Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Trailblazers: 20 young leaders focused on improving the state’s smaller cities

Business North Carolina recognizes thriving business owners and professionals under the age of 40 who work in N.C. cities and towns that have fewer than 100,000 residents. This year, we received nominations for talented Trailblazers based from Edenton to Asheville. The list includes a wide variety of occupations including software, logistics, real estate and plumbing.

As many jobs shifted from big city office towers in the past several years, some families jumped at the chance to move to less expensive, more spacious homes in small towns on the periphery of North Carolina’s urban areas.

Dozens of smaller, mostly suburban towns saw more dramatic population growth rates between 2020 and 2021 than the state’s largest cities, U.S. Census data shows.

Wendell, east of Raleigh, was the fastest-growing municipality, with its population increasing by 18% to 11,570 in a single year. Other Triangle and Charlotte suburbs including Apex, Waxhaw and Clayton saw similar growth.

But people haven’t been moving only to the towns within a short commute of major cities. Calabash, the town on the South Carolina stateline best known for its seafood, was the sixth- fastest-growing municipality in the past year with 8.6% growth.

Aberdeen, near Southern Pines, saw its population grow by 6.6% and ranked No. 13.

By contrast, Charlotte grew by 0.3% and Raleigh grew by 0.4%, which represents thousands of new residents.

Some young professionals are opting to launch careers and businesses in the state’s smaller towns, finding plenty of opportunities to make their mark.

All the trailblazers are having a significant impact in sustaining and building their communities. We appreciate their participation and those who made nominations. 


president and owner | Queen City Engineering and Design

Mount Pleasant 

The N.C. State University graduate founded the business in 2015. It had success during the pandemic by developing and making barriers to protect bus drivers and others from potentially ill riders. More than 5,000 barriers have been sold nationally, enabling Queen City to retain its workforce. It’s an example of the company’s diverse mechanical engineering and manufacturing services. 

Education: Bachelor of Science, N.C. State University  

What is most special about your community? It is a small, quiet farm town where everyone is friendly and knows one another. Life just seems to move slower here.

Biggest influence: A former boss of mine and seasoned businessman, Roger Leon. I worked for him in my early 20s. Within two years, I watched our small startup company of seven employees grow into a large manufacturer that competes with huge original equipment manufacturers — such as John Deere and Husqvarna — at major retailers throughout the country. 

Most important character trait: My ability to be able to talk to anyone has helped me the most. Networking is a major part of growing your career or a business. 

Organization’s biggest success: Receiving ISO 9001:2015 certification. We became certified on our first attempt and have since seen a tremendous increase in the quality of customers and magnitude of projects we are receiving.

Favorite volunteer activity: Working at vacation Bible school at my church. A friend and I are always in charge of the games station. Every year on the last day, we finish the week with a giant slip ‘n’ slide. We have been doing this for so long now that many of the once 5- and 6 year-olds are heading off to college. 


tourism director | Chowan County Tourism Development Authority


The Edenton native leads a multiplatform marketing campaign, which has led to a record-breaking year for the town’s occupancy tax. She’s a hands-on director who is visible at town events doing everything from organizing silent auctions to cleaning. 

Education: Bachelor of Arts, William Peace University  

What is most special about your community? Rural communities sometimes get a reputation for being stuck in the past and being economically stagnant. Edenton has weathered everything that has come our way. The town is stronger today than ever.

Biggest influence: Nancy Nicholls is one of my most important influences, biggest cheerleaders and dearest friends. In 2021, Nancy retired after 29 years of leading the Chowan County TDA. Now, I find myself sitting in her chair, employing the lessons she taught me when I was 15 years old. It has truly been a “full circle” experience. 

Organization’s greatest success: A record-breaking year in occupancy tax came from visitors making overnight stays in Edenton. Expanding our communication plan during a pandemic was a high-risk decision, but it was necessary to showcase all that our town has to offer. 

