Morris has constructed a state-of-the-art, theater-quality haunted labyrinth that will shock even the most jaded haunted house goer. Located at the rear of his 4,800 square foot costume shop, this extensive haunted maze features 3-D special effects, lasers, animated gargoyles, aliens, psychopaths, and corpses, walls that crawl, floors that fight back, and black holes – all in a lengthy studio set where you become the star in an interactive horror movie.
The technologically advanced exhibit includes a library, gallery, attic, a child’s room, garden, graveyard, an oddities museum, asylum, dungeon and even a laboratory for Dr. Evil. Morris has cleverly added sinister-themed booths for an off-colored carnival atmosphere. Halloween junkies will revel in Morris’ quirky sense of fun, but this sophisticated haunted house isn’t just for thrills. “Although the house is open to the public during October, I actually built it for my clients,” says Morris.
Many Charlotteans are familiar with Morris’ store, Morris Costumes & Tuxedos on Monroe Road. But most would be surprised to find more than gorilla suits and Grim Reaper accessories. While the store does include formalwear, dancewear, and Karaoke machines for rent, it is only a small part of Morris’ business. He is one of the world’s largest distributors of Halloween costumes, props, and special effects to the motion picture and amusement park industries supplying over 10,000 retail stores, magic and novelty shops around the world. The Morris Costumes Catalog is a dictionary-sized publication of costumes, masks, magic tricks and props that has become essential to the industry. Morris notes, “It’s even available in film studio libraries.”
What’s more, Morris has clients from as far away as Singapore lined up to experience the haunted house. He explains, “The house is a permanent display to help me showcase new products and technologies to my customers.” Over the years, that customer list has grown to include Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, touring shows, rock tours, and every major amusement park in the U.S., South America, Europe, and Asia.
Morris engaged Leonard Pickel, editor of Haunted Attraction magazine, to bring his chilling vision to life. Pickel has designed spooky displays for over twenty years, including haunted houses for Universal Studios. “The lighting [in the house] is an art form in itself,” Pickel shares. “We have installed a pneumatic air system throughout the building to animate the props. The electrical effects are spectacular – lasers and three to four feet lightning-bolts.” Although Pickel doesn’t recommend the house for children under the age of 10, he acknowledges, “A lot of 10 year olds can go through it with no problem. Sometimes, it’s the adults we have to worry about.”
Morris himself is a master among haunted house experts. He is the author of books on magic and related subjects, including How to Operate a Financially Successful Haunted House. He anticipated the growth in the haunted house industry – now a remarkably lucrative trade that has expanded nationwide and beyond. “Today, Halloween is the second largest commercial holiday in the United States – second only to Christmas,” Morris reveals. He admits, “We started in the business at the right time. The Halloween business was just taking off. That’s important to any entrepreneur – getting into a developing market on the ground floor.”
That developing market has tapped Morris’ talents in unexpected ways, including that of inventor. While distributing costume accessories, Morris found clients searching for a theatrical makeup that would go on quickly, dry instantly, and wash off with soap and water. After much experimenting, Morris created a winning product that is applied ingeniously through an airbrush. “No one had ever before developed a makeup that would go through an airbrush,” he says proudly. “You can even paint hair.” The airbrush makeup is now a staple at KISS concerts, NFL games, Disney World, major film studios, amusement parks and fairs. Brian Look, head makeup artist for Star Trek Deep Space Nine, recently won an Emmy for his airbrush designs using Morris’ product.
Morris also markets Stretchy Spider Webs, an inexpensive fibrous material that simulates the real thing. “It’s great for movie sets,” he says. “You put it up, it comes down easily, and you can use it again. This stuff is absolutely amazing and it retails for about a dollar.”
Morris has developed additional products, including illusions and enormously large props priced up to $30,000. Even the rock band Metallica has purchased two electric chairs from Morris.
Morris’ horror roots date back to his early fascination with magic. At age 8 he was performing his own magic act in his hometown of Kalamazoo, Mich. under the shortened stage name of Philip Morris. (His full name is Philip Morris Smith … yes, he says his parents chose the name after hearing a cigarette commercial on the radio shortly after his birth.) As a youngster, he would often visit the nearby town of Colon, “the Magic Capital of the World” and the headquarters of the well-known magician of the 1940s, Harry S. Blackstone, Sr. Blackstone, known for such signature illusions as The Buzz Saw Illusion, The Floating Light Bulb, and the Dancing Handkerchief, took an interest in and encouraged his most ardent fan, becoming lifelong friends with young Morris.
By age 12, Morris parlayed his already impressive stage presence into a Saturday morning radio show called Junior Junction on the ABC network. But with adolescence, he gravitated toward a more stylish stage performance called Ghost Shows. These touring performances repackaged standard magic shows into a more grisly, interactive format. They began with a lecture on the spirit world, followed by a fast-paced magical routine with macabre illusions. The grand finale was a “black out” during which the lights were temporarily shut off, allowing patrons’ minds to wander with the help of a few glow-in-the-dark effects from the stage. “It was a magic show that ended up being a s?ance in the theater,” Morris remembers. “When the lights were turned out, the audience would see ghosts and spirits flying over their heads.” Morris headlined his first ghost show at age 15.
