Saturday, May 18, 2024

Worldly things

Worldly things

Sharon Decker, who left corporate life to be a minister, shepherds the Department of Commerce’s conversion.
By Edward Martin

""Patricia Queen stirs potato soup. At the church dinner tonight, tables will sag beneath fried chicken, casseroles, pies and other dishes. After the blessing, members will sit elbow- to-elbow, eating and discussing who’s ailing and who has traded pickup trucks. Most had family in this part of rural Rutherford County when Union Mills Presbyterian Church was founded in 1905. “My husband, Tom, and I are probably the only ones in the congregation not kin to each other,” she says, laughing.

A few years ago, a new minister came to the church. She was a lay pastor, unordained but persuasive. Backlit by rays shining through a crucifixion scene in the stained-glass window behind the pulpit, she wove soulful personal anecdotes into her sermons. Once, she inspired Queen to ride a bicycle 32 miles in a charity fundraiser. “Believe me,” Queen says, “I am not an athlete.”

Trim and smartly dressed, Sharon Decker was a middle-age mother of four, but it wasn’t hard to picture her when she had been Miss Ashbrook High School ’75 or, three years later, Miss Gastonia. “My children are horrified at the thought of me parading in a swimsuit,” she joked to the congregation. She had been a corporate star in Charlotte but, at 41, left for little Rutherfordton, just down the road from Union Mills, to be president of a women’s apparel company and, later, of its parent. But throughout her career, something else kept calling, so the Baptist minister’s daughter finally decided to follow her father’s footsteps.

Late last year, she had nearly completed her master’s in divinity with plans to be a university chaplain. Then, three days after Christmas, a car slowly rolled up the driveway to her house, with its panoramic view of Chimney Rock. Pat McCrory was at the wheel. They’ve known each other more than 30 years, since both were young executives at Duke Power Co. “She’s dynamic, she’s smart, she has extremely good business experience,” he says. “And, last but not least, there are her values.” When he sent word he had a job for her, she declined, so he had driven 70 miles from Charlotte to plead in person.

A week later, on the first Saturday in January, McCrory was sworn in as governor. Sharon Allred Decker took an oath, too. As his secretary of commerce, she would shepherd not a flock but a $400 billion-plus state economy, nurturing existing business while trying to gather more. That has been the traditional role. But McCrory had something else in mind: He planned to privatize economic development, how the state sells itself as the place to do business. He wanted to shift responsibility from her department to a nonprofit corporation that, unfettered from red tape, would be nimbler than a bureaucracy. “We have to be able move faster,” Decker says, “primarily in terms of job recruiting.”

“We are going to unleash North Carolina’s economic potential with a bold new approach to recruit and retain business,” the governor said April 8, announcing his “Partnership for Prosperity.” He gave the department 45 days to develop a plan, budget and timeline. Though few details had emerged by mid-May, Commerce insiders say the public-private partnership will be patterned on the Indiana Economic Development Corp., which has drawn fire for negotiating taxpayer-funded deals out of the public view. That has been a bone of contention in many of the dozen or so states that have such an agency. “When you’re using the public’s money, you want to be deliberative,” says Robert Orr, a Republican lawyer in Raleigh and former N.C. Supreme Court justice who is among the most-vocal critics of economic incentives to attract business. “Transparency certainly isn’t going to be fostered by speeding up the process.”

Until the old Employment Security Commission was folded into it in 2011, Commerce had seen few changes since it was created in 1972, though two notable ones came about in the 1990s. That’s when it began using grants and tax breaks to lure business and divided the state into seven regions, each with a public-private partnership, to decentralize recruiting. After the department is overhauled, a board of directors, chaired by the governor with Decker as vice chairwoman, will govern the North Carolina Economic Development Corp. It will assume all the department’s duties related to recruitment and retention, including small-business development, travel and tourism, entrepreneurship and foreign investment and trade.

Not only will this get things done faster, the administration says, but eventually it should be less expensive. “The new partnership will leverage existing state funds to get the private sector more involved in economic development,” says a press release from the governor’s office. “In the long run, fewer state dollars will be needed to run the programs currently operated by the N.C. Department of Commerce and several nonprofit organizations receiving state funding.”

With Republicans winning control of the executive branch and both houses of the General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction, McCrory should have little problem getting legislation through. But there will be blood: a major department downsized, people cut loose, money diverted, policies rewritten, relationships reassessed. To do all this while dealing with an unemployment rate among the nation’s highest, Decker must perform in an arena she had always run from: politics, realm of the profane rather than the pious. There already are rifts in Republican ranks, with rivals eyeing one another warily, while Democrats watch for signs of weakness.