Favorite volunteer activity: One of my favorite things about local events is breaking the event down once it is over. I enjoy watching the impact we’ve made on our local community by providing events for both residents and tourists. 


travel agent | TravelMation 


When travel reached an all-time low because of the pandemic, the Goldsboro native made a name for herself as a trustworthy travel agent with both local and national clients. Dumond is on track to grow her annual book of business to $1 million after three years in the industry. 

After receiving a master’s degree in 2019, Dumond struggled to find a job. Instead, she joined Travelmation as an independent travel adviser. The Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based agency specializes in selling vacation packages at Disney’s famous resorts. 

Despite the uncertainties surrounding the travel industry amid COVID-19, the wife and mother of two has built a substantial business by nurturing relationships with clients, participating in the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce, and promoting her services through various travel and news publications. She says her favorite all-inclusive resort is Sandals South Coast in Jamaica.

Education: Master of Public Administration, Regent University

What is most special about your community? The kind and supportive people make Goldsboro special. Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and the 4th Fighter Wing make Goldsboro special. We’re all proud of the men and women who serve our country.

Biggest influence: My family. After earning a Master of Public Administration, I received over 50 rejection letters for employment. It was the influence of my family that inspired me to follow my love for travel and begin a career as a travel agent.

Most important character trait: One’s true worth is determined by how much more they give in value than what they may take in payment. 

Favorite volunteer activity: Anything working with students and young people in my community, specifically middle-school students. I have such a special love for them.


director of community and economic development | Warren County


The Warren County native has a lot of pride for her home county and its rural identity. One of her goals is to challenge stereotypes about small, idyllic communities. Her work with the county started in 2019 when she was a senior assistant to the county manager. 

Duncan was a teacher in Greensboro and Charlotte, attended grad school in New York and worked for Granville County before returning to Warrenton. Since taking her current post in 2021, Duncan has assisted expansion efforts of existing industry, including Glen Raven’s expansion that added 205 employees and $82 million of capital investment. She’s also helped attract $2 million in grants for community projects, advised on zoning changes to promote development along Interstate 85, and led county partnership efforts to secure the development of a housing subdivision in the historic Soul City community. 

Returning to Warren County comes with an added bonus — she’s restoring her grandparents’ family home.

Education: Bachelor of Arts, UNC Greensboro; Master of Public Administration, New York University

What is most special about your community? Warren County is a bold community dedicated to building a bright future for all who live here. We are fearless and undaunted by hard work. We are a community of creative, innovative and entrepreneurial spirits.

Biggest influence: My mentor and friend Harry Mills. He is the economic development director in Granville County. He has been a big inspiration and help for me.

Organization’s biggest success: Housing is a need for counties all over the state — both urban and rural — and our county has partnered with a developer to launch the development of an 82-home subdivision. This will complete a decades-long plan to see housing develop in this location. Across the street, the county has worked to locate the first business in our Triangle North Warren business park, which was formed almost 20 years ago. 

Favorite volunteer activity: Co-hosting trivia games with my friend Jenny at a meadery and taproom in downtown Warrenton. It’s been my joy to co-host an event where folks are regularly laughing and are in community together. It’s an important part of reinforcing our identity as a community.


business banking sales and service group leader | PNC Bank


The Bertie County native has been an important force during the 10 years since Pittsburgh-based PNC company acquired Royal Bank of Canada’s U.S. banking business. Working from a small town, she has helped lead PNC’s transformation for business banking as new technology was adopted for payables, receivables and other services, leading to a promotion to her current role in June. She’s also been instrumental in leading PNC’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts across eastern North Carolina through mentoring, professional development and marketwide discussions, according to Jim Hansen, the bank’s regional leader. 

Education: Bachelor of Science, Boston College 

Biggest influence: My current manager, Dawn Doherty, was instrumental in helping me hone my leadership acumen. She helped me see my management-track potential. Her mentorship approach mirrors my personal philosophy that my father instilled in me — always strive to improve the life of somebody else and help them move forward.

Most important character trait: Integrity. I am intentional about consistently doing what I say I will do.

Company’s greatest success: Last February, we launched the PNC North Carolina HBCU Initiative, which distributed $2 million in grants to five North Carolina HBCUs to enrich the future of entrepreneurship and create workforce opportunities. PNC’s philanthropic approach empowers local leaders. 