In 1952, shortly after graduating high school, Lash LaRue came to Kalamazoo. After seeing the whip-wielding cowboy movie star’s stage show, Morris approached LaRue, who hired him immediately as a publicist and advance man. For the next year, Morris toured with the Lash LaRue Western Show, making enough money to propose to and marry his high school sweetheart, Amy Strong. Charlotte happened to be the last stop on the tour before Lash was due back in Hollywood for filming. Morris and his new wife were planning to go along to California when a theatrical agent offered him a booking as a magician. The booking was for about two weeks’ worth of work, and Morris had planned to catch up with Lash after the engagement, but he never made it to the West Coast.
Using Charlotte as a home base, Morris successfully launched his own traveling troupe, producing and acting in Ghost Shows under the stage nemesis, Dr. Evil in “Dr. Evil’s Terrors of the Unknown.” Morris was known for performing various stunts including being burned alive, buried alive, driving blindfolded and giving away dead bodies. “Ghost Shows were the forerunner of commercial haunted houses,”Morris reflects. “The business we did was unbelievable. We’d turn thousands of people away every day.”
During his nomadic Ghost Show runs, Morris even joined the circus. “I’ve been associated with the major circuses in the United States – even Ringling Brothers,” he says. But Morris toured for several years with the Royal Hanover Circus-the second largest indoor circus in the world. His wife, Amy, and children, Scott and Terri, joined him on the road until the children were school aged.
Ghost Shows eventually died out, but Morris was already conquering a new frontier-television. In the mid-1960’s, television executives found success using Ghost Shows to introduce movies that no one would otherwise watch.
The well-established character, Dr. Evil, made Morris’ transition to television even easier, and it was not long before he was a star. Morris even produced the award winning television show, ‘Dr. Evil’s Horror Theater’. Late Friday nights, the ghost host Dr. Evil, would introduce the evening’s feature film, and provide eerie segments during commercial breaks. “The ratings were unbelievable.” Morris recalls.
“We outrated the Tonight Show with Jack Parr, and we were just a locally produced show.”
Interestingly, it was the need for costumes in his television appearances that led to Morris’ involvement in the costuming business. Frustrated at not being able to buy a gorilla suit, Morris made his own in his basement. Soon, Morris and his wife were fielding requests to borrow costumes.
They began renting costumes and related products out of their basement and Morris Costume & Tuxedos was born. Morris left the TV station in 1967 and he and his wife opened their first store.
“We went from the basement to a retail store. Then, about ten years later [in 1976], we moved to the 20,000-square-foot building at 3108 Monroe Road, which houses our offices and is a distribution warehouse in addition to the ones in Chicago and California. And then about ten years after that , we built this new 20,000-square-foot facility at 4300 Monroe Road for our retail store, some warehousing and, as of this year, our new Haunted House.”
The horror business is definitely a family affair. Wife, Amy, oversees the retail store. Son, Scott is general manager; daughter, Terri, manages the office. At sixty-five, Morris is surprisingly youthful and is already exploring new products and props for next year. “My grandsons keep asking me when they can come to work for me,” he quips.
But the haunted house is Morris’ baby. “The house,” he says, “is going to help us further understand the industry. We could not possibly recoup the money and labor we’ve put into it by charging the public. But it gives us some insight into the retail market, which has always been part of our success.”
Dr. Adi Khindaria, Ph.D., met Lane Ostrow on the soccer field. But their competitive spirit wasn’t limited to just sports. Khindaria was a highly respected technology consultant. Ostrow was president of Plej’s – an $80 million bath/linen company with 44 retail stores throughout the Southeast.
As Plej’s president, Ostrow knew firsthand the technology concerns facing small to mid-sized companies today. “The biggest problem is keeping up [with competitors],” he says. “Technology yields enormous efficiencies and cost savings, but upfront capital outlays, attracting high-level technology talent, and preparing for future needs are huge challenges.” He adds, “These things really have to be in place to help your business grow.”
Khindaria agrees, “Technology changes rapidly and it’s tough to keep pace. It’s not just a matter of PCs [personal computers], it’s the total infrastructure. Unless you have a strong foundation, you can’t have the best business applications to run your company.”
A business application could be a general ledger system, a human resource system, a manufacturing system, a relationship management system and more. These critical tools reside on an infrastructure that needs to be robust, yet flexible enough support new and changing company needs.
Ostrow hired Khindaria to fashion a technology plan for Plej’s. He wanted freedom from technology maintenance and upgrades, and the ability to share information and improve business practices. After careful research, Khindaria proposed an innovative solution. There was only one problem – he couldn’t deliver it. The solution just didn’t exist for the company’s size. Khindaria explains, “We decided to take what larger companies do well – that is, leverage technology – and bring it down to a smaller, mid-sized company in an affordable, yet customized way.”
