Sunday, April 21, 2024

Commentary: A cast of extraordinary leaders — and one promising candidate


Meeting extraordinary leaders is a perk of business journalism for which I’m increasingly appreciative. While the world is full of talented executives doing great work, there are very few with truly distinctive leadership skills that deserve the “extraordinary” label.

My first brush came in the mid-’80s, when I left an interview with Charlotte car dealer Rick Hendrick and thought, “That guy is going to be an incredible success. I should quit my job and go sell cars for him.” At the time, he owned several dealerships. Now Hendrick Automotive Group has more than 140.

Since then, I’ve had some less dramatic but still memorable experiences. The late Ken Iverson’s work at Nucor Corp. and Hugh McColl Jr.’s expansion at Bank of America Corp. have sparked business-school case studies. Former BB&T Corp. CEO John Allison built a thriving bank and a corporate culture that has balanced the interests of employees, shareholders and communities for decades.

While working in Atlanta, I met Jim Whitehurst when he was chief operating officer of Delta Air Lines Inc., playing a key role in rebuilding a then-bankrupt company. It’s no surprise that Raleigh-based Red Hat Inc.’s fortunes have soared since he became CEO in 2008. (In late October, IBM Corp. agreed to buy Red Hat for $34 billion, marking the third-largest tech company acquisition in U.S. history. Whitehurst will report to IBM CEO Ginni Rometty.)

I’ve also been wrong. In the dot-com boom, I recall leaving a speech by Clarence Chandran, the chief operating officer of Nortel Networks, thinking the telecom company would take over the world. Within a year or two, the now-defunct company had started a long descent. More commonly, journalists meet excellent leaders skilled at sustaining success or exploiting their companies’ advantages. Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan is a super-smart CEO who has won praise from investors. But the bank’s rebound has come at a cost: BofA has slashed its workforce by more than 80,000 since 2010, which Moynihan credits to effective use of technology.

I thought of those aforementioned leaders after meeting Matt Sheehan, the 44-year-old CEO of Winston-Salem-based Primo Water Corp. Matt previously helped DVD vendor Redbox go from 100 kiosks to 35,000 in six years. Since 2012, he has positioned Primo to lead an industry with great growth prospects, overseen a stunning rebound in the company’s shares and sustained a culture developed by company founder Billy Prim. He also praises his headquarters community, which like many cities needs strong business cheerleaders.

Time will tell, and Matt has lots of work to do to match the others I’ve mentioned. But my hunch: He’s got a good shot.

David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at

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