Favorite volunteer activity: I am passionate about paying it forward and mentoring young people in my community. I’ve found that high school seniors and early-career professionals may not always be aware of the extent of available resources or have the confidence to pursue certain career pathways. As a mentor, I provide encouragement and connectivity. 


director of Carolinas operations | Barton Malow Builders


Hassler is responsible for all projects in the Carolinas for her Southfield, Michigan-based employer, which has more than 3,000 employees and 16 offices nationally. Her work during her 15 years at the company has included construction of minor-league baseball stadiums in Kannapolis, Charlotte, Nashville, Tennessee and Columbia, South Carolina. She’s also a board member of Cabarrus County’s The Chamber, Leading in Business, and serves on the organization’s steering committee. She and her husband have two sons. 

Education: Bachelor of Science, Purdue University 

Biggest influence: My teachers have always been the most influential people in my life, from kindergarten through college. There is no one I have greater respect for in this community.

Most important character trait: I am genuine. Honesty, trustworthiness and sincerity are of utmost importance to me in both my personal and professional relationships.

Company’s most important success: From April 2021 to March 2022, we achieved the highest earned revenues and fees in the company’s 98-year history with record backlog for future fiscal years.

Favorite volunteer activity: For the last few years, I have thoroughly enjoyed serving on the steering committee for the Leadership Cabarrus program. My team and I plan the Sports and Tourism Day, which gives class participants insight and tours. It brings awareness to the impact that these industries have on the local economy and quality of life in Cabarrus County.


economic development director | Montgomery County


Montgomery County didn’t have a full-time economic development director until Heath stepped into the role in August 2021. In the past year, the county has been awarded significant grants from the Golden LEAF Foundation, N.C. Railroad Co. and NC Southeast Partnership. She previously worked for Montgomery Community College as director of the Small Business Center. She’s a director for several local nonprofits and community groups.  

Education: Bachelor of Science, UNC Charlotte; Master of Business Administration, Louisiana State University, Shreveport

What is most special about your community? Our beautiful natural recreational assets, such as the Uwharrie National Forest, Badin Lake, Lake Tillery, Uwharrie River and Little River. These ancient mountains have a way of casting their spell on you making it hard to leave. 

Biggest influence: My grandparents always encouraged me to give back to my community, love the natural world and stay strong in my faith. Both being successful in their careers, they built a strong foundation for our family and taught us optimism in its purest form.

Most important character trait: A strong foundation in family values and community service.

Organization’s biggest success: We have been able to develop and launch a new tourism website, capitalize on many marketing and advertising opportunities, and grow our occupancy tax collections to allow for a full-time tourism coordinator. We have also added Discover Uwharrie Welcome Center staff. The national forest now averages 2 million visitors annually.

Favorite volunteer activity: Assisting with conservation efforts. 


founder | Ease Plumbing


Helms’ heady goal is to create the nation’s largest employee-owned service company. With more than 50 employees rolling around eight markets ranging from Charlotte to Greenville, he’s on his way. 

Education: Bachelor of Science, UNC Chapel Hill

What’s special about your community? My family has been my rock since I was born. My work community has been the main reason for the success of Ease Plumbing. They bought into the vision. 

Biggest influence: My mom was a teacher for 30 years. She was never an entrepreneur, she never worked in business and she can’t even balance a checkbook. But my mom has impacted thousands of students in a small town. Her impact drove me to impact others. I wanted to do it by owning companies. 

Most important character trait: Being respectful and loving. We can all be successful financially. However, doing so respectfully or in a loving way is the real key. 

Company’s most important success: We have grown from 15 employees to more than 50. Last year, we had two locations, and now we have eight across North Carolina. Our revenue has grown fivefold.

Favorite volunteer activity: I am a licensed auctioneer. I am an auctioneer for charity events. In January, I helped raise $1.1 million for a nonprofit, Dream On 3. The group creates joyful experiences for children and young adults with life-threatening conditions.


president | Crown LSP Group Inc.