Ostrow felt they were on to something big. “I couldn’t be the only one who needed this kind of help,” he says. So he and Khindaria surveyed their contacts – executives and managers – only to find that others, too, were clamoring for enterprise-wide technology at the small business level. Out of that consulting project, a new company was born in March 2000 – iReadyWorld.
Today Khindaria and Ostrow are CEO and president, respectively, of iReadyWorld, an infrastructure service provider to the small to mid-sized market. As a full-service, single source for technology needs, iReadyWorld provides the foundation for business applications, including the hardware components, networks, servers, security, and office solutions like e-mail and high-speed Internet access, and leading business software. Best of all, the customer doesn’t actually buy anything.
iReadyWorld purchases the machinery, PCs, software and hardware mechanisms, with installation and support for as low as $179 per user per month. That’s not too bad considering that GIGA Group, a national information technology research company estimates the total cost of PC ownership alone to be $350 – $500 per user per month. (GIGA figures do not include lost productivity for downtime or repair costs, which can be significant.) From the customer’s perspective, the services offered are seamless and simple.
But in reality, infrastructure complexities can overwhelm even the savviest business owner. iReadyWorld’s affordable framework consists of fourteen different layers, including a secure data center, networking (wiring, drums and machinery), data storage, operating systems, and a dizzying array of office applications.
How does an infrastructure provider contribute to a company’s bottom line? Ostrow points out, “We enable customers to use technology from a competitive standpoint. You don’t want the large bank fighting with strategy and the small bank fighting with technology. So outsourcing that piece allows the smaller company to focus where it counts most, for example, on interest rates. You don’t make any money spending 25 percent of your time distracted with technology problems. Infrastructure itself doesn’t make you money but allows you to make money.”
Khindaria and Ostrow didn’t just stop there. As a former consultant, Khindaria was well aware of the drawbacks of IT consulting. “Small to mid-sized companies have to pay someone $125-$150 an hour to solve problems. Consultants come in, install, and then walk away. There is no accountability, no responsibility when things don’t work or go wrong.”
So they expanded the help desk concept into a 24 hour-a-day, 7 days a week support system for their growing list of clients. Khindaria explains, “Every appliance that we deploy is monitored proactively 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If something is about to go wrong, we know about it, and we can remedy it. That’s what large enterprises do today.” Ostrow clarifies, “For the most part, we don’t have to send anybody on site [to a customer’s business]. We can monitor and solve most problems remotely.”
iReadyWorld guarantees a 15-minute response time, routine service checks, optimization adjustments and upgrades. The company’s service agreements cover three years, with replacement and upgrades as needed.
iReadyWorld solutions are scalable, meaning they can easily accommodate changes in staffing, software, trading partners, additional locations – just about any variable in a company’s growth cycle. One of their latest offerings is cutting-edge telephony service. “Our voice telephony system links offices in multiple states together for free intra-company calls,” shares Ostrow. “Multiple locations in multiple states are connected by the same data system and with telephony, voice travels along the same network.” Khindaria adds, “In most companies, voicemail, fax mail, and e-mail are on three separate systems. Telephony gives you one in-box – voicemail, e-mail, and even faxes come to the same place.”
How does a young start-up offer such broad, customized, pay-as-you-use offerings? iReadyWorld has partnered with three leaders in technology infrastructure: Cisco Systems, Compaq, and Genuity. All iReadyWorld networks are Cisco Powered Networks, with all the benefits of end-to-end networking: simplified, cost-efficient network management; higher network availability; more reliable, scalable, and secure services; and faster deployment. Compaq supplies iReadyWorld servers and corporate quality desktop PCs that can be managed remotely. Genuity offers a comprehensive suite of managed Internet infrastructure services, including voice-over-Internet Protocol telephony. “We built an enterprise to look just like any large company,” Khindaria says. “Most large companies are nothing more than small units glued together under one parent name. So they have 200 users here, 50 users there and all of that is centrally monitored. We do the exact same thing but for individual separate companies. We are the central monitor.”
One of iReadyWorld’s success stories is Pumps Parts & Service, Inc., a Charlotte-based industrial and environmental pumps distributor. Controller Greg Tilley is also technology coordinator, with very specific needs for his 45-employee firm. Tilley turned to iReadyWorld for advice. “We have some industry-unique software packages that are not standard and iReadyWorld ] worked with us to design the LAN, not just a pre-made solution. They helped us design a system and worked with us on the standard software configurations, and we didn’t have to buy any equipment. Other IT companies just couldn’t do that.”
Khindaria and Ostrow’s backgrounds could ward off any would-be competitors. Khindaria completed a Ph.D. in computational biochemistry at Utah State. As a graduate student he worked on supercomputers and helped several West Coast companies launch their networks and Internet products. First Union tapped his expertise to develop their cyber-banking product in 1997. As chairman & CEO of iReadyWorld, Khindaria plots strategy and product development for iReadyWorld.
Ostrow grew up in Charlotte and received degrees from Duke University. He also holds a law degree and received a master’s in tax law from Emory University. At iReadyWorld, Ostrow oversees day-to-day operations, sales and marketing.
