Running a big Caterpillar business is a Weisiger family tradition
Pressure? What pressure? It’s just that when Cabell Weisiger Cornelson was born on June 23, his grandfather was running the family business and his mother was in line to run it. Cab’s mother, Amanda Weisiger Cornelson, who returned to work in September after a 10-week maternity leave, isn’t sure if her infant son will one day be in charge.
“Oh man, it’s too early for that yet,” she says. “If he’s interested, we’d love to have him here.”
Meanwhile, Cab’s grandfather Ed Weisiger Jr., president and CEO of 95-year-old Carolina Tractor & Equipment since 1991, is impressed with his daughter and son-in-law’s parenting skills. “I don’t remember being as comfortable as they are. I remember being very stressed.”
As for Cab’s future, Weisiger agrees having four generations photographed for this story is pretty cool. Still, he adds, “Nobody has put a crown on his head yet.”
While certainly no kingdom, CTE is one of North Carolina’s largest privately held companies with $800 million in revenue last year and $900 million expected this year. A concern for succession and a commitment to stewardship have helped it beat the odds. “Most (family) businesses fail over time,” Weisiger says. “We’re fighting taxation, chaos and entropy to make this work.”
Although it operates in five states, CTE is anchored in western North Carolina, where it was founded. The headquarters moved from Salisbury to Charlotte in 1971. Today, four generations of Weisigers live within a few miles of one another in south Charlotte’s Eastover, Cotswold and South Park neighborhoods.
The Weisiger concept of a family business does not mean just immediate kin at the 1,600-employee company. “It’s more than us,” Weisiger says. Mike Tropsha, general manager of the Carolina Cat construction division and a 10-year company employee, says, “There’s a balance between a family environment with a family feel and the ambition and capabilities of a modern,sophisticated company.” CTE’s executive team includes former senior leaders at GE Capital, SPX Flow and Sealed Air.
Weisiger doesn’t disclose profit but says 2020 set a record, overcoming expectations for a difficult year because of the pandemic. “It’s amazing what $6 trillion from the federal government can do. I give the federal government a lot of credit. The CARES Act created confidence and demand, which was helpful for us. Being in the Southeast, we also benefited from population growth.”
Despite chip shortages and supply-chain issues, this year’s profit will approach the 2020 record, Weisiger says. Housing starts are the best correlation for CTE’s revenue, and more than 700,000 single-family homes were under construction nationally in August, the most since before the recession of 2007-09 and a third higher than a year earlier.
“Demand is strong, even if supply is not. We’re missing out on some equipment sales, but I don’t know what the gap is between what we could sell and what we have to sell.”
Peoria, Ill.-based Caterpillar remains the core of CTE, making up 60% of revenue. The world’s leading manufacturer of heavy equipment has about 40 dealerships in the U.S. It split North Carolina into two regions in 1951, awarding the eastern half to road contractor Gregory Poole. His grandson, Gregory Poole III, is the third generation to lead the company.
CTE is among the nation’s oldest Caterpillar dealers with 30 offices in the Carolinas, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. The N.C. staff totals about 1,100, including 475 at the north Charlotte headquarters, which houses administration, sales and service.
While everyone has seen yellow Caterpillar equipment, it’s technology that stands out at the corporate office. In a small room called the “fishbowl,” interactive wall screens monitor the operations of about 10,000 pieces of Caterpillar equipment that CTE has sold.
Cellular antennas enable information flow to provide “an idea of the health of the fleet in our territory,” says Jason Ritchey, general manager of construction technology firm Sitech, a CTE affiliate. “We use software to tell customers how they’re doing — it’s the coolest stuff in the company.” Monitoring also enables customers to anticipate maintenance needs.
CTE also offers drones that can survey construction sites, and Caterpillar construction equipment comes with computer equipment to estimate grades and identify barriers. A drone can survey 20 acres in 30 minutes.
It’s a far cry from when Ed Weisiger Sr. ran the company. “We used to check sites for rocks,” he says. “We’d pound a hammer.”
Carolina Tractor & Equipment was founded in 1926. In 1930, L.M. Weisiger, the Caterpillar distributor for Asheville, became the majority investor. During the Depression, when many businesses folded, CTE sold whatever it could to survive, including dairy processing materials and cleaning supplies. As World War II approached, increasing construction of roads and airstrips created demand for road building equipment. Later, in the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower oversaw a surge in interstate highway construction.
Ed Weisiger Jr. admires his grandfather L.M. as someone “able to make bets and willing to make pivots and leave comfortable places for uncomfortable places, when trends told him he should.”
L.M. Weisiger earned a civil engineering degree from the University of South Carolina at 18 in about 1920. With the dawn of automobiles, he became a state highway engineer, building roads in western South Carolina. “Then he saw that he could leave the state [job] and become a contractor, and then he went from contractor to Caterpillar dealer,” says Ed Weisiger Jr., whose hobbies include collecting antique maps and tracing the roads his grandfather built.
Ed Weisiger Sr. was born in Salisbury in 1931. He worked for his dad as a mechanic, graduated from N.C. State University in 1954 and joined the Army, overseeing a heavy equipment maintenance unit in Germany. He returned to work in 1956 and was named CTE president in 1965.
