look at college sports and a younger audience, where we can to some degree see some sell-through.”
The $70 billion annual denim clothing market is expected to reach $130 billion over the next decade, according to market researcher Fact.MR. Companies such as Abercrombie & Fitch are entering the field, meaning Kontoor needs to find new ways to sell its brands, which also include Lee jeans.
It helps that college football, and other college sports, are especially popular in the South and Southwest, where Wrangler wants to expand its sales. “Quinn Ewers was someone that had reached out to us because he was such a fan of Wrangler,” says Meagher. “He had grown up with the Wrangler logo on his back pocket, and his values aligned with Wrangler.”
Kontoor held photo shoots with Ewers and the other athletes wearing Wrangler clothing, which were then used on their social media accounts. In addition to Ewers and O’Neal, Wrangler also had NIL deals last year with athletes on UT’s baseball, swimming and softball teams. “Texas is the heartland for us,” says Meagher. “It’s the heartland for cowboys, and our brand is strong there. Texas made so much sense.”
This year, Wrangler added Stover and signed O’Neal for a second year. Stover, projected to be an NFL draft pick in 2024, grew up on a cattle farm in Ohio and has done promotional work for the Ohio Beef Council, as well as agriculture company Ag-Pro. (He has said he’d prefer to be paid for his NIL sponsorships in tractors, not money.) O’Neal, a volleyball All-American and a sports management major, has become “professional” in how she promotes the brand on her social media accounts, says Meagher.
Noting the growing interest after the University of Colorado signed Deion Sanders to be its football coach, Wrangler also signed on this year to be the official clothing supplier of students who run onto the school’s Folsom Field before football games with school mascot Ralphie, an 850-pound buffalo. Supplies include a cowboy hat, button-up shirt and jeans.
NIL deals for brands such as Wrangler are smart, says Eben Novy-Williams of Sportico, a Penske Media operation, because they are usually cheaper than signing a professional athlete and because the people who live in many college towns and cities are fans of those teams because they’re alumni. “In a specific city like Austin, the UT athlete is better than partnering with someone on the Mavericks or the Cowboys, and cheaper as well,” says Novy-Williams. “Someone like Quinn Ewers would be a way to reach that fan base.”
To be sure, some companies, particularly those run or owned by success-obsessed alums, are using NIL deals to attract athletes to the university. Miami billionaire John Ruiz has used NIL deals with his company LifeWallet to encourage football players to transfer to the University of Miami, where he’s a longtime booster. Typically, larger universities can offer more extensive NIL packages than smaller programs. After Wake Forest University quarterback Sam Hartman transferred to Notre Dame this past year, he signed NIL deals with UnderArmour, Homefield Apparel, Topps and Beats by Dre.
Kontoor, a publicly traded company that split off from VF Corp. in 2019 and has a market capitalization of $2.6 billion, wants deals with athletes that personify its product’s image. For Wrangler, it’s about grit, confidence, and humility, says Meagher. “It helps us punch above our weight in terms of a media spend and a marketing spend.” Kontoor spent about $140 million annually on advertising and marketing during 2021-22, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
NIL deals are beneficial to the athletes, particularly with potential professional careers, by giving them experience in negotiating contracts and aligning with credible brands, says
Michael McCann, a law professor at the University of New Hampshire and founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute. “They’re getting real-life training,” he says. “A lot of them won’t go onto the pros, so whatever they get is something that they will value and could help them with costs.”
Meagher likes how the deals connect Wrangler with teams and athletes. “It makes people connect with them,” he says. “They feel true and down to earth and someone they can root for.”
A Tar Heel linebacker who knows how to deal.
After the first seven games of the 2023 season, UNC linebacker Cedric Gray had recorded 70 tackles as well as an interception and two fumble recoveries.
Gray, a Charlotte native and second-team All-American in 2022, had also recorded a Mt. Olive Pickle commercial before the season opener against South Carolina and taped a commercial for All About Insurance, a Chapel Hill-based Nationwide agency. There’s also the Big Ced burger – topped with bacon, cheese, egg and lettuce – at Al’s Burger Shack in downtown Chapel Hill.
It’s part of the new frontier in college sports, where athletes can use their notoriety to make some money after the NCAA approved name, image and likeness (NIL) guidelines in July 2021. Gray won’t disclose his finances, and the value of NIL agreements are rarely disclosed. But college sports website On3’s algorithm projects his deal-making potential at $429,000 in the next 12 months. By comparison, On3 predicts UNC quarterback Drake Maye could attract $1.3 million in transactions.
Gray works with NIL agent Pet Sumner, an account executive at The Sumner Group in Gastonia. Sumner, who played college basketball at Maine-Farmington, sees NIL work as expanding the agency and using his sports knowledge. “Brands aren’t going to reach out unless you’re making a name for yourself,” he says. “They want a guy who gets on TV and makes a lot of plays.”
Mt. Olive considered a national commercial for its Pickle Juicers, but Sumner suggested they start with a regional ad. He recruited Gray and another client, South Carolina linebacker Debo Williams, for a spot in which the two argue about which university is the real “Carolina.” They agreed that Pickle Juicers helped their workouts.
“I just thought it was a great idea and a good opportunity and related to sports,” says Gray, a sports administration major.
Mt. Olive looked for college athletes who personified the privately owned pickle company – reliable folks who do simple things well. Pickle juice is a favorite rehydration drink for exercise enthusiasts.
Gray says he is interested in NIL deals with companies that are professional and responsive. “If I have a deal in a particular field, I try not to crisscross,” he says. Regulations prevent agreements related to gambling and alcohol.
Sumner says deals with auto dealerships or companies that are run by alumni are good for the athletes. He also struck a deal with Al’s Burger Shack for former UNC basketball player Puff Johnson and a suit deal for former UNC wide receiver Emery Simmons, now playing at Utah.
Gray also works through Heels4Life, a collective for UNC football players, where companies can enter proposed agreements, athletes can accept them, and then the university’s compliance officer can review the deals. Once the work is completed, the athlete is paid.
Few college athletes get NIL deals, despite the fact that NIL has turned some college students into millionaires. On3 says Southern Cal basketball player Bronny James – LeBron’s son – has the highest NIL value potential at $5.9 million. UNC basketball player Armando Bacot has an NIL value potential of $930,000.
Sumner plans to speak at a lawyers conference in January to see if any firms are interested in working with college athletes, particularly those who, like Gray, specialize in defending. He dreams of using the phrase, “You want the best defense,” with a couple of hard-hitters.
Sounds like Gray may have another opportunity for a commercial. ■