The company has an astonishing lack of direct competitors in its market niche. “We are the only ones employing a subscription-based model – per user, per month,” Ostrow comments. “We are the only ones employing a subscription-based model – per user, per month.”
Twenty-four employees strong and growing, iReadyWorld hopes its plan will work in new markets. Khindaria stresses their business concept isn’t exactly new. “We’ve taken a large enterprise model, repackaged it, and made it available and cost-effective for small to mid-sized businesses – a market segment that couldn’t afford it earlier. It’s all about execution.
Voted Entrepreneur of the Year in 1997 by the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, the president of Panos Hotel Group must have done something right. He has developed, owns and operates eight hotels in the Charlotte area and has four more under construction. Future plans include two office and retail developments. All of this development has taken place at breakneck speed – the first four hotels opened within three years.
He says the first time anyone asked him how he got where he is, it stopped him dead in his tracks.
“Well, I just did,” Panos laughs. “You go through life and never really stop to think about what you’re doing until somebody asks you. It’s like driving from this point to that point. You make a right turn and then a left turn and then you’re there.
“I’m a risk taker. I don’t have any children so my thrill in life – since I’m such a lousy golfer – is this business. I like putting deals together.”
Panos says he was fortunate to move here and become involved with real estate lending. But, he credits one man for the push into the hotel business. “I guess I have to thank a gentleman named Charlie Johnson who really bounced my ears one day. I was in the finance business and was talking about getting into the hotel business. He said, ‘Either get the heck in or get the heck out. Nobody can do anything they’re not committed to.’ “
That remark was like releasing the break on an idling locomotive. “I built the Comfort Inn in Monroe in 1986 along with two partners. It was a $1.5 million deal. One partner put in $42,000 cash. Then I helped him get financing and develop a Comfort Inn in Matthews. By the time it was opening, I had a piece of property in Kannapolis under contract. I obtained full interest in the hotel in Matthews. Then we acquired the Lake Norman property for that Comfort Inn.
“The timing was incredible. We were acquiring cheap property going on the Atlanta theory that everything would grow out to you. We built four hotels in ’86, ’87 and ’88. We were working about 80-100 hours a week just flat out.
“I’d never run a hotel in my life. The experts have all these designations in the hotel business and they’ll give you a mountain of reasons why you shouldn’t have been able to do what I did. I just wasn’t smart enough to know I couldn’t do it,” he jokes.
“These hotels were exterior corridor, 60-90 room hotels so they were going to come under stiff competition. We sold them for $12.25 million. Our interest was worth $3.25 million.”
A large trust out of Chicago bought them in January 1995 as part of an 18-hotel package.
“It was like a Wall Street movie with those long tables where everyone sits around putting merger deals together. There were lawyers, legal assistants, title people…there were 40 people in this room and they were really cooking.
This lawyer was signing and distributing checks. In the midst of all the chaos, he stops dead in his tracks and says, ‘What in the world is this check for $42,000 doing here?’
“Our attorney Smithy Curry, a great Southern gentleman drawls, ‘Well, that’s the original capital that went into this.’
“There was this dead silence. Then he said, ‘You mean to tell me this whole thing was built on $42,000 cash?’
“Well, we were cash flow starved from the day we started,” Panos chuckles.
“We like kind exchanged most of our profits into the Hampton Inn in Matthews in ’95 and in Concord in ’96 and the Hampton Inn and Suites in Pineville in ’97. Now we had more competitive hotels with interior corridors.”
Panos says he sees his heritage laying the groundwork for what he does now.
“In a Greek family, if you work for other people you are viewed as unsuccessful. I was constantly being asked why I didn’t own my own business. I guess it took coming of age in my 40s before I could focus in on what I wanted to do.”
“I came to Charlotte from Atlanta in 1977, kicking and screaming. Back then the town only had a semi-pro football team and they’d just gotten liquor by the drink. Now I see it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I had the experience of watching Atlanta grow from a kind of small town. Now I saw Charlotte duplicating that growth and I had some insight as to what was going to happen here.
“I ended up working in commercial lending, making loans for hotels and restaurants in the early 80’s – great preparation. I needed to understand money – how to borrow it, how to prepare loan packages, how to talk to lenders.
People brought me their dreams and laid them on the table every day and I saw the good way to do it and the bad way to do it. I was in Charlotte when it exploded. Back then Atlanta banks could only operate in five counties. Charlotte banks were statewide so they had a lot of clout and leverage. BINGO!”
Panos now owns one Hampton Inn and is a partner in two Hampton Inn and Suites, including one at Phillips Place in South Park. He owns two Hilton Garden Inns, and one Comfort Suites in Gastonia. Under construction, are the Hilton Garden Inn and the Hampton Inn downtown, a Hilton Garden Inn in Rock Hill and a Comfort Suites at Harris Blvd. and I-77. Each has a story.
“I got this call in 1996 from Lee Curry, a CPA in Gastonia, who had property he wanted me to look at for a hotel. I said, ‘Look, I don’t have any more money, I’m tapped out.’ But he said not to worry about it. Three weeks later I met with him.