That’s one reason the state’s first female secretary of commerce doesn’t envy the second. Jim Martin, the last Republican governor before McCrory, appointed Wilmington shipping executive Estell Lee Harrelson to the post in 1990. Back then, she recalls, her job mostly was helping new and expanding business navigate bureaucracy to, say, get a road built to a plant. “Both parties worked together for the benefit of the state. Is it different now? It’s nasty. I’m glad I’m out of it.”

With all that on her plate, the preacher has plenty to pray over. But it doesn’t frighten her. “I’ve never shied away from hard decisions and tough circumstances,” Decker, 55, says. “But I am who I am and don’t know how to be otherwise. I don’t hide what I’m made of, and my faith is important to me.”

""Bill Lee, the crusty chairman and CEO of Duke Power, grins and wags his finger at the young woman. She had started work there in 1979 after graduating summa cum laude from UNC Greensboro with a bachelor of science in home economics and consumer services. Six years later, Decker is surrounded by engineers. Lee is one. Shouldn’t she go back to school to become one, too? “We’ve got enough damned engineers,” she remembers him saying. “My generation refers to what you call customers as ‘meters.’ We need somebody who understands that on the other side of those meters are families trying to make a living and small businesses and factories.” The scolding, friends suggest, only reaffirms her core beliefs.

She was 4 when Hoyle Allred moved his family from Albemarle to Gastonia, where he was pastor of Flint-Groves Baptist Church on the city’s gritty north side. “Her mother, Dot, was active in Baptist politics statewide,” says Richard Boyce, mayor of Belmont and former pastor of First Presbyterian Church there, where Decker and her husband worshipped. “If you know churches, you know why Sharon’s certainly no stranger to politics.” Her parents focused on community development, Decker says. “They realized mills were operating 24 hours a day, often with one parent working one shift and one the other, so they started a church-sponsored child care center. In the ’60s, that was a new concept.” But for young Susan, one of three sisters, Gastonia was a place she wanted to escape.

“I was never going back,” she says. “I was ready to see the world.” She had planned to major in interior design at UNCG, but a professor told her she lacked talent. She met Bob Decker, a math teacher at Cleveland Community College in Shelby, her senior year. They married, settling in Belmont, on the fringe of the town she had wanted to leave. Within a year, they had their first child, a son. Two more children would follow. When one of her sisters, a single mother, became ill, they took in her 13-year-old son.

At Duke Power, she quickly caught the eye of senior management. “No. 1, she’s very intelligent, bright, very positive in her approach to everything,” says Bill Grigg, a lawyer who joined the company in 1963 and succeeded Lee as chairman in 1994. “She has a way with people that’s unique. Those qualities came at a time when women weren’t in line for such positions, particularly in public utilities, which were so engineering-related. Because of Sharon’s unique qualities, she was made our first female district manager, in Fountain Inn, S.C. She was responsible for managing linemen and technical people. She was a liberal-arts person, but we felt she had the qualifications to manage outside her narrow field. From that point on, she just moved right up.”

During her 17 years with Duke, she created its round-the-clock service center, which Lee said was second only to the nuclear program in importance to the company. “The major project we put her in charge of was centralizing our telephone-answering and -response system,” Grigg recalls. “Prior to that, we had centers all across the Carolinas. If you lived in Anderson, S.C., you had one there. If you needed something, you called there. Sharon was responsible for centralizing that in a center we built at the UNCC research park. She was responsible for not only the technical end but having to remove the local people who’d been responding to local needs. To change that system was a huge change, a real cultural change. She just handled the technical side and the public-relations side in a magnificent way.”

Utilities were in upheaval over the prospect of deregulation. Consumer choice in what had been a monopoly business would change everything, executives thought. Her career was a blur of high-level promotions. She became the company’s youngest, and first female, vice president in 1992. She was 35. “I have very little memory left of that period now,” she admits, “because the work intensity was so great.” Her husband, who had become a banker, quit his job to be a stay-at-home dad. “I was working 70 and 80 hours a week, with four young children, and Bob was having health issues.” Her aging mother was ill. “I began to pray about it: Is this where I am really supposed to be in this phase of my life?”

One morning, amid a jumble of expensive clothes, fashionable shoes and dress-for-success accessories in her walk-in closet, she broke into sobs. “I was at a place most people would have given anything to have achieved professionally. Yet I knew in my heart I needed a shift in priorities.” She and her husband enrolled in a program at Presbyterian Hospital, run by a Presbyterian minister and a Buddhist monk, for those teetering under the weight of careers and family. She made up her mind to leave Duke Power, but providence intervened. Lee had retired and been succeeded by Grigg, who asked her to come up with a business plan to create a nonprofit to buy and preserve the 32,000-square-foot, 32-room Charlotte mansion built by company founder James Buchanan Duke in 1915.