Rocky Mount  

Under Hodges’ leadership, the warehousing division of his family’s transportation brokerage business has grown from two facilities totaling 585,000 square feet to nine facilities totaling 2.3 million. The company provides logistics services to a variety of N.C. employers in the fields of pharmaceuticals, health care, agriculture, paper, tire manufacturing and consumer products. He’s active in many local civic groups. Carolina Gateway Partnership CEO Norris Tolson says Hodges “is in a strong position to help his hometown of Rocky Mount grow and prosper. We need more trailblazers like him in North Carolina.“ 

Education: Bachelor of Arts, Hampden-Sydney College; Master of Business Administration, East Carolina University

What is most special about your community? The people. Rocky Mount has a diverse community with a lot of opportunity.

Biggest influence: From a young age, my parents taught me the value of a dollar and hard work. They provided an opportunity for me to learn the business and get a quality education. My wife and children are the driving force in all that I do.

Organization’s biggest success: Our team’s ability to overcome challenges and add new services. We completely retooled our business after the onset of COVID-19 — increasing our customer base in some areas by as much as 500% and offering new services, including e-commerce fulfillment, temperature-controlled storage and drainage. 

Favorite volunteer activity: It’s a tie between economic development with our local partners — Carolinas Gateway Partnership and Rocky Mount Area Chamber of Commerce — and community health initiatives with the Nash UNC Healthcare Foundation. 


mayor pro tem | Town of Wendell; principal and founder | Joyner Government Affairs 


Joyner has been self-employed since 2015, working as a government relations consultant in Raleigh before he launched his firm in 2020. The eastern Wake County town was named the fastest-growing municipality in North Carolina last year, the same year he and his wife, Meghan, welcomed their second daughter. 

Education: Bachelor of Science, Appalachian State University 

What is most special about your community? The people. As mayor pro tem, I get an interesting view into all the different groups and people that make up Wendell. We have a group of business leaders, former mayors and community leaders that aren’t shy about investing in Wendell and it shows.   

Biggest influence: Ed Joyner, my dad. He taught me that public service, and service to others, is something that we do as a part of our daily life.   

Most important character trait: I learned while working [in emergency services in] Wake County that answering the call matters and that you may never know how much it matters to the person that’s calling. I might not be able to fix every problem, but I’ll answer the call. If I can’t help you, I do everything I can to get you to someone who can. 

Favorite volunteer activity: This past summer I helped my fellow Commissioner Joe DeLoach in coaching the Wendell 12U Allstars. Getting to coach Wendell kids gave me an entirely new love for the town.


director | Venture Asheville


Kaplan lives, eats and breathes entrepreneurship, helping others realize their potential through the organization, which is an initiative of the Economic Development Coalition for Asheville-Buncombe County and Asheville Chamber of Commerce. Earlier this year, he gave a TEDx talk on building better entrepreneurs, a cornerstone of his work.

Kaplan has led the group for four years, aiming to connect business owners with startup funding, talent and mentors. That has helped Asheville rank as the seventh-fastest-growing tech hub with a 29% increase in tech-oriented workers between 2019 and 2021, according to a LinkedIn study.

Kaplan has had a hand in various start-ups and written articles about entrepreneurship.

Education: Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in Entrepreneurship, University of Florida

What is most special about your community? We are a boot-strapped ecosystem. The thing about Asheville is people are truly drawn here. Whether it’s an entrepreneur, a mentor, an investor or remote worker, people choose to come to Asheville. For that reason, an element of the social fabric here is a sense of responsibility to give first and grow smart.

Most important character trait: The character trait most central to my success is the ability to see the potential in others, even when they don’t see it in themselves, and to be entrepreneurially optimistic. Entrepreneurial optimism is the idea that there is always a way to create value in every single opportunity.

Biggest influence: Dr. Michael Morris was my grad school adviser, mentor and later co-author. Working with him at Florida, I experienced the transformative power of entrepreneurship education and development.

Organization’s greatest success: Venture Asheville was awarded a gold ranking in innovation by the International Economic Development Council. This was the first gold for the Economic Development Coalition for Asheville-Buncombe County.