“He said, ‘I’ve checked up on you. I know who you are. You’re a nice businessman.’ He whips out this folder with clipped articles on us for the last three years. He represented a gentleman named C.W. Smith who invented the process of rebuilding transmissions for car companies. Lee asked me to put together a package on this property for C.W. I want you to build it because you guys know what you’re doing, he said.
“I put the package together and saw it was going to take about 25 percent capital, with the land worth about $600,000. But it would probably take another $500,000 in capital to put this thing together. I worried about the numbers.
“I go out there and here’s C.W. on a tractor in his overalls smoking a huge cigar, grading this piece of property. I’m in my suit getting my shoes dirty.
“I make the presentation in a conference room and C.W. asks, ‘What’s this money for a feasibility study? What’s this money for points?’ Well, I said, if you have a loan you have to have a feasibility study and pay points. C.W. said we didn’t need any of that because he was going to finance the whole hotel.”
Panos laughs incredulously. “I said, ‘Obviously you don’t understand because we’re going to need $5.8 million to do this hotel.’ He says, ‘I understand and I want you to get started in 60 days. We shook hands on the deal and never looked back and built the Comfort Suites in Gastonia.”
The Steam That Turns the Wheels
Panos identifies three key ingredients to his success: faith in himself, commitment and honesty.
“A lot of people don’t have enough faith in themselves to tackle things,”he says. “I’ve bought property and never had any idea in the world how I was going to do the deal. I’ve barely had enough to get the earnest money up but I’ve put together deal after deal after deal.
“The reason is commitment,” he hits an emphatic note. “I commit myself to do something and I’m going to spend every waking minute figuring out how.”
In the face of disappointments he perseveres. On one project he was turned down 37 times for a loan before a bank in West Virginia finally lent him the money.
“Every time I’ve had a disappointment I’ve learned something that became invaluable down the road.”
The honesty that was built into his early business relationships has paid off.
When he bought a site downtown and had no idea where the capital for development would come from, Smith stepped in. Numerous other developers vied for the opportunity they were granted at Phillips Place.
“If you’re honest, you develop relationships with The Harris Group or C.W. Smith that go down the road with you. That doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes. We make mistakes everyday but are honest about them and have enough faith to recover from them.”
Riding the Rails
“We soared 2,600 hotel rooms in Charlotte last year. Occupancy spikes up and spikes down. But we have six million square feet of office space under construction: four million in the suburbs, two million downtown. That alone is the emphasis to support development. We just need to slow down some of the building of hotels. I think that will take place over the next 18 months. Let the market absorb this number of hotels and then we’ll move on.
“Charlotte’s economy is going to be strong over the next five years. We’re having trouble slowing it down. That’s the problem. The real estate business is taking the brunt of all the exuberance on Wall Street because the only way to slow it down is to raise interest rates.”
Panos says there’s a difference between now and the 1970s to mid ’80s that makes the business cycle stronger.
“All the deals have real equity in them now. That has changed the dynamics of the business, too. Before, people built for tax benefits and didn’t care if they lost money. This time around, you have to be an experienced operator. You’re also required to put replacement reserves in escrow so every real estate deal will have money to refurbish, insuring fewer rundown hotels in the marketplace.
“Automation allows you to run hotel operations with a lot fewer people. We have 250 employees. We only added two people when we increased to eight hotels from five. When we can bring on exponentially fewer people and more hotels, everything gets more profitable.
“I no longer have to wait 45 days to figure out how we did in June. Running eight hotels requires constant information so I can make changes in rates, changes in schedules, in all different categories instantaneously.”
The Track Ahead
“I’m exhausted. This last round has gone on since ’97. The market is getting overbuilt here and we need to stop.”
Panos says he looks to his wife, Barbara, to help him slow down.
“She’s the perfect fit for me. She’s low-key and happy-go-lucky. She settles me. We travel to places like California or Miami Beach and just cool it. We do what we want to do when we want to do it. We eat at nice restaurants, go to the beach, play some golf.”
Some of his ideas for community however, are just gathering steam. Along with his business interests, he is deeply involved in the Charlotte Chamber, serving on the Advisory Board as well as the Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Hospitality Tourism Alliance and Destination Charlotte.
Panos longs to make lasting contributions and his group has searched for ways to use their hotels to significantly benefit people. They finally found it with Presbyterian Hospital’s Hemby Children’s Hospital.
“We learned we have families who come in from out of town when their children need medical help and may not have the resources to spend days or weeks here. Their children fall between programs and the parents’ stay isn’t covered by insurance. Our downtown facility is only going to be one mile away from Presbyterian Hospital.
“The project is a perfect marriage. Their needs and our needs fit perfectly giving all of us a sense of putting something back.
“I feel like this [business] thing is put together for a purpose. Maybe I don’t know what it is, but I feel it will be beneficial down the road. I feel we’ve done over the years, we’ve been led to, so it’ll find its way.”
Harry Nurkin didn’t particularly want to come to Charlotte. In the spring of 1981, though, out of courtesy to a headhunter, he took a weekend off from his job as chief financial officer at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Hospital to meet with the Board of Commissioners of Charlotte Memorial Hospital.
