Power 100 2020: Tom Nelson
Courtesy of Tom Nelson
57 | CEO, National Gypsum
As the head of a business that makes wallboard capable of lasting as long as a century in homes and commercial buildings, Nelson says he’s in the sustainability business. But when he talks about the future, old houses aren’t exactly what he has in mind. It’s about preservation of his company and Earth through programs such as a four-year effort that helped National Gypsum cut toxic compounds by more than 600,000 pounds annually.
“We’re investing in sustainability because it’s the right thing to do, and our data shows that’s what our customers, associates and community expect from us,” he says. “Clear air, clean water and a world with less waste continue to be top priorities for us.”
For more than two decades, Nelson has headed the company acquired in 1995 by his father-in-law, C.D. Spangler, an iconic Charlotte billionaire and former president of the University of North Carolina System. Spangler gambled that he could distance the company from a series of bankruptcies and nearly $1 billion of debt, stemming mostly from hundreds of asbestos health claims. For generations, many building components and other products contained the substance, which was later found to cause cancer. National Gypsum created a massive trust fund to pay off claims. And Spangler, who died in 2018, bet that his son-in-law could bring long-term success to the company.
An industrial engineer by training, Nelson worked for Morgan Stanley and as a venture capitalist before joining the family business as vice chairman and chief financial officer in 1995. The privately held company doesn’t release financial results, but Nelson makes clear that its shaky days are long in the past. “The market continues to affirm our focus on product innovation and commitment to providing unmatched service to our customers.” The company’s Purple brand wallboard products are gaining in sales, he says.
“Here in North Carolina, we increased our wallboard manufacturing with the addition of our Wilmington plant, which reopened in late 2018.” It employed nearly 50 but shut down in 2009 in the midst of recession. “We’re optimistic heading into 2020 and remain focused on building a high-performance culture, including developing women in leadership roles who are now being recognized nationally as emerging leaders in manufacturing.”
The Stanford University graduate, who earned his MBA from Harvard University, is a member of the Charlotte Executive Leadership Council and chairs the finance and compliance committee of Atrium Health, the state’s biggest hospital system. Nationally, he’s a member of the Business Roundtable. The father of two daughters, he’s “had the opportunity to champion access to [pre-kindergarten] programs at the state level,” he says, and in Charlotte, that has included the creation of more than 30 classrooms.
The ultimate sustainability? He cites National Gypsum’s reputation for corporate integrity and respect. “They’re fundamental to creating sustainable success as a company.”
— Edward Martin