Favorite volunteer activity: My family is very active with the Jewish Community Center of Asheville, an inclusive center of wellness, education and culture. We volunteer through board service, the parents advisory council and annual giving. 


housing director | Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina


Since 2018, Locklear has helped promote the housing needs for North Carolina’s Lumbee Tribe. His initiatives have involved the construction of 24 homes for homeownership, providing down-payment assistance for 139 homebuyers, rehabilitation of 464 homes and operation of 181 affordable rental units. His group also issues about 100 rental vouchers each semester to supplement rents for Lumbee members pursuing college degrees on a full-time basis.

During COVID-19, he administered $4.5 million to provide personal protection equipment, cleaning supplies, fresh food, testing, and rent, mortgage and utility assistance to more than 4,000 eligible families.

He also serves as corporate accountant for Lumbee Tribe Enterprises and is a board member for the Carolina Civic Center Foundation. He and his wife have two children. 

Education: Bachelor of Science, UNC Pembroke

What is most special about your community? The deep history of my community is special because it tells some of the oldest stories of this country. My tribe is the largest Eastern Woodland tribe. The history of the tribe tells the story of an ever-evolving landscape, with influences from all over the world but rooted in the traditions of the nation’s first people.

Biggest influence: My mother, Denise Hunt Locklear, who retired from the Scotland County Department of Social Services as a caseworker. She is a civil servant, Sunday school teacher and my biggest fan, supporting me in all things that I do and have done. 

Most important character trait: Loyalty to others is one of the greatest gifts one can give.

Organization’s greatest success: We constructed a 10-unit homeless veterans’ village and doubled our Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing grant program. We currently house 40 formerly homeless veterans.

Favorite volunteer activity: Coaching youth sports gives me the opportunity to mentor kids, not only in sports, but for life skills in general, such as character-building, teamwork and self-confidence. Learning proper etiquette can take people a long way.


vice president | The Moser Group, Indian Trail 


After studying business at Clemson University, Moser worked for Cushman & Wakefield before joining her family’s real estate business six years ago. Moser Group, which Dennis Moser started in 1994, has about 20 active projects, mostly in Union County, one of the state’s fastest-growing, affluent areas. The company takes pride in creating beautiful developments that make communities better places to live, work and play, she says. 

Education: Bachelor of Science, Clemson University 

What is most special about your community? Union County is a little slice of heaven that combines the old with the new. Rolling hills, farmland, beautiful barns and quick access to amazing dining, shopping and quality developments make it the perfect place for people of all ages. 

Biggest influence: My dad, Dennis Moser. He believed in me, let me go around with him to every project and taught me to dream big, work hard, trust God and live a delayed-gratification lifestyle. The memories we made through the years are priceless.

Organization’s greatest success: We have an amazing team at The Moser Group. We are small but everyone involved takes responsibility and moves mountains. We have about 20 active development projects.

Favorite volunteer activity: I love to be involved in local organizations and politics. I believe we have a duty to be involved in the direction of our government locally, state and federally.


partner | Leitner, Bragg & Griffin law firm


Rowell joined with fellow Monroe High School graduates Tee Leitner and Ellie Bragg to build a local law firm offering a wide variety of services to more than 300 clients. Rowell is heavily involved in philanthropy and civic projects in her home county. She serves on the boards of nonprofits Community Shelter of Union County and Core Compassion Project, while participating in the county bar association. 

Education: Bachelor of Arts, Appalachian State University; Juris Doctor, Charlotte School of Law

What is most special about your community? Despite having some of the fastest growth in the state, Union County has been able to maintain a quaint, tight-knit community made up of people from many backgrounds. Our community is a family that supports business, nonprofits, innovation, schools and community. 

Biggest influence: I have been blessed to grow up and work in the Union County community. I’ve learned so much about business development and growth, family life and charitable work. 

Most important character trait: Determination. A friend of mine who passed away lived by the words “never give up.” I have adopted that mantra as my own. 