Although it had a decent medical staff, Charlotte Memorial lacked adequate facilities, was low on morale and was barely getting by financially.
Nurkin, a 36-year-old Durham native and Duke University graduate, shared his vision of transforming the moribund hospital into a first class healthcare facility with a distinguished board, which would include such rising business stars as Hugh McColl and Ed Crutchfield. They liked what they heard, and today, nearly twenty years later, Nurkin’s vision is finally being fully realized in the form of Carolinas HealthCare System (CHS), a diversified $2 billion enterprise with nearly 5,000 hospital beds and a reputation as a top healthcare provider in the U.S.
“It sounded like an interesting opportunity,” says Nurkin. “But my wife Jarleth and our boys and I had planted roots and didn’t want to leave Birmingham.” Before he left for the interview in Charlotte, he asked the dean at UAB what he knew about Charlotte. “He said the medical community may be the best in America for a region that doesn’t have a medical school,” recalls Nurkin. “They were pretty strong words from a guy who didn’t brag too much.”
Nurkin took the job. “The deciding factor was that, for all their wonderful parts, universities are impossible to manage. There are so many layers of interests that getting something accomplished takes months,” he explains. “Selecting people can take years. In Charlotte, there were teaching programs for physicians and nurses, but decisions could be made quickly; therefore we could be more competitive and really see if our decisions were efficacious in the short term. What I saw was the best combination of a community hospital and a university hospital.”
At the time, Charlotte Memorial was the number three hospital in a three hospital town, languishing well behind Presbyterian and Mercy hospitals. Because it was losing money, the hospital had to rely on general obligation bonds from Mecklenburg County just to make capital improvements. Nurkin knew this going in, but he had a few aces up his sleeves.
“We had an up-and-coming city in Charlotte, a very good medical staff, and a board that, person for person, was – and still is – unsurpassed in their understanding of business, their understanding of the need to care for human beings and their willingness to serve,” he points out. Nurkin credits former chairman R. Stuart Dickson for much of the progress made by the hospital over the past two decades. “No single individual has had as much impact on our healthcare system as Stuart. He pioneered the transformation of Charlotte Memorial Hospital from a lethargic, suffering facility into Carolinas Medical Center – the dynamic cornerstone of Carolinas HealthCare System,” wrote Nurkin in the CHS annual report.
Board members are quick to return the compliment. “Harry Nurkin was the best thing that ever happened to the Carolinas HealthCare System, or as I used to think of it, Charlotte Memorial Hospital,” says board treasurer and Bank of America ceo Hugh McColl. “When the board brought Harry to Charlotte, we had high hopes he could improve the results of our hospital. He transformed it from a much-maligned public facility into the preferred medical provider, not only for this county but for dozens of others. He brought administration which produced profits, something unheard of before. He provided more and better medical attention to the public at a lower cost. In short, he has been a phenomenal success.
“What he did was bring a vision to the board. We embraced it – he executed it.”
Nurkin’s plan to revive the hospital was a fairly simple one that involved improving both the facilities and the morale. “I felt that if we could pump a little intellectual and emotional juice into the place and give the employees a vision of what it could be, we could decide if we could get there in a short period of time or not,” he relates. “We wanted to draw more talented people and improve the facilities so when people went home from our hospital they would say, ‘The people were really attentive; they were compassionate and competent, and it was a nice environment.’ “
A complete overhaul of the hospital’s facilities was essential. “This building we are in now [the Rush S. Dixon Tower] was the cornerstone for our organization,” he says proudly.
During the 1960s and ’70s, patients were placed in different sections of the hospital based on socioeconomic status. “I thought that if we were ever to become competitive we had to have a wonderful environment where nobody could tell if a patient had heavy insurance or no insurance,” says Nurkin.
“So we built a building with all private rooms. When we opened this building, it enabled us to treat all God’s children in exactly the same way without any concern for age, race, sex or socio-economic status. It was a powerful statement that says this organization treats everybody in the same fashion.”
The building was also designed to appear decidedly non-institutional. When patients and visitors enter through the front lobby, for example, they encounter a two-story atrium full of light and space that resembles an upscale office lobby more than a hospital. Says Nurkin, “When people step through the door, you can see them relax just a little because the environment is designed to be soothing and reassuring, not intimidating or clinical.”
The building is also quite efficient. For example, nurses’ stations are circular hubs with hallway “spokes” that lead to patient rooms “so the nurse has something like 39 steps maximum to any patient,” reveals Nurkin. “It’s better for the nurses and allows for better patient care.”
In addition to the facilities upgrade, Nurkin had to change the management culture at the hospital. He started with some underlying tenets. “We believe that there is a value system in almost every human being that is positive if you can tap into it,” he says. “We also believe that people like to work but do not work at full capacity. So if you provide a pleasant environment and give employees the opportunity to learn more and grow, they feel very positive.
