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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Trailblazers 2023: The sixth annual roster of under-40 N.C. leaders making dynamic local impacts

By Kevin Ellis and Audrey Knaack

North Carolina’s population has trended urban for decades, but the state’s rural history is important to its culture. About 40% of the state’s population lives in one of 80 rural counties, as defined by the North Carolina Rural Center, and 85% of North Carolina’s municipalities have fewer than 10,000 residents.

North Carolina’s rural population of almost 3.5 million people makes it the second largest in the nation, behind only Texas, according to the 2020 census.

North Carolina’s reliance on its rural residents is why Business North Carolina has publicized a list of trailblazers for six years. These are thriving business owners and professionals under the age of 40 who work in cities and towns with fewer than 100,000 residents. They are creating jobs and providing services while championing their communities.

This year, we received nominations for trailblazers who live from the Atlantic waters of Ocean Isle Beach to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Franklin. The 23 trailblazers work in a wide variety of occupations including agriculture, entertainment, retail and technology.

Four trailblazers list more than one occupation on their resume while all are involved in community activities. One opened a bistro after helping start a commercial truck and van equipment business. Another teaches college students entrepreneurship while also operating seven businesses.

Most of these trailblazers are working behind the scenes to help make Main Streets across the state vibrant in smaller communities. Two trailblazers serve as mayors, while a third is a candidate for his town’s board.

We appreciate the young professionals who are making a mark, and thank those who
made nominations.

WARREN ALLEN

CO-FOUNDER, VICE PRESIDENT  |  ELITE TRUCK
OWNER  |  1906 BISTRO & BOURBONS
WASHINGTON
Age 31

Allen’s online commercial truck and van equipment business started with co-founders Harrison Boyd and Brian Sherman four years ago and has grown to about 20 employees. “Seeing such talented and hard-working people join the team has been great. Getting to know them all and watching everyone grow together has been an honor.”

Education: Business administration degree, East Carolina University

Biggest influencers: My father, Tony Allen, is the hardest working person, no matter what setting or job he is in. I often find myself picking up trash or taking on simple construction or business tasks, even as our teams have expanded. That “do whatever it takes mentality and never be too good for any job attitude” came from him.

Cool fact about yourself: My wife, Katherine, and I live in a house built in 1881. We also bought a three-story bank built in 1906 that we spent more than a year renovating with my father, who is a general contractor. The first floor is now the 1906 Bistro & Bourbon Bar, and the second and third floors are six Airbnbs. The history of the building and Washington plays a considerable influence in the design of the restaurant and Airbnbs.

Organization’s biggest success last year: Doubling our team size when other companies are struggling to hire good people was a huge success. The Rural Infrastructure Authority awarded us a $200,000 grant to renovate a vacant commercial space to house our expanding team with the expectation we would invest $1.9 million and create 31 jobs.

Best place to show off your town: We opened up the bourbon part of 1906 Bistro & Bourbons in July. So far, it’s been a great success and I love having friends and visitors check it out.


HEATHER HUNT ALMOND

CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER  |  UWHARRIE BANK
ALBEMARLE
Age 35

Almond has worked at the bank for 13 years, including three years in her current position. Her job satisfaction comes from “knowing that I get the opportunity every day to work for a company that is about more than just money. It is about truly bettering the communities in which we live, work and play.” CEO Roger Dick and community members formed the bank in 1983. It now has about a dozen offices.

Education: Accounting, MBA degrees, UNC Charlotte

Biggest influencers: I watched my dad work his way up in law enforcement, not for the money, but for the ability to have a voice in the safety and well-being of his community. Same for me. I want to have an impact on communities in an effort to continue the revival of Main Street America.

Cool fact about yourself: Mom of Alexis, 9, and Maddox, 6. My time is pretty much consumed with ball sports. I love every minute of it. In my spare time, I enjoy hosting friends and family at my house.

Organization’s biggest success last year: We crossed $1 billion in assets, which allows us to remain competitive and independent in our industry and leverage our overhead to continue to provide our services to our communities.

Best place to show off your town: My family farmhouse. Treat people to a good meal, let them visit with the donkeys, goats, cows, horses and beagles, explore the woods and go fishing in a natural spring pond. End the day by watching a gorgeous sunset without any obstructions.


COLTON BAKER

OWNER, HEAD BREWER  |  UWHARRIE BREWING
ALBEMARLE
Age 31

wo years after Baker started renovating a former fire station. He overcame hurdles with the supply chain, labor and inflation. The business helps promote downtown with live music and open mic nights, a running club and yoga classes. “The thing I enjoy most about brewing beer is seeing the finished product, and the reaction that it gets from patrons as they try new styles and flavors they may not have enjoyed before.”