Company’s greatest success: Professionally, my law firm completed a yearlong renovation of a historic property, the R.V. Houston House, which was built in 1870. Bringing life back into this old house and revitalizing this historic property has been an exciting project and one that I believe brings benefit to the town around us.


director of marketing and communications | Greenville Eastern North Carolina Alliance 


The Pittsburgh native moved to Greenville as a television news anchor in 2014 and fell in love with North Carolina. In 2020, she left her 10-year news media career to become the chief marketer for the alliance, a public-private partnership that promotes economic progress in the region. The Greenville-Pitt County Chamber of Commerce named her the 2021 Pitt County Young Professional of the Year for her community service. She’s passionate about the Humane Society of Eastern Carolina, where she adopted her dog.

Education: Bachelor of Arts, Robert Morris University

What is most special about your community? Greenville is full of talented, creative and welcoming people who embrace community, culture and business. 

Biggest influence: My husband, Andrew Bennett, has been the biggest influence in recent years. From changing careers to writing a book, he has supported and encouraged everyone of my personal and professional ventures. 

Most important character trait: I think my work ethic has served me well in my professional career. This trait definitely comes from my parents. They taught my three brothers and me that each day is an opportunity to work hard, be kind and make a difference in the world around us.

Organization’s greatest success: In the past 12 months, our team has helped to secure $172 million in new investment, which has resulted in the creation of more than 800, well-paying jobs.

What is your favorite volunteer activity: Animal rescue is my passion. Through fundraising, marketing and fostering efforts, I’m always looking for ways to give back to the Humane Society of Eastern Carolina and support its mission.


founder and realtor | Jaclyn Smith Properties


The Campbell University graduate has continuously contributed to the growth of Clayton. Her company helps clients meet their real estate goals. As a Clayton native, her passion extends to the community where she meets various needs of the area through her work with OneCompassion, a nonprofit she co-founded.

Education: Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education, Campbell University

What is most special about your community: Residents love the hometown feel where you can walk into a coffee shop or hardware store and know the owner’s name. We also have all of the amenities and activity of a big city being in such close proximity to Raleigh. Our community is also known for a strong agricultural heritage.

Biggest influence: On a professional level, my husband, Reid, has inspired and challenged me as a leader more than anyone. One of the reasons we started this entrepreneurship journey was so we could do it together. Over the past eight years, he and I have been like iron sharpening iron, always leaning on the best of each other’s strengths in ways that leverage and complement our differences, rather than fighting against them.

Most important character trait: Humility has always been important to me personally but is also a pillar of our company’s culture and core values. When we coach our leaders, we talk about balancing two of our core values that have a dynamic push-pull effect on leadership: a will to win and living compassionately. That one-two punch of having a winning drive, but balancing it out with humility and a desire to serve others is, what I believe, sets great leaders apart. 

Favorite volunteer activity: I love getting to serve with our nonprofit, OneCompassion. We specifically focus on the needs right here in Johnston County, filling in the gap when life’s toughest and most unexpected curveballs hit. One of my favorite things we do every year is Holiday Ministry, when we help provide much needed groceries, household items, and gifts during the Christmas season. Seeing people’s faces light up and then getting to pray over them and their family is a highlight of my year, every year. 


president and CEO | Mercy Urgent Care and Catherine McAuley Mercy Foundation


Sossoman leads a team playing an important role in serving western North Carolina’s medical needs. She helped lead the addition of an Asheville center in February 2020, marking the nonprofit’s eighth location in the region. The not-for-profit group has annual revenue of $10 million with 70,000 patients served in 2021.

Sossoman serves as the president-elect of the Western North Carolina Medical Managers Association and is a member of the American College of Healthcare Executives. 

The wife and mother of five is earning her Masters in Business Administration from N.C. State University. Her work was published in the Journal of Urgent Care Medicine with an article on organizational culture.

She’s also helping create Mercy University, which is creating an internal skills development program to help the organization’s employees reach their goals.

Education: Bachelor of Arts, Appalachian State University; Master of Science, Western Carolina University

What is most special about your community? The natural beauty of the area and the vibrant artistic and cultural community make Asheville extraordinary. The best part of Asheville, in my opinion, is the sense of true community.  