“We want them to have that positive feeling when their feet hit the floor in the morning. How do you do that? You listen to them – what makes their life miserable at work, what makes it fun. It boils down to open and honest communication. If you work here, we’re not going to communicate with you by memo, and you’re not going to find out things in your paycheck. We’re going to listen to you and you’re going to become part of the organization.”
All managers and administrators are required to spend considerable time on the hospital floor. “Basically we are saying, ‘You’re going to have a nice work environment and we’re going to do everything we can to make your life pleasant, understanding that you have a very critical, difficult and at times scary job.’ It sounds rather simple, but not everybody does it. We do.
“Some companies issue pink slips around Thanksgiving and Christmas when they see their end of year numbers not looking so good. We just don’t do that. The emotional downturn reverberates throughout the entire organization so the next time somebody’s treating a patient in the emergency room, in the back of his or her mind is ‘Am I going to be laid off next?’ I don’t want people thinking about that. I want people thinking about the person on the stretcher.”
It has taken longer to create the kind of organization Nurkin envisioned 20 years ago. “The process that I thought was going to take five years was really a 20-year process,” he admits. “I was a young guy – just 36 years old – and thought we could do this in a heartbeat. I learned that it takes longer to take people’s hearts and minds and move them in a new direction. Even if they are enthusiastic, they still have to change.”
The Road to Charlotte
Harry Nurkin did not plan to be a hospital administrator. Growing up, he wanted to be Mickey Mantle. When it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, “I wanted to go to Vanderbilt and become a sports journalist, but our family couldn’t afford that.” Nurkin’s father had died of diphtheria when Harry was just four years old. “As a senior in high school, I got a job at the Veterans Hospital in the summer, and got to see the environment in a heart research lab.” Later, while at Duke studying political science, he went to work as a ward clerk at Duke Hospital to earn some additional money. He happened to meet Ray Brown, a pioneer in the field of healthcare management, who turned Nurkin on to the field of hospital administration.
Upon receiving his graduate degree in health administration, Nurkin headed to Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. After about three years he went to work for Memorial Mission, a smaller hospital in Asheville, N.C. Then in early 1980, Nurkin came to a conference in Charlotte and met a manby the name of Rush Jordan. “He offered me a job with the Baptist Hospital in Birmingham,” says Nurkin. “I went for a visit and met with the head of the 800-bed university hospital at UAB.
We struck up a friendship and I became chief operating officer at age 27.” Nurkin was nearly finished with his doctorate from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa when he took the job in Charlotte. He completed it in 1983.
While Nurkin loves his work, he admits, “I do worry about the fact that I have been ceo for 20 years. I don’t want my style to become stale. I’m 56 so I’ve got a few years, but we will be looking at a succession plan on an ongoing basis.”
When that time comes, Nurkin does not have any grandiose plans. “We’re homebodies,” he says. “I like to spend time with my family” which includes five boys, two of whom are still at home at ages 12 and 14. Together the family enjoys spending time boating at Lake Norman and going to the beach.
Until he does retire, Nurkin will continue to face the challenges of modern healthcare management. He does not need any external motivation, though, and tells this story to illustrate why.
“There was an 18-year old girl who was brought to the emergency room one day, unconscious with no symptoms. At the time it seemed pretty clear that she was going to die, and the family was told as much. But one of the physicians in our emergency medicine training program figured out the problem and talked to the family’s attending physician. After some awfully difficult surgery, we moved the patient back to the intensive care unit to try to keep her alive. She was on dialysis, extra corporeal membrane oxygenation, a ventilator to breathe, and multiple IVs just to maintain blood pressure.
“She was here for over a month. After going through rehab, she left our institution with a couple of scars, but alive and with a long life ahead of her.
“I know who received that person, who diagnosed her, and who cared for her in the ICU. I know the surgeon who was called in the middle of the night to do an awfully difficult surgery. And I know the people in rehab who sent her home.
“The knowledge that we can do those kinds of things on a routine basis would get anybody out of bed to participate. My participation is vicarious, but it’s exciting to know that people who I know are doing this stuff every day. We fail sometimes, but the process of using technology and science and people’s minds and hearts is extremely invigorating.
“My job is to give them the environment to do that and to recruit the right people and make them happy. And to make sure that when they turn for something in the heat of battle with a patient that the right supplies are there, the right nurse is there, the right operating room is available. To me, I am assisting the physicians and the nurses and that feels pretty good.”
It also feels pretty good to have someone like Dr. Harry Nurkin around, too. As Hugh McColl puts it, “All of the citizens of this county and this region should be thankful that Harry Nurkin chose to come here to carry out his life’s work.”
But only early-stage companies need apply. As the fund executive and an investor for Charlotte Angel Partners (CAP), Kulman is steering Charlotte into a world of investing once reserved for Silicon Valley. “A lot of new companies have emerged in the Charlotte market over the last couple of years,” says Kulman. “The timing is ripe for an angel group in this area.”
What exactly is an angel?
