Opinion: Triangle movers and shakers take the long view, quietly

 In June 2019

Opinion

By Dan Barkin

The 50 Group — which has more than 50 members — is an organization made up mostly of current and past CEOs of companies in the Raleigh-Durham area. It is a high-powered group that has been around for nearly 45 years. You have probably not heard of it, and that’s pretty much how they want it.

If you work for a big company in the Triangle, your CEO or top local site leader could be a member. Same if you work for a prominent law, accounting or engineering firm. The group meets five times a year to network and hear speakers.

I was interested in learning if there was more to it — some agenda — so I contacted the group’s leadership for an interview. One of its longtime leaders, Robb Teer of the prominent Durham construction family, responded by email that they would have to decline.

“… [Our] group is not interested in any publicity,” he said. “This is a policy we have followed the whole time I have been involved, which is almost 30 years. Our members are all invited to join and appreciate our low-key policy. I know it is hard to believe that we have no agendas, but it is true.”

I thought you might want to know more.

I’ll let Earl Bardin, an early member, describe it in more detail. A Raleigh banker who passed away in 2017 at age 90, he was interviewed for the Southern Oral History Program at UNC Chapel Hill about 17 years ago, and the conversation drifted to The 50 Group. The members, Bardin said, were basically up to their necks in high-pressure jobs and civic responsibilities.

“All of them were busy with their companies and many of them were busy with community projects like the hospital, like the Chamber of Commerce, the Salvation Army and God knows what else. They’ve got a jillion things to do. This is one thing they can belong to, and all they’ve got to do is give up a couple of hours, five times a year, to get some connection of other people of similar ilk and to hear someone speak on a subject of importance. That’s all it does. But it does a good job with that.”

If you scratch around archives and talk to some folks, you can pull together some more history.

The organization got its start in 1975, the idea of businessman Donald Grubb, a Pennsylvanian who had moved the headquarters of the company he led to the town of Wake Forest, north of Raleigh, a couple of years earlier. He thought a growing community such as the Triangle needed a movers and shakers’ group to exchange ideas, network and hear from knowledgeable speakers. Membership is limited to 150. The founders figured that with 150 CEOs with a jillion things to do, you might get a third of them to show up for any given meeting. Explicitly, in a copy of the group’s constitution that I saw, the group wasn’t intended to take public positions on current issues. It was foreseen that over the years, members would get to know each other and work informally on projects. If you brought smart and influential folks together five times a year, important conversations would result.

As recently as the late 1980s, the group had no female representation and only two African-American members. The makeup has changed in gender, reflecting the increasing number of women in senior posts at Triangle companies and institutions. About 20% to 25% of active members are women, and the 2018-19 president has been Jill Wells Heath, president of Calyx Engineers and Consultants. Fewer than a handful of members are African-American.

Many members are part of the tight circle of folks who sit on the boards of hospitals, colleges, the United Way and the symphony. As you might expect, names include longtime powerbrokers such as Smedes York, John Kane and Steve Stroud, according to a member who asked to remain anonymous.

My sense is that while some people are invited because of their unique jobs — such as leading a hospital, university or airport — you aren’t asked to join unless you have been on a bunch of important civic boards. There is no rush week. You have to be nominated by a member and approved by the leadership.

If one of your life’s goals is to get into The 50, you should wrangle an invite onto a chamber board, because that’s on a lot of members’ resumes.

Recent speakers have included Gov. Roy Cooper, Norfolk Southern CEO James Squires and Duke University President Vincent Price. David Woronoff, publisher of the The Pilot newspaper in Southern Pines [and owner of this magazine], spoke recently about the work of a statewide organization he belongs to that is working on redistricting reform.

When The 50’s existence pops into public view here and there, it is mainly in obituaries, the paid kind that families write. I found mentions of membership in the group in
obits for Chapel Hill insurance-agency owner Collier Cobb III from 2000, former Apex Mayor Dick Helmold in 2005, and, not surprisingly, Donald Grubb in 2006. In 2007, accounting executive Jim Talton’s obit mentioned his leadership of the group. Membership meant something to the departed.

It is a little visible here and there among current members. Jill Heath’s bio on her company’s website lists the group, as does her LinkedIn page. Attorney Bo Dempster
has it on his Poyner Spruill partner webpage. So the low-key policy isn’t 100% airtight.

Media coverage has been sparse. Poking around, I found a tiny mention that popped up 22 years ago in the pages of my former employer, The News & Observer, when the then-owner of the Hartford Whalers-turned-Carolina Hurricanes, Peter Karmanos, was being introduced around the Triangle and spoke to a meeting of the group at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel. The reporter covering the Karmanos public relations/luxury box/season ticket tour stuck a paragraph about the appearance way, way down in his story, perhaps not realizing the rarity of a 50 Group sighting.

The only significant coverage of the group came 13 years into its existence in 1988, also in the N&O, under the front-page headline “Fifty Group tool for Triangle’s male elite.” The headline, I’m sure, thrilled those gentlemen to no end. After that, and quite possibly because of that, pretty much radio silence ensued.

I figure that every three decades or so, particularly in a region with so many newcomers, someone should write about this high-powered group of bosses in the Triangle, less male now but still quite elite. ■

Dan Barkin can be reached at dbarkin53@gmail.com.

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