Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Power list interview: Bobby Long’s mission based leadership

Piedmont Triad Partnership Co-Chair Bobby Long joined High Point University President Nido Qubein in the Power List interview, a partnership for discussions with some of the state’s most influential leaders. Business North Carolina’s annual Power List publication spotlights the state’s powerbrokers.

Bobby Long is a partner in the merchant banking firm Piedmont Capital Partners, which he began after selling his insurance company in 2002 at age 46. Piedmont Capital invests in companies resulting from technology innovations from academia, and its portfolio includes 3D printing, energy, healthcare and software. He is co-chair of the Piedmont Triad Partnership, which markets the 12-county region. As chair of the Piedmont Triad Charitable Foundation, Long is credited with rebuilding the Wyndham Championship golf tournament in Greensboro. He serves on the boards of the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation, Carbon, and First Tee Board of Governors. He is also a trustee at Elon University. Long graduated from N.C. State University in 1977 with a double major in business administration and economics.

This story includes excerpts from Long’s interview and was edited for clarity.

t led to your success in the insurance business after graduating from N.C. State University?

I quickly realized that insurance was a case of finite demand and almost infinite supply, so I tried to create a market that was the reverse of those two. We jumped right into the corporate-owned life insurance arena.

Right out of the box, when I was 22, I started cold calling Fortune 500 companies in places like New York City, trying to get leads however I could. I just didn’t know any better. I was like, why not? I’d go straight to the CEO.

Not many would take my calls, but some would. I’d then try to get somebody to go with me that knew what they were doing. I would learn from them until I could do it myself.

What happened with your insurance business?

We sold it to Clark Consulting and ultimately Transamerica. That was in
2002,  and I was 46 at the time. I remember thinking what in the world was I going to do next? It took some time, but I thought about what made me tick beyond trying to make ends meet and do well.

Ultimately, it made me much more mission-based. I thought if I could make as much money as possible and give it away, be charitable, I could make my work stuff mission-based, too. We live in a capitalist system, so you have to have a good business plan. In order for it to succeed, it has to make money, but simultaneously,
it would be of greater benefit if it solves some of life’s problems.

What would you tell someone who is getting ready to start a business?

Have huge courage. Don’t be scared. For younger people, know that older people want to help. I remember at age 30 the CEO of  Xerox calling and asking me to visit. I’m terrified, wondering what did I do wrong.  He said, ‘I remember when I was your age, and it took an awful lot for you and your partners to get this account, and I want to make it easier for you because I think you’ve done a fabulous job!’  He introduced us to his buddies that were CEOs.

And then he said, ‘Do you want to come down to Vero Beach, Florida, this weekend and play with the CEO of AT&T and one of my other friends?’ And I said, “Absolutely!” And we got AT&T pretty much that weekend.

And I said I’m going to try to do the same for people if I’m ever in a position to help them in the same way.

You helped start Piedmont Capital Partners. Explain what that company does.

We invest in technology companies coming out of academia at the earliest stage possible to try to change the world. For example, both my parents died of Alzheimer’s. We found a scientist who had just stepped down as the chief of the Neurology Department at Stanford University. He has come out with a pill that the data for is spectacular. We work with him, have dinner with him every three weeks, and have since 2014, and we’re starting the final trial now.

That’s a risky business, is it not?

Anything that has truly changed the world is singular and it’s got to have huge risk. I’m prepared for that. We typically take a 15%, maybe 20%, position in the company right out of the gate. Then you raise capital around it, and you keep going.

Some days it’s dark days, and some days it’s good days, and you just find the will and you meet with the people, and you hold their hands.

What led you to start Piedmont Capital?

We started in 2013. Between 2002 and 2013 I did a lot of different economic development things. In 2013, I said OK, I’m going to start companies. I formed a partnership with Louise Brady (former vice president of investments with Wells Fargo Advisors).

Typically in private equity, you’re taking over a business that already has revenue. As a merchant banking firm we’re creating it from scratch, just out of technology. It typically takes 12 to 13 years for that to happen. We still have, let’s say, 25 of them going. It’s pretty good, but it’s not for the faint of heart.

For example, our battery company is about next-generation batteries trying to solve the world’s energy problem. Everybody in the world is trying to do that. And we think we’ve got it. We get very involved. It’s not a passive investment. We have not gone a day where we didn’t talk with our battery company, seven days a week, for 10 years.

In 2007, Greensboro almost lost its PGA event. As chair of Piedmont Triad Charitable Foundation, you helped convince Wyndham to sponsor the tournament and keep it in Greensboro. Take us behind the scenes.

This was like a lot of the business stuff I’m doing. You find a great leader who really believes in what they’re doing, and then you back them. The tournament had fallen on hard times. Foundation CEO Mark Brazil (tournament director at the time) said he could make the tournament work, but he didn’t have the necessary money.

We got people involved and said, ‘If we can cooperate like this, and make this tournament successful, then we can work on everything in the region together and make it successful.’

Luckily, we all backed Mark. That’s what we try to do in our business. I probably went 15 years talking with Mark seven
days a week.

What makes a PGA golf tournament successful?

It’s like how you have built High Point, and not just the university, but the town. It’s not a straight line. There’s a lot of nuances and you try to make the best decisions on each one.

What’s your secret to engaging others in your missions?

I’ve been lucky to come in contact with a lot of nice people that are doing great things. I’m curious about what makes them tick and how I can be helpful to them. And then, lo and behold, they end up wanting to help me, too. It all starts out with how I can help them.

My parents taught me this lesson. Both were very welcoming, very inclusive, giving others the benefit of the doubt. I’m fascinated about what makes people tick. And then I want to be helpful if I can.

Your work with the Piedmont Triad Partnership has helped bring large companies to the region. What excites you about this region?

We’ve got so many great universities, like your own, around. Fifteen years ago, 75% of innovation came out of corporate America. Now it’s coming out of the universities. If that’s not stimulating, I don’t know what is. We also have access to talent, the positivity of a “can do” attitude.

What inspires you about our state’s future?

I like to win, and I like to succeed. North Carolina is my home, so I want North Carolina to win. We have “great everything.” Other places will say the same, but when you put it all together – our universities, our way of life, nice people, the whole bit – there’s no reason we can’t do better than everybody else.

A few years ago, I asked a guy in Palo Alto, California, about the difference between that area and North Carolina. And he said, “First, the science in North Carolina is equal to the Bay Area and Boston. What we have is a whole lot of money. If North Carolina can get the proper funding, it will explode.”

We have so many great ideas and what we need to do is grow them through relationships and nuances and looking for opportunities. Getting to the right people at the right time and being crafty about what our message is and putting the pieces together.

What is it that you really still look forward to doing?

I want to continue to be mission-based and continue to try to help wherever I can, and continue to learn. That’s my gig. North Carolina’s a great place to do that.

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