“My dad bought out Carolina Tractor, which gave him three quarters of the state” for Caterpillar, Ed Sr. says. “He was smart and very frugal and always made a profit [except for 1934].
I tried to follow that.” Once the headquarters was moved to Charlotte, Ed Sr. became active in the chamber of commerce, making lots of contacts and sharing in the region’s growth.
“We were fortunate,” Ed Sr. says. “Dad took on the dealership in the 1930s. The government spent a lot of money on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Eisenhower started the interstate program, and Duke built new power plants in the 1950s and 1960s. It helped the area because there was cheap power and businesses came here.”
Ed Sr. took key steps in securing the family’s control of the business, buying out four other dealership stockholders in the 1960s. “I felt the stockholders were not participating. They were hangers-on. One lady had about 30%. I had to give her a million dollars.”
The company’s owners now are Ed Sr. and his wife, Agnes, and Ed Jr. and his three daughters. Today Ed Sr. lives in South Park and has a farm in Lancaster County, S.C., where he raises turkeys, deer, ducks and pine trees.
Born in Charlotte, Ed Jr. attended Woodberry Forest School before earning an industrial engineering degree at N.C. State in 1982 and a Harvard MBA in 1985. He worked in commercial real estate before joining CTE in 1986.
Diversifying away from construction equipment sales and service has been a key goal. An example is the partnership formed in 2012 with lift-truck maker Hyster-Yale. “It’s not that we don’t like Caterpillar, but we hadn’t been able to grow,” he says. “We’ve become less dependent over time.”
Besides CTE, the family has two other businesses. Beacon Partners is a Charlotte-based real-estate investment firm founded in 1989 and is led by co-founder Pete Lash.
Beacon oversees about 100 real-estate partnerships valued at more than $2 billion. While much of its focus is on industrial projects, Beacon was an early investor in office projects in Charlotte’s red-hot South End area.
The Weisigers also have a private-equity business through a fund that manages $150 million in assets in about 60 companies. “We back searchers, young people in their early 30s, recent grads of top MBA schools, who are trying to do entrepreneurial things,” Weisiger says. “We make small and microcap purchases, we apply smart people, and we grow those businesses. Some are tech-enabled; some are more mundane. One in Washington state delivers garden plants to offices and refreshes them from time to time. Others take care of ponds: they catch stormwater and maintain retention ponds.”
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Working with family members on developing “good and competent governance” is a key role for Weisiger. Formal family meetings are held quarterly to discuss finances, challenges and obligations. “We discuss the business, we learn about each other. We’ve done some psychological profiling.”
Family members are required to work successfully outside the business before joining CTE. “You learn a lot about yourself before you come back,” Weisiger says.
The CEO’s middle daughter, Marshall, is a College of Charleston graduate who now works for Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati. His youngest daughter, Grace, graduated from the University of Georgia and is attending the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. Neither has decided whether to join CTE.
Cornelson, the oldest daughter, worked in New York for a marketing agency after earning a bachelor’s degree at Vanderbilt in 2012. She returned to Charlotte to join two friends to start House Account, which helped small brick-and-mortar retailers build an online presence. In 2018, the company merged with Shoptiques, a competitor.
She then joined CTE, heading a team that dispatches maintenance workers when equipment needs service. Now she is a financial planning and analysis manager as part of a rotation through different roles in the dealership. Her husband, Shaw, works as a market manager for Raleigh-based Alfred Williams & Co., a commercial furniture dealership.
Cornelson attended her first family business meeting in her mid-teens. “Dad kept us involved,” she says. “We review strategy, go through communication and trust exercises, discuss family giving and philanthropy, and go to dinner and concerts. There is no pressure to join the business. For me, having knowledge of what was going on took the pressure off.” Family members are subject to performance evaluations just like other company employees.
The family has a self-imposed obligation to donate $1 million to community causes each year. In 2020, with the pandemic raging, the amount was $1.7 million. Favorite charities include Novant Health, where the Edward I. and Agnes B. Weisiger (Ed’s parents) Cancer Center opened last fall, and N.C. State, which has a library endowment and athletic facility named after the family. Ed. Jr. is a N.C. State trustee.
Adding tech capabilities is a mission for Cornelson. She also wants to hire more women, who make up 14% of the company’s payroll. “Every day I walk into a room full of guys,” she says.
Nationally, women totaled 10% of workers in construction and heavy equipment repair in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “There are preconceived notions about the construction industry,” Cornelson says. “Women think they will be covered head to toe in mud, but there are also opportunities to work with technology and make sure we take care of customers.”
More broadly, she says, “I’m going to steer the business, keep it healthy and growing, and keep what my predecessors have built while keeping in mind that the world is changing quickly. My main goal is to continue this for future generations. Ninety-five-year-old family businesses are hard to come by these days.”
She returned to work on Sept. 7, when Cab was 11 weeks old. A week later, Cab made his first visit to the office. His looming responsibility made no impression on him, but his N.C. State bib atop a Wolfpack-themed bodysuit sent a message. His great-grandfather and grandfather, who are former and current N.C. state trustees, beamed at him. ■