Education: Business, University of Mississippi

Biggest influencers: My friend and former coworker Cody Noble’s attention to detail and appreciation for brewing as an art helped shape my vision as a brewer and an artisan. His work starting a Brevard brewery, Noblebrau Brewing, inspired me.

Cool fact about yourself: I have no formal brewing education, but have brewed more than 500 batches of beer.

Organization’s biggest success last year: We are delighted to be on our 30th batch of beer and showing no signs of slowing down.

Best place to show off your town: The people who operate the restaurants, boutiques, coffee shops and ax-throwing businesses downtown make Albemarle amazing. There’s also a model train set up, a bakery and a nice Biergarten.


ZACH BUMGARNER

VICE PRESIDENT  |  BUMGARNER OIL
HICKORY
Age 29

Bumgarner considers it a blessing to have worked during the past seven years with both his father and grandfather in the three-generation-old business, which delivers petroleum products in seven N.C. counties and operates Cubbard Express stores. “The most satisfying thing about my work is continually improving and building upon the foundation that our company has built, and seeing how that improvement betters the lives of our employees,
our customers and our community.”

Education: Criminal justice degree, UNC Charlotte (He played in the football team’s first 46 games, starting in 2013.)

Biggest influencers: My father and grandfather had distinctly different personalities and means of doing things, but were in lockstep on the things that really matter like honesty, integrity, and customer service. I have tried to take things from both of their styles and incorporate it into my leadership and how I approach different situations.

Cool fact about yourself: My wife, Stephanie, and I have been married since 2017. We have three children, two girls and one boy.

Organization’s biggest success last year: Our convenience store chain grew from 11 to 14 stores, and we expanded our wholesale fuel and delivery capacity in both North and South Carolina. We launched our propane division in late 2021 and have organically grown that over the past two years.

Best place to show off your town: After eating at a locally owned restaurant, I would take them to a Hickory Crawdads minor league baseball game or Hickory Motor Speedway, the “birthplace of the NASCAR stars.”


CAROLINE CATOE

PRESIDENT  |  ECRS
BOONE
Age 31

When Catoe is not leading a company of almost 200 employees, more than half of them working in Boone, she can often be found running along King Street with her dog, Critter, along with a double stroller carrying her two young children. She started working for the company started by her father in 1989 as a part-timer.
She has been a full-time staffer since 2013 and was named president last year. ECRS sells software designed for independent retailers. “We help independents compete against the retail giants.”

Education: Business degree, UNC Wilmington

Biggest influencers: I grew up under the guidance of a talented entrepreneur, my father. Learning how he has successfully started, grown and operated ECRS has been the biggest factor in my own business journey. How many people get the opportunity to work alongside their predecessor for years with intentional mentoring throughout? It’s invaluable.

Cool fact about yourself: I graduated high school at age 16.

Organization’s biggest success last year: We opened our new deployment facility, our third office in Boone.

Best place to show off your town: We have the best outdoor experiences in the state. If there’s snow on the ground, we’re skiing. If it’s spring, fall or summer, we are out mountain biking, hiking, kayaking or rock climbing. It’s a very special place to live.


LILY FAULCONER

ATTORNEY  |  WARD AND SMITH
GREENVILLE
Age 27

Faulconer attended UNC School of Law as a Chancellors Scholar, its highest merit-based award. She was also an East Carolina University Scholar (now Brinkley-Lane), its most prestigious scholarship. She worked with ECU’s athletics department, and then the minor league baseball team in Kinston. Her sports background fits in Ward & Smith’s Name, Image and Likeness practice group that involves compensation for college athletes. She also has legal expertise in sports betting, creditors’ rights and healthcare. “I know it’s cheesy, but I grew up in North Carolina (Smithfield), and I believe it’s important to give back to the state that has given so much to me.”

Education: Political science, master’s in kinesiology, East Carolina University; law degree, UNC Chapel Hill

Biggest influencers: Law professor John Brooker taught me the most important part of a law practice is the relationships we form, and the way we treat people.

Cool fact about yourself: I am experienced in “pulling tarp” over a baseball field in the event of a rainstorm from time working for the Down East Wood Ducks in Kinston.

Organization’s biggest success last year: Every client we serve is our biggest success. Without our clients, we would not have engaging, challenging and rewarding work to do every day.

Best place to show off your town: Greenville is a great place for year-round visitors. There’s nothing better than a fall Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium cheering on the Pirates. In the summer, there is the Concert on the Common series. The Little League Softball World Series at Elm Street Park provides the perfect setting to enjoy green space and connect with the community. First Friday Artwork takes place during all seasons. We also have fantastic small businesses and incredible local restaurants. Luna Pizza is my favorite.


