Thursday, August 11, 2022

NCtrend: Staying power

by Maria Johnson

The wooden sign by the front door says Blue Gem. And it’s true, a real-estate holding company called Blue Gem Inc. is headquartered here, in an office that takes up half of a gambrel-roofed duplex on Banking Street in Greensboro. Alan Cone is president of Blue Gem. Sheron Watts is secretary and treasurer. Alan’s son, Billy, is the vice president. But Billy lives in Wilmington, so here in Greensboro, the company is just Alan and Sheron. That’s Blue Gem, like the sign says. But the office is also a hive — albeit a low-key hive — of some of Greensboro’s most successful retired businessmen. Down the hallway from Cone, five of them rent cubbyhole offices, which he leases for just enough to cover the taxes on the place.

If you tallied up the net worth of the whole lot, you could call them the Billionaire Boys Club, and you might be off by one zero. Maybe. None of them has to be here, yet every one of them is, nearly every day they’re in town. Berry Reid, 90, is a former stockbroker at J.C. Bradford & Co., now UBS AG. Alan Cone, 89, worked for his family business, Cone Mills Corp., before buying his own denim company. Bob Rapp, 89, started and sold three home-building companies. Clyde Collins, 86, was chief financial officer and executive vice president of Southern Life Insurance Co. until it was sold in 1986. Charlie Reid, who turns 81 this month, is the former CEO of United Guaranty Corp. who came to Greensboro as an executive for First Union Corp. And Bob Taylor, the baby at 78, is a former banker and owner of several KOA campgrounds. Total mileage? Rapp grabs his calculator, which is never far away. His fingers fly over the large buttons. That’s five hundred thirteen years of experience, he says.

They play the stock market. They talk current events. And smack. And sports. All of the guys went to school in North Carolina. Taylor and Rapp are Davidson men. Cone graduated from Carolina. Berry Reid started at N.C. State and finished at Carolina. Collins went to King’s College, and Charlie Reid went to Wake Forest.

Lunch is a pretty big deal, except for Collins, a light eater who usually heats up something in the kitchenette at end of the hall, and for Taylor, who typically goes home to catch a bite. The rest dine out a fair bit — sometimes with each other, sometimes with other pals. Back in their wood-paneled warren, they watch the market on CNBC. When the Masters or the Ryder Cup is on, they watch the Golf Channel. Most of them played golf until their knees and backs gave out. A couple of them — Cone and Charlie Reid — still haul it around the course in a cart.

And even with body parts protesting, a number of them still work out, either at home or at a club, a few times a week. They come back, flush with oxygen. They read books and magazines, maybe work on crossword puzzles, read email, check on the market, pay some bills, inflict a few jokes. Nothing too strenuous. “I work,” says Taylor, drawing out the last word as he considers the truthfulness of his statement. “But if I worked for someone else, I’d probably be fired.” Voices float into the open hallway. “There’s always a conversation going,” says Cone. They talk politics, up to a point. They talk about their ailments. But they don’t dwell on them. “How’s your vertigo? What did the eye doctor say? Are you going to get that fixed or leave it alone?” That’s how Charlie Reid sums it up. A few years ago, Cone bought a defibrillator for the office, just in case. Watts learned how to use it. “I think I got it,” she says. Her hands turn into high-voltage pads as she imagines the steps. “Put them there. Stay clear. Push the button.” She pauses. “I guess I can call 911.”

Technically, Watts’ job is to take care of the financials for Blue Gem. But, practically speaking, she rides herd on the whole gang, distributing mail, collecting rent and serving as the infomation technology department when possible. At 67, she’s a youngster in the office. Her perks include unlimited time on and Pinterest, the occasional meatloaf sandwich from Berry Reid and clementines from Rapp when they’re in season. “My husband wants me to retire, but I don’t want to retire,” she says. “I like what I’m doing. It’s fun. They’ve got their quirky little ways, but I know ’em. They’re all very generous to me at Christmas, and they’re very gentlemanly. Like, if they say something a little off-color, they’ll apologize to me. You wouldn’t hear that from anyone younger.”

At the end of the day, which is whenever they say it is, but happens to be pretty close to quitting time for the rest of the working world, the guys get in their cars and go home. The next day, they get up and get dressed and go to the office, just as they have done for years. “You keep on keepin’ on, if you know what I mean,” says Collins. He can’t break himself of the habit of getting up at 5 a.m., so he’s happy to have a place to go. “It’s a place I can keep my records and stuff. … It’s a place that’s mine.”

Cone started this outliers club in 2000, eight years after he bought the shotgun-style suite. He’d just sold off the denim-making part of Blue Gem to focus on real estate. His employees filled every office. But bit by bit, Cone whittled his holdings and his staff until it was just him and Watts. Cone says the idea of renting the extra space to retired friends came up when he was having lunch with Rapp. A mortgage banker when he landed in Greensboro in 1955, Rapp started Westminster Homes Inc. with builder friend Roger Kavanagh in 1967. A few years later, they sold it to Weyerhaeuser. Then Rapp started Arrapco Homes and sold it to D.R. Horton Inc. A series of business transactions left him loaded — even with his nasty Ferrari habit — but it did not quench his need to stay busy. He and the others have seen the retirement trap before. People retire. They travel. They read the books they’ve been meaning to read. It’s nice for a while. But gradually, it takes effort to stay engaged and interested. And being interested, this crew knows, is half of being interesting. Having a place to go helps. “I didn’t like it; it was just me,” says Taylor, the former banker used to having a bustling office. “I didn’t have anybody to bounce things off of, get their ideas. There are advantages to being around other people. I’ve learned a lot from these guys. We’ve learned a lot from each other.”

Yes, they still turn profits. It’s what they do, and they’re good at it. But making money isn’t really the point.

A version of this article appeared in O.Henry magazine, a sister publication based in Greensboro.

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