Biggest influence: My predecessor at Mercy Urgent Care, Tim Johnston, has certainly been one of my greatest influences. He has taught me some of the toughest and best lessons in my professional career. My husband, Mark Sossoman, has shown me how unwavering support helps others reach their potential. 

Most important character trait: A willingness to learn and then apply that learning in practice. 

Organization’s biggest success: The team has launched three service lines in response to emerging needs in our community — MercyMindful mental health services; MercyMe monthly membership plans providing unlimited access to health care for less than the cost of a cellphone bill; and MercyMotion physical therapy services. 

Favorite volunteer activity: I serve with the Western North Carolina Medical Managers Association to bring health care education to medical leaders in western North Carolina.


chief operating officer | PetScreening


The husband, father and dog owner knows a thing or two about the importance of furry friends. This knowledge helped him succeed at PetScreening, which develops software that helps property managers make their multifamily developments and businesses more pet-friendly. It’s been ranked among the Charlotte area’s fastest-growing companies by the Charlotte Business Journal.

Education: Bachelor of Science, Penn State University; Master of Business Administration, University of Maryland 

What is most special about your community? We’ve been able to build and maintain a very connected and healthy team culture at PetScreening. Having a pack of dogs in the office every day certainly helps.

Biggest influence: My father and, more recently, my wife and two boys. My dad has a way to simplify things when times feel complex or uncertain, while always maintaining a good sense of humor. My wife and boys are incredibly supportive and remind me to stay curious.

Most important character trait: Staying grateful. I believe people inherently want to help and are more willing to help you get to where you want to go if they’re appreciated and recognized.

Company’s most important success: We brought to market, which is a free product and pet network that helps every lost dog and cat find its way home nationwide.

Favorite volunteer activity: Coaching sports.


trusts and estates attorney, Ward and Smith


The UNC Chapel Hill graduate interned for two judges before joining the Ward and Smith law firm in 2015. He has participated in the North Carolina Bar Association’s 4ALL Statewide Service Day, when attorneys volunteer their time and provide free legal advice to North Carolina residents. Last year, he was appointed to the Greenville-Pitt County Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors. 

Education: Bachelor of Science and Juris Doctor, UNC Chapel HIll

What is most special about your community? I find that the people and leaders of Greenville genuinely want to see others in the region succeed. There is a palpable desire to help better the lives of our neighbors through opportunity and economic growth.

Biggest influence: Greg Peacock, my law partner and a mentor since I first began practicing. His ability to connect with clients on a personal level is unmatched. I am often inspired by his creative approach to solving legal issues.

Organization’s biggest success: Our clients tell us that we’re not like other law firms, and I know many fine attorneys in firms across the state, so the most impressive thing about our organization to me is our distinctive teamwork approach. It’s nice to stand out not just for what we do but for the collaborative, practical way in which we do it.

Favorite volunteer activity: I enjoy serving on civic boards and contributing to organizations that help disadvantaged families get on their feet.


president | I-95/ I-40 Crossroads of America Economic Development Alliance


Williams worked as a budget analyst for state government and as director of economic development in Four Oaks before joining the alliance in July 2021. The group was formed a year earlier to promote economic growth in southern Johnston County and eastern Harnett County, aiming to capitalize on the region’s interstate highways.

Education: Bachelor of Science, UNC Wilmington; Master of Public Administration, N.C. State University

What is most special about your community? The people. There are so many eager to get involved in helping to make this community a better place for generations to come. 

Biggest influence: First and foremost, my family. They’ve provided unwavering support and encouragement my whole life. Professional mentors include Johnston County Manager Rick Hester, N.C. State Vice Chancellor Kevin Howell, former Wake County Manager Richard Stevens and former Four Oaks Mayor Linwood Parker.

Most important character trait: Perseverance. I believe economic development to be one of the most rewarding but challenging fields to be in. Things can happen and change so quickly when managing complex projects with various stakeholders.

Organization’s biggest success: The buy-in and collaboration that’s taken place among local, state and federal leaders, as well as private industry. Without them, we wouldn’t have experienced the level of success we have enjoyed thus far.

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