HALEE HARTLEY

OWNER  |  KID COVE PRESCHOOL
BOONE
Age 32

Watauga County has a lengthy waiting list for childcare, so Hartley opened her own business six years ago with a goal of helping children learn and develop through creativity and understanding that a well-rounded education begins with a good preschool experience. Enrollment has more than tripled in five years.

“I love watching children learn and grow. I love watching their excitement as they catch a ball for the first time or write their name by themselves for the first time,” Hartley says. “I also love watching my staff grow, too. I love watching them figure out and implement what works well in their classrooms.”

Education: Early childhood education, Caldwell Community College; Early childhood development, master’s in educational psychology, Purdue University

Biggest influencers: Jamie Durham, who works at the family-owned furniture company Charleston Forge in Boone, helped me get Kid Cove off the ground with her business expertise and knowledge. My professors have influenced how I teach children and then how I teach my staff to excel in their classrooms.

Cool fact about yourself: I am the middle child with four siblings.

Organization’s biggest success last year:  We opened a summer camp in 2021. In 2022, we grew to 75 preschoolers and 50 campers. In 2023, we opened a second facility, increasing our total enrollment to 90 preschoolers and
140 summer campers.

Best place to show off your town: The Blue Ridge Parkway, more specifically Price Lake, Bass Lake or Rough Ridge for hiking, canoeing and taking in the beauty of our mountains. End the day at The Cardinal for a burger and Blue Deer for dessert, both locally owned and operated.


BRAXTON HENDERSON

PRESIDENT, OWNER  |  SOUTHERN OFFICE-BASED ANESTHESIA
OXFORD
Age 36

Henderson started his practice in 2018, about three years after becoming a doctor of dental medicine. “I enjoy being able to help so many fearful and anxious patients get the care that they need. I have patients that travel long distances and wait months in order to be treated under our care.” Henderson also serves as a pastor of Oasis of Hope Ministries and leads the praise and worship ministry. He also mentors local teenagers.

Education: Biological sciences, doctor of dental medicine, University of Pittsburgh

Biggest influencers: My former department chair from residency, Dr. Joseph Giovannitti, was a pioneer in my profession and well-regarded internationally in the field of anesthesiology for dentistry. He has been a mentor for 10 years.

Cool fact about yourself: I lived the same day twice at sea while studying abroad. I crossed the International Date Line while on Semester at Sea and relived the previous date. I guess it’s safe to say I have time-traveled.

Organization’s biggest success last year: Continued growth with the hiring of two administrative personnel and two paramedics.

Best place to show off your town: We would start at my favorite place for breakfast in Oxford, the Family Diner. For lunch, we’d go to Strong Arm Baking for pastries and sandwiches. Dinner would be at Tita’s Taqueria and Pupuseria, known for its tacos and pupusas.


JOE KIMRAY

OWNER  |  B & W HARDWARE
WAKE FOREST
Age 39

Kimray left the corporate world a decade ago to join his father-in-law, Buddy Willis, in the hardware business. “He and I have very different skill sets, and when they were combined, we realized that we had something very special that allowed us to grow the business.” Kimray enjoys continuing the legacy of a business that has been downtown since 1949, and is the town’s only family-owned and operated hardware store. “Seeing regular customers, while also welcoming new residents to town provides the opportunity to get to know many people in the community.” He is running for town commissioner.

Education: English degree, N.C. State University

Biggest influencers: Kimray credits his father-in-law with teaching him how to lead a retail business, from managing inventory levels to relationships with larger corporate clients.

Cool fact about yourself: The town of Wake Forest named him Citizen of the Year
in 2021.

Organization’s biggest success last year: Our store is the largest dealer of Traeger Grills in North Carolina. We have customers from other states because we stock every model and can provide them information on the best grill for them.

Best place to show off your town: Many buildings in our downtown have been here since the early 1900s and now house an exciting group of shops, restaurants and breweries, including my own B&W Hardware. We have something for everyone.


WILL KORNEGAY

FOUNDER, OWNER  |  RIPE REVIVAL
ROCKY MOUNT
Age 37

Kornegay combined his faith-driven passion with his interest in agriculture to create a company and nonprofit to help farmers and the hungry. “Our purpose is to revive communities with food.” He started the company in 2019 and now has about 20 employees, although that number grows with seasonal workers. His business helps support several dozen farmers along the East Coast sell their produce to customers, including restaurants, stores or individual customers. He has converted five city buses into “pay-what-you-can” grocery stores, which he deploys into eastern North Carolina communities where people face food insecurities.