In 1996, she became president and CEO of The Lynnwood Foundation, raising $12 million to buy and restore the mansion as a corporate retreat, conference and leadership center and bed-and-breakfast. “Folks were saying, ‘She’s crazy. She’s lost her mind.’ But the move to Lynnwood was the most important of my career. I’m not sure I worked any less hours, but I was much more integrated with my family. I had control.”

No longer in Duke Power’s direct employ, she broadened her business horizons, joining the boards of companies such as Charlotte-based Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated (its vice chairman, Bill Elmore, heads McCrory’s committee studying the restructuring of Commerce) and Matthews-based Family Dollar Stores Inc. Some years, Securities and Exchange Commission filings show, compensation for her director duties has exceeded $200,000. She became chair of the Charlotte Chamber in 1998. She settled in, sorted her life, telling herself she would never leave Lynnwood. The vow lasted until 1999. That’s when Pell Tanner called.

Bob Decker had long wanted to move to the country, and a town in the foothills with fewer than 5,000 residents was close enough. Rutherfordton is home of Tanner Cos. and its flagship, Doncaster, a woman’s apparel brand started in 1931 that switched from shirts to shirtwaist dresses sold at Junior League fundraisers during the Depression. Its in-home trunk shows pioneered the path Tupperware and others followed, and though it has outlet stores, the revenue stream flows from a nationwide network of “wardrobe consultants.”

At Duke Power, Decker had earned a reputation as a firm but affable manager. Here she honed it. “Our business is about connecting individuals to a cause bigger than themselves,” says Tanner, whose grandfather started the company. “Sharon was having to deal with a thousand women at a time, a lot with divergent views. When business decisions have to be made that don’t feel very friendly, it can be difficult. She had a graceful way of going about it, a certain clarity.”

In the early 2000s, women were buying Doncaster’s Italian-designed $300 tunics and $400 jackets at a heady pace. The Tanner Cos.’ North Carolina employment — not counting private-contractor saleswomen in all 50 states — topped 250, and sales surpassed $200 million. Recession has pared that. “There’s been a lot of change,” Tanner says. “We’ve all gone through some difficult times. We’re still north of $50 million but south of $100 million. We’ve got about 150 employees in North Carolina.”

But Decker never had to face cash-flow crises, layoffs or other soul-trying times. She was gone by then. After becoming president of the parent company in April 2003, she departed in August 2004. The Tanner family had regained the interest a management group held in the business, and it was time, she decided, to heed the call. “I said, ‘Pell, I know in my heart I want to be in the full-time ministry.’”

She formed The Tapestry Group LLC, a nonprofit with a staff of six, to offer counseling, seminars and retreats to women. The Deckers spent about $1 million buying and renovating Rutherfordton’s 1925 firehouse and town hall, turning it into The Firehouse Inn, a bed-and-breakfast and venue for Tapestry groups and other functions. The one-time corporate celebrity developed a new persona: spiritual and sensitivity maven. She met Charlotte radio personality Ramona Holloway at a hospital benefit, giving birth to The Satisfied Life, a three-hour show broadcast Sunday mornings on WLNK-FM. “It came from the heart,” Holloway says. “For five years, we got together every Wednesday, taped interviews with authors like Anne Rice, who’d turned from writing about vampires to writing about angels, and we talked about jobs and family. Sharon would wrap up with her weekly word, a couple of minutes of stories that just left you thinking things were going to be OK.”

In 2009, Decker left her ministry at Union Mills and another nearby small church to concentrate on her graduate degree at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs. Last year, she interned at the Center for Christian Studies at the University of Virginia as chaplain of the law and business schools. “It had become clear,” she says. “I had to have a hand in business life and faith life.” She planned to graduate this spring and return to Charlottesville in the fall. Then Pat McCrory showed up in her driveway.

West from Charlotte past the brooding monadnocks of Crowders Mountain and Kings Mountain, where patriots whipped loyalists — Americans all but for one British officer — to change the course of one revolution, McCrory drove to Rutherfordton to seek aid for his. “First, I want to redevelop the brand of North Carolina, our economic-development strategy,” he says. “It hasn’t been updated since 1985, and it needs to correlate with our needs for the next 20, 25 years. The brand we’re promoting is that North Carolina has unlimited opportunities, and we have to unleash the incredible resources we have to give us a competitive advantage with other states and the world.”

Among his priorities are tax reform, “revising the whole concept of incentives” and reducing regulation, particularly environmental, “to ensure results within a price structure that’s reasonable for business.” All will impact Decker’s role. “I want to put as much or more emphasis on getting our existing customers — businesses — to expand as in recruiting new customers to come to North Carolina,” McCrory says. “Where in the past we might have spent a lot of time traveling outside the state, now we’ll spend as much or more time with our existing customers.”