Education: Business management, N.C. State University

Biggest influencers: Rocky Mount businessman Josh Munden, who died in 2008, became like a father figure to me when my own father became ill. He helped build my work ethic and gave me my first job, digging a trench for a plumbing line.

Cool fact about yourself: I have a great twin sister.

Organization’s biggest success last year: Rocky Mount Chamber’s 2023 Business of the Year.

Best place to show off your town: Our farm. Most people have never stepped foot on a farm, much less know the hard work it takes to grow the food they find in the grocery stores.


NICK LOFTHOUSE

OWNER  |  PUBLIC SAFETY SERVICES
LIEUTENANT  |  MACON COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE
FRANKLIN
Age 38

When work for a two-way radio company slowed, Lofthouse shifted to Basic Law Enforcement Training, leading to a job at the Macon County Sheriff’s Office in 2009. Working on his off-duty days, Lofthouse started his first company, Wise Communications, after being asked to install and repair safety equipment in patrol cars, fire trucks and ambulances. After selling that business, he later rejoined the Sheriff’s Office and started Public Safety Services seven years ago. “The most enjoyable thing about the job is seeing my company be able to hire local employees to build first responder vehicles that support our community, all while being able to help local organizations with sponsorships from revenue earned,” Lofthouse says.

Education: Criminal justice degree, Southwestern Community College

Biggest influencers: My mom was a single mom and did it all by herself to make sure we never had to do without. My great-grandpa taught me if you never risk and roll the dice, you will never win.

Cool fact about yourself: I oversee the road patrol for the Macon County Sheriff’s Office.

Organization’s biggest success last year: We were able to buy our own building and increase our workforce to five employees.

Best place to show off your town: One of the many waterfalls in Macon County or gem mining in one of the local operations.


TATE MAYO

AGRICULTURAL TEACHER  |  NORTH EAST CAROLINA PREP
PRINCIPAL  |  MAYO KNITTING MILL
MAYOR  |  TARBORO
TARBORO
Age 29

Mayo has a full resume – teacher, sock manufacturer, mayor, farmer. “The most satisfying aspect about what I do is that I know that I am helping feed this country. Not only am I helping put food on people’s plates, I am also using cotton from our family’s farm to make socks.” The sock mill has been in the family since 1932 and at its peak employed 400; it now has about 30 staffers. His father, brother and sister work at the mill. Mayo, who is a registered Libertarian, was elected as mayor in May.

Education: Agricultural science, N.C. State University

Biggest influencers: I call my father “Big Tater.” He has never been far behind me, but also never stopped me from failing. When I have failed and when I fail today, he is there for me. When I succeed, he pushes me further.

Cool fact about yourself: Eagle Scout

Organization’s biggest success last year: Tarboro approved a strategic plan, passed a social district and continues to build on its summer concert series. We’re in the process of incorporating the Riverfront Park into our downtown. It’s an effort to liven up an area that needed attention. From a textiles perspective, my sisters Grace, Deanna and I have been able to start making socks under our own brand, Mayo Mills. It brings my heart joy to finally see some hope in an otherwise bleak outlook for textiles.

Best place to show off your town: Tarboro Town Common is the second-oldest in the United States, behind Boston. You can still graze your livestock on The Common, although I have never seen that happen. You can enjoy the social district, play pickleball, walk to the town’s brewery, visit an art gallery, or library, walk through an arboretum or get a coffee and food at one of three restaurants within three blocks.


PIPER MILLER

VICE PRESIDENT  |  PINE GATE RENEWABLES
ASHEVILLE
Age 30

Miller has been with Pine Gate Renewables for six years, and in a leadership role for the past four. She oversees project development and commercial strategy for more than 65 large-scale solar projects in the Southeast. In the past few years, she has helped lead more than 1,200 megawatts of solar projects into commercial operation, equivalent to powering
4.5 million homes with renewable energy. “Putting years of effort into making a project a reality and getting to see the benefits it brings to the community is one of the most satisfying experiences.”

Education: Environmental science and policy with a minor in business, Florida State University.

Biggest influencers: My mom is my biggest professional mentor and idol. As a female leader, I admire the way she wields empathy, creativity, and strong interpersonal skills to create successful outcomes.

Cool fact about yourself: I sing and play guitar, and have been writing my own songs since I was 13. I am the lead singer in our Pine Gate Renewables band, “PV Ray Vaughan” (PV is an acronym for photovoltaic, a device that converts sunlight into electricity.).

Organization’s biggest success last year: Pine Gate placed into service close to 8% of all solar energy installed in the U.S. last year. This monumental achievement was realized by a dedicated team, of which nearly half identify as female, who viewed challenges as opportunities and continued to drive toward a clean energy future.

Best place to show off your town: I love taking friends and family hiking to one of the many amazing waterfalls in the area, then ending with food and wine at Leo’s House of Thirst in west Asheville. Not only is their food incredible, but their cozy outdoor patio and fire pits are perfect for any weather.


HOLLY MINTON

TOWN MANAGER
NORTH WILKESBORO
Age 40

Minton took the job in her hometown almost a year ago after serving on the town’s planning board since 2020. It’s her first government job. She has worked at her late father David Minton’s North Wilkesboro auto service business.  “The most satisfying thing about my work is having a voice in how our community grows and changes. My Board of Commissioners set a vision, and I help move that vision into reality. “

Education: Political science, UNC Asheville; master’s in public administration, Appalachian State University

Biggest influencers: Patricia Mitchell from my master’s program gave me my first internship and set my course toward grant writing in the nonprofit environment. My first boss after grad school, Heather Murphy, was a huge influence in teaching me how a healthy organization should operate. When my father became ill, I came home to work for my family’s business. I had time to fall in love with the people who make Wilkes County great.

Cool fact about yourself: I’ve lived three professional lives ­— six years in nonprofit, eight years in the private sector, and now local government. Oddly enough, I feel this is where I was meant to be all along.

Organization’s biggest success last year: When NASCAR’s All-Star Week returned to North Wilkesboro Speedway, we were on a tight deadline to hold a FanFest event. We worked with Wilkesboro, Wilkes County government and Wilkes Economic Development to provide family-friendly entertainment and a parade. We raised funds to minimize the use of tax dollars. It was hugely successful.

Best place to show off your town: Smoot Park has the trailhead to the Yadkin River Greenway. It is beautiful and relaxing. The park also has our community’s only public swimming pool.


NIKKI MORGAN

SINGER, SONGWRITER
NORTH WILKESBORO
Age 29

Morgan started college studying math, took a drama class and never looked back. Her musical career began about six years ago, and she now performs nationally. She is part of the Black Opry Revue, a national movement which aims to provide a home for Black artists working in country, Americana, blues and folk music. Songs and storytelling help bind people together, she says. “When I perform live and exchange energy, thoughts and space with people, that’s always the best moment for me and the people with me.”

Education:  Drama, Guilford Technical Community College; theater arts, Bradley University

Biggest influencers: One grandfather had healthy careers in the military and the postal service. The other thrived in graphic design and sign-making. Both embraced church ministry later in life. Both were men of service. Growing up, money was never the highest priority. I was taught that if you meet people where (and as) they are, if you prioritize the needs of the community, and when you lead with humility, everything else tends to fall into place.

Cool fact about yourself: I stay active by rollerblading because it makes me feel weightless and like I’m floating on air. Even if I only have 15 minutes, I will throw on some headphones and fully enjoy that happy place.

Organization’s biggest success last year: I produced and hosted a variety show, “The Sunday Kickback with Nikki Morgan” that was performed in Chicago and Greensboro. It featured music and comedy as well as children activities.

Best place to show off your town: The Wilkes County Public Library provides community activities, from storytelling to music offerings, book clubs or fun things for the young and young at heart. It helps preserve Wilkes County history and stories, especially related to local military veterans. It also rents out music instruments, puzzles, movies, even knitting and fishing equipment. A community refrigerator provides access to donated food from local farms.


GABBY MURILLO

OWNER  |  TRI-RIVER CONSULTANTS
SANFORD
Age 33

In her mid 20s, Murillo worked at a private Raleigh airport refueling and towing jets. She did not have the strength to pull the refueling hose by herself, so she doubted that she would last. She ended up staying three years, and learned that business could be lucrative. She has been in real estate for five years, including three years as a company owner. She serves as a chamber of commerce ambassador and supports a Central Carolina Community College scholarship. “The most satisfying part of my work is helping people invest in their future by guiding them through the process of achieving home ownership.”

Education: High school with some college

Biggest influencers: Raleigh real estate agency owner Tina Caul shines her light so bright, paving the way for others to create their own success. Her collaboration-over-competition mindset is rare in this cutthroat industry.

Cool fact about yourself: I was a teen mom and a single mother of three by age 20, so my entrepreneurial path was unconventional.

Organization’s biggest success last year: Being female, minority and LGBTQ+-owned, it was a huge milestone to hit two years in business.

Best place to show off your town: Locally owned gems — Purple Poodle Boutique, Libations 139 and Books at a Steele! Being a nature girl, I recommend San Lee Park, which has a wildlife nature center, nature trails, and paddle boating.