On a late-winter day, unpacking in her new office, Decker is launching McCrory’s mission in surroundings still conspicuously austere. “This could be Texas for all anybody could tell,” she says with a wide sweep of her arms. She rattles off what she calls her five tenets for growth: health care, education, economic development, quality of life and environment, and arts, culture and tourism. She expects to focus on growing sectors such as energy, biotechnology, information and financial systems and agribusiness.

When McCrory came courting, one way he wooed her was saying he wanted various outlooks and philosophies in his administration. Four of his eight cabinet secretaries are not registered Republicans. “I’ve run from politics all my life,” says Decker, listed on the voting rolls as an independent. “I’m not a political person.” That could cut two ways: debilitating political naiveté or lack of political baggage that frees her, as former Gov. Martin says, “to be more productive.” Keith Crisco, her predecessor under Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue, agrees. “It’s better if she isn’t political, so she’s got an advantage. I tried to make it nonpolitical. She’s smart — my family has known hers for years — and she understands relationships. This job is all about relationships.”

She might, however, have to struggle with something bigger than politics. “Any person who takes their faith seriously will find themselves in tugs of war,” says Robert Canoy, her dean at the Gardner-Webb School of Divinity. “I can assure her, that’s coming.“ It could come in obvious ways, for example, when industry needs threaten the environment. “I’m passionate about North Carolina,” she says. “I love my state.” Or in ways that are less obvious, when choices aren’t between black or white but subtle shades of gray.

Usually cheerful, a somber Sharon Decker wrestles with the question. “I serve in a governor’s administration that would not ask me to compromise what I believe to be true,” she says. “Will that mean I will agree with every decision? No. But if I reach a point I can’t wake up and look in the mirror in the morning, I won’t do it anymore.” It’s late afternoon. She brightens, stands, adjusts her left foot, which is in a cast after surgery. “We’ve got to do something about this office,” she chirps. “This just doesn’t say North Carolina at all.” She’ll change it, she says. “I didn’t come here to keep things the way they are. I’m a change agent. Everything will be on the table for review.” Almost, she says, everything.

Commerce’s vector to the private sector

In an interview with Business North Carolina less than a month after taking office in January, Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker hinted that major changes lay ahead. Not until Gov. Pat McCrory announced April 8 that he wanted to privatize most of her department’s duties was it revealed just how sweeping those changes would be. He tasked a committee with studying how to get all the pieces in place by the end of the year, but what the new public-private partnership and diminished Department of Commerce might look like are outlined in a white paper that McCrory’s transition team drafted in December, which WRAL News in Raleigh recently obtained.

Tony Almeida, the governor’s senior adviser for jobs and the economy, is one of the co-authors. He used to work for Duke Energy Corp. in Charlotte, as did Decker and McCrory. In fact, as the utility’s vice president for economic development, he was McCrory’s boss.

Citing a national trend of shrinking state budgets for economic development, the document says North Carolina needs to do more with less. Structured as a nonprofit, the new public-private partnership would contract to provide services like those Commerce performs in exchange for state-appropriated funds. It could also raise private-sector money by selling memberships and seats on its board of directors, similar to a chamber of commerce. “Benefits enjoyed by states that have adopted this model have included cutting government spending, raising new private funds, engaging private-sector resources in economic development, hiring top talent, establishing a strong culture of performance and enjoying the business flexibility, efficiency and continuity created by working in an agency outside of the traditional political framework.”

Commerce, with a nearly $700 million annual budget and some 3,000 employees, 16 divisions and nine boards and commissions, would shrink, though the Division of Employment Security and federally funded programs would remain under its purview. Staff has been warned, Decker told BNC. “We’ve been candid. The new N.C. Economic Development Corp. will certainly be smaller than the current Commerce Department. I don’t know by how much.”

Partnership lead generators, project managers and customer-service specialists would handle recruiting, and their pay would be performance-based at private-sector rates. Industry hunting would resemble executive headhunting or site-selection work. “That’s a good analogy,” Decker says. “Today, we’re reactive. We react when companies say they have an interest in coming to North Carolina. In the future, we’ll be proactive. We’ll research companies with the highest value to North Carolina and go get ’em. A private company will be doing it, and pay will be at risk.”

The seven regional partnerships, which received about $4.6 million from the state this year plus grants from local government and private businesses, are examples of public-private partnerships in economic recruiting, but they might not survive in their present form. “We don’t want to break what’s not broken,” Decker says, “but it has been 20 years since the partnerships were formed, and a lot has changed in this economy in those 20 years.”

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