COREY PULIDO

TEACHING INSTRUCTOR  |  EAST CAROLINA UNIVERSITY
GREENVILLE
Age 37

For the past nine years, Pulido has been teaching ECU students. “I enjoy seeing the entrepreneurial spark the students get throughout the semester,” he says. “When they finally start to realize maybe entrepreneurship is more feasible than they originally imagined.” He teaches students how to recognize opportunities and how to attract others to help pursue their aspirations. Pulido owns and operates seven businesses, ranging from rental properties to a dog sanctuary. His first semester of teaching involved 22 students. This fall, 177 students signed for classes.

Education: MBA, East Carolina University

Biggest influencers: My father-in-law, Ira Rhodes, mentored me getting into East Carolina and encouraged me to draw outside of the lines.

Cool fact about yourself: I lived in Japan for six years because my father was in the military. We have a hound dog sanctuary in Ayden, and my wife and I live with 25 dogs.

Organization’s biggest success last year: The Pirate Challenge, which helps fund entrepreneurs, raised  $170,000 this year. We published more academic articles, and we have recruited and grown all student programs.

Best place to show off your town: A business on Main Street like Coltrain Home and Hardware in Ayden, about 10 miles south of Greenville. I want to show people how it takes a team to build something incredible. I’m proud and honored to think of myself as someone who can see the future vision and deliver the message of what’s to come.


HEATHER SAWYER

OWNER AND MANAGING BROKER  |  WATER STREET REAL ESTATE GROUP
ELIZABETH CITY
Age 33

Sawyer started her career in 2018 as a managing broker for a national company. Her passion for downtown led her in January 2021 to buy her first commercial space, which included a bakery and cafe. She took over the business, hired a manager and operated it before handing it off to another entrepreneur. She created space in the same building for her own firm, which now includes 16 teammates and annual real estate sales of more than $50 million. “The most fulfilling aspect of my job involves leading new buyers through the home purchasing journey and mentoring aspiring agents. It’s immensely rewarding to help them discover the attainability of their aspirations.”

Education: Accounting degree, Elizabeth City State University

Biggest influencers: Debbie Malenfant, executive director of Elizabeth City Downtown, ignites my creativity and instills in me the importance of making a positive impact on my community.

Cool fact about yourself: I’m a parent to two wonderful children, Tilden and Brinley, and I adore creating memories with them at the beach, pool, river and traveling.

Organization’s biggest success last year: I acquired a downtown building that may be one of the town’s oldest properties. This purchase holds great personal significance as it presents an opportunity to rejuvenate a piece of local history. It’s the largest project I
have undertaken.

Best place to show off your town: Meticulously restored buildings have breathed new life into our historic downtown. Pailin’s Alley dates back to the 1800s and has an array of local restaurants and breweries.


MARC SEELINGER

FRANCHISEE  |  MARCO’S PIZZA, GASTONIA
MAYOR  |  BELMONT
BELMONT
Age 33

Dual roles as mayor of a town of 15,000 residents and as a restaurant franchisee offer Seelinger a bird’s-eye view of improving someone’s day. “With the city, that might mean making a resident’s commute a little easier by filling in a pothole he hits on his way into work every day. With Marco’s, it’s always fun to see kids jump up and down or cheer when mom or dad brings them in to pick up a pizza for dinner.” Elected to City Council in 2019, Seelinger was appointed mayor by a unanimous council vote when former Mayor Charlie Martin stepped down after more than a decade due to health reasons. The Republican says he’ll run next year for a seat on the Gaston County Commission.

Education: Economics and Chinese degrees, UNC Chapel Hill

Biggest influencers: My dad has always had a strong entrepreneurial streak, and in watching him build up his business, I picked up a lot of skills that I have been able to use.

Cool fact about yourself: I completed a three-month residency program in Beijing in college in which we could only communicate in Chinese. Violators of the language pledge would be sent home. It was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done.

Organization’s biggest success last year: Belmont City Council made the planning process more responsive to growth. At Marco’s, our store’s 57% annual increase in sales set a record for that location. This came about because of staff development and a focus on customer service.

Best place to show off your town: Downtown Belmont during a Friday Night Live concert. Our downtown is easily the most vibrant and dynamic downtown district of any municipality in the region because it is filled with dozens of locally-owned small businesses.


JULIE STANTON

FOUNDER AND OWNER SOUTHERN JULEP BOUTIQUE
EDEN
Age 25

Stanton spent four years selling wares at shows and festivals, then moved to online sales. She opened her downtown boutique about four years ago. “The most satisfying thing about my work as founder and owner is that I’ve had the opportunity to create relationships with my customers, both professionally and personally. Many have become like family.” Stanton found love at her shop when an Army soldier stationed at Fort Liberty came in to buy a gift for his sister. They’re planning a wedding next September. “His support and encouragement is unwavering.”

Education: Rockingham County High School

Biggest influencers: My dad co-owns Southern Julep and works in the company daily. He pushes me to go for my dreams. Sales rep Cindy Hopkins inspired me at a young age that women can kill it in business. Jenny Stilley, owner of BohoBlu, a total boss babe and even sweeter friend, taught me that small town girls can make big city dreams come true. My fiancé, Jesse, hasn’t missed a beat since he walked into my shop.

Cool fact about yourself: I started my business as part of my high school senior project.

Organization’s biggest success last year: Southern Julep introduced Julep, which is our jewelry line, and Sunday Morning Clothing Co., a modest line of apparel with work attire and size inclusivity in mind. We also broke plans on the addition of a coffee shop inside our boutique with the purpose of creating a one-of-a-kind shopping experience while “sharing the love of Jesus” over coffee.

Best place to show off your town: Our downtown has many unique shops and restaurants. The merchants and residents downtown are very involved in the growth of our local community.


SADA STEWART TROUTMAN

DOWNTOWN DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR CITY OF SALISBURY
SALISBURY
Age 27

Troutman came to Rowan County to lead the Historic Salisbury Foundation in 2019, then moved to her current post two years later. She works with developers, business and property owners, and residents to help grow downtown Salibury. One joy of her job is
seeing others discover the community’s assets.

Education: American history, Princeton University; master’s in historic preservation, Clemson University

Biggest influencers: Graduate school professors Carter Hudgins and Amalia Leifeste taught me historic preservation is a tool for community building, community identity, and community development, all of which continues to drive my passion for downtown Salisbury. My parents instilled in me that serving the community is important and admirable.

Cool fact about yourself: I was a Division I swimmer in college.

Organization’s biggest success last year: Salisbury was one of the first communities in North Carolina to create a downtown social district in July 2022. There was a lot of research and execution to make it safe and impactful. Our businesses, not just bars and restaurants, have seen a positive economic impact.

Best place to show off your town: I take family and friends in town to get a drink in the social district, so we can walk around and shop, and ultimately end up with good food from one of our downtown restaurants. Then I take them to our Bell Tower Green for a concert. Can’t go wrong with a beer from New Sarum, a Cheerwine, and a pizza from Salty Caper (get the House Pie) to enjoy a night at the park.


JENNIFER WHITE

PRESIDENT ABERDEEN CAROLINA & WESTERN RAILWAY
CANDOR
Age 36

Growing up in Pinehurst, family vacations for White involved cross-country drives, often involving chasing trains and camping near railroad tracks. Her father, Robert Menzies, acquired the company in 1987, and White has worked for the railway for 10 years, following a stint in commercial real estate in Charlotte. “I enjoy being involved in strategic problem-solving, thinking outside of the box and exploring unconventional solutions to new challenges with my team.” The shortline railroad specializes in connecting freight from industrial sites to the national railroad lines owned by CSX and Norfolk Southern. Aberdeen also has a passenger train for Christmas season trips and special occasions.

Education: Business management, UNC Charlotte

Biggest influencers: From an early age, my four parents (blended family) put an emphasis on integrity, perseverance, and commitment to putting your all into everything you do, which has served as a foundation for my professional growth.

Cool fact about yourself: My husband is an active-duty Marine who plans to retire next year after 20 years of service. We have four boys ranging from 18 months to 13 years old and a 17-year-old daughter. Life is a beautiful chaos.

Organization’s biggest success last year: My business partner and brother, Anthony Menzies, completed the purchase of 104 miles of our railroad line that we had leased from Norfolk Southern for more than 30 years. This purchase allows us to further improve our infrastructure and move freight safely and efficiently.

Best place to show off your town: Our railroad runs right next to the famous golf courses of Pinehurst. In the early 1900s, the railroad was instrumental in bringing guests from major cities such as New York and Philadelphia to Pinehurst. We hope to bring this concept of luxury train travel back to life.


BECKY WHITESIDE

DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS  |  NOVANT HEALTH BRUNSWICK MEDICAL CENTER
OCEAN ISLE BEACH
Age 39

Whiteside transitioned from helping lead her coastal hospital as it administered tens of thousands of COVID-19 vaccinations to working on the opening of a medical office to make healthcare more convenient for Brunswick County residents. Seeing members of her extended family work in healthcare inspired her to become a nurse. While she enjoyed working as an emergency room nurse, she yearned to take a broader administrative role. Dealing with the pandemic reaffirmed her calling. She has been with Novant Health for 15 years, including almost two years in her current role.

Education: Nursing, East Carolina University; master’s in healthcare administration, Ohio University

Biggest influencers: My parents taught me that dedication and hard work will take you far, to trust God and aspire to help others. My husband, Justin, and two children, Walker and Maddox, push me to be the best version of myself. 

Cool fact about yourself:  I was born and raised in Brunswick County. I enjoy watching and coaching sports for our children.

Organization’s biggest success last year: Following numerous years in a pandemic, our organization has really placed a focus on our team members’ well-being. We have been investing into the overall community health and service through areas such as the Brunswick Community Baby Shower, new mobile mammography coach to service the coastal region, Michael Jordan Health clinics, and the upcoming Leland Ambulatory Surgery Center.

Best place to show off your town: Ocean Isle Beach for sunset.


BLAZING AHEAD

This is the sixth year that Business North Carolina has highlighted business and civic leaders from smaller communities that often don’t receive much of a media spotlight. Here are some updates from previous Trailblazers.

2019
JASON COX

OWNER | PRESS COFFEE + CREPES
OWNER | FITZGERALD & FAULKNER
OWNER | AEDOS GROUP
GRAHAM

Jason Cox describes his Press Coffee+Crepes business as a “coffee house that sits within a restaurant that has a cocktail lounge in the rear.” That formula he and business partner Brett DeVries used in 2017 in Graham “as a shiny object to play with” has turned out to be a recipe for success.

Since featuring Cox in 2019 as a Trailblazer, he and DeVries have opened a second Press Coffee+Crepes, that includes the Fitzgerald & Faulkner cocktail bar, in the American Tobacco Historic District campus near Durham Bulls Athletic Park. A third Press will open early next year on Hillsborough Street in downtown Raleigh, Cox says.

The first Press was an effort at downtown revitalization in Graham, a town of 17,000 residents between Burlington and Chapel Hill. His Aedos Group then acquired 43,000-square-feet of downtown space, which has been leased out to retail and services businesses, helping stabilize a town he characterized as having unrealized potential. He says 80% of the first tenants remain in business.

He estimates there are another half-dozen Grahams in North Carolina – smaller areas with walkable downtowns, but with the access to populations and just waiting to be discovered. The secret, Cox says, is that first-time entrepreneurs need encouragement to pursue their “crazy ideas.”

The Greene County native also serves on an advisory board for entrepreneurship at Elon University.

2020
LAURA BARRY

ASSISTANT COACH  |  DAVIDSON UNIVERSITY
DAVIDSON

Laura Barry returns to the women’s college basketball coaching ranks this season as a full-time assistant to Gayle Fulks at Davidson University. She had coached the Watauga High girls team for the past seven seasons, accumulating a record of 124-55, including last season’s team which made it to the fourth round in the state playoffs. She also coached the high school boys team for two seasons from 2019 to 2021.

“Change is hard, and leaving a team is always hard,” says Barry, “but this is an opportunity that came at the right time and the right place.” She and Fulks have known one another since they were both assistant college coaches in their 20s.

Barry will continue with her Peak Basketball business, which she started in 2018 in Boone to work with young high school athletes to give them year-round opportunities to train and compete in basketball. Peak stands for “Process, Effort, Accountability and Keep at it.” The Cary High grad’s basketball journey began as a child and continued as a walk-on for UNC Wilmington. She would transfer to UNC Chapel Hill, where she was a member of two ACC championship teams and the 2007 team that made it to the women’s Final Four.

Barry played for Gastonia native and former Tar Heel coach Sylvia Hatchell, which helped feed her lifelong love of the game. “I think that’s why I’m a coach, just being around her and her staff.”

Barry had previous collegiate coaching experience as a graduate assistant at St. John’s University and assistant coaching jobs at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania and East Tennessee State University.

2020
MELINDA COVERT

PROJECT MANAGER  |  DPR CONSTRUCTION
APEX

Melinda Covert is project manager on a two-year, $100 million life sciences construction project in Greenville that she can envision one day providing life-saving treatments for people in North Carolina. “It’s rewarding to make something exist where it didn’t exist before,” she says.

Covert came south in 2016 for work after completing her engineering degree at Northeastern University in Boston in 2013. Since being named a trailblazer she has settled in Apex and purchased her first home. She also switched companies, moving from Texas-based Fluor to California-based DPR Construction about 15 months ago. The move allows her to take a more active role in project execution on the construction field side of the business and be more involved in problem-solving, she says.

A project manager can work long days and have stretches without time off depending on scheduling, she says. She enjoys being on the job site, though. She has volunteered to help get more young women interested in jobs within the construction industry. “You don’t see a lot of us, but you do see more than you used to,” Covert says. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there were 1.2 million women in the construction industry in 2020, or about one in 10 workers.

The industry needs to work on pay equity issues as well as bringing more women into jobs, Covert says. “The more diverse your team is, the better results you get.”

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