Although the word conjures up images of heavenly hosts, an angel investor is someone who has enough discretionary wealth to significantly invest in high-risk, early-stage companies; has a strong interest in helping those companies succeed; and can wait several years before seeing an investment pay off. Angel investors like using their money (and sometimes their experience) to help young companies succeed. They also like being “on the ground floor” of an exciting new venture and reaping the tremendous returns possible when it is sold or goes public.
Unlike venture capitalists, angels are high net worth individuals who invest their own personal money in start-ups. Angels will invest money at a company’s earliest stages, usually before a company is mature enough to attract venture capital investment. Venture capital firms tend to raise money from institutional investors – corporations, insurance companies, pension funds, university endowments – and invest it on behalf of those groups. Although some venture capitalists are early-stage players, most focus on companies in the later stages of growth with bigger financing needs.
While this organized angel fund is new to Charlotte, it has an 11-year old counterpart in the Triad. Tri-State Investment Group or TIG, is CAP’s sister fund in Research Triangle Park. Charlotte Angel Partners is closely modeled after the highly successful TIG funds.
Bill Whitley is the chairman of Charlotte Angel Partners and one of the fund’s founders. He is passionate about start-up companies, having launched several successful enterprises himself. His most recent venture, Mind Blazer, is an interactive Webcast developer. A member of the Tri-State Investment Group, Whitley organized Charlotte Angel Partners to address the growing deal flow in his backyard.
But even Whitley was astonished by the interest from the investor community. “It took about four months from the time we got the concept to the time we had interested investors signed up,” he shares.
According to Whitley, Charlotte and the surrounding area are bursting at the seams with investment opportunities. “There’s got to be literally hundreds of technology start-ups happening here in Charlotte right now,” he stresses. “Each month, we get about twenty business plans.” Charlotte Angel Partners includes the area’s most successful businesspeople and is a savvy group of investors. The average member, however, is anything but typical. Kulman shares, “Our members are CEOs, attorneys, investment bankers, executives, retirees – a broad range of people.”
One thing that is common in the group is a demonstrated level of financial might. The dollar commitment is definitely not for the faint at heart: a $50,000 minimum per member, with opportunities for add-on investments. Despite this barrier to entry, the first CAP fund has already closed to 100 investors, with demand far exceeding the number of available spaces. “We took investors on a first-come, first-served basis,” Bill Whitley explains, “and wound up having to turn some investors away.”
Charlotte Angel Partners has a unique hands-on approach to investing. “We are a member-managed entity,” Kulman explains, “so every one that has invested plays a role other than just putting up money.” CAP is member-driven, with formal committees that explore each investment opportunity. Members review business plans and determine whether or not to further screen companies.
CAP’s Executive Committee selects two companies to present at the monthly general membership meeting. Following presentations, the membership votes to enter into due diligence on the companies. CAP then forms ad hoc committees of five or six members who conduct due diligence activities. One month later, the ad hoc committee returns to the general membership to recommend an investment. On average, CAP’s investment ranges from $300,000 to $700,000 per round of financing. Kulman points out, “But we can invest two or three rounds in a single company.”
Although CAP is still in its infancy, Kulman anticipates members lending their expertise where it counts most. “Our counterpart in Research Triangle Park, TIG, has members on the board of directors of companies, or involved as advisors. I’ve seen them go in as acting CEOs of new companies, and I expect CAP to eventually do the same.”
According to Kulman, venture capital firms are often overwhelmed processing the deal flow, making it tough to get involved beyond board-level strategic advice. Thus, Angels can offer distinctive advantages for entrepreneurs. “Some of our members can add value to almost any company we invest in,” he says. “In addition to the money, we have people who can add value either as a tried-and-true entrepreneur, or they’re in a market that the company wants to sell to.” Another advantage of Angels is that a company usually doesn’t have to give up the huge chunk of equity a venture capitalist typically demands.
Although CAP is based in the Queen City, “We aren’t confined to Charlotte in terms of our investment focus,” Kulman clarifies. “But we generally like to do early stage investments within a reasonable geographic area. We’ve set up CAP to focus on companies within a three-hour radius of Charlotte.”
Business plans land on Kulman’s desk through a variety of channels. “In some cases, CAP members are already investors in the company, and the company is doing a subsequent round of investment.” He continues, “We also learn about opportunities though other venture funds seeking participants in the transaction.” Kulman, however, doesn’t rule out a more direct route. “Occasionally companies themselves will approach us. Other times we learn about a company and contact them.”
Of course, not all-new companies fit CAP’s criteria. While Kulman confirms that CAP is seeking early-stage venture returns, or roughly ten times the investment over a two to five year period, there are no hard-and-fast rules. Charlotte Angel Partners carefully considers a company’s management team, its uniqueness or propriety offerings, barriers to entry, and financial models.
As Kulman explains, though, the most important component for CAP is the value created. “The business plan must portray a significant market opportunity that can grow and create value to shareholders. There are good companies that don’t really generate enough value for equity investors-value that is worth selling or going public.
So you can have a company that meets all the other criteria, but it’s only a nice lifestyle business, not necessarily a good venture investment.”
Kulman, 44, former managing director of investment banking at Interstate/Johnson Lane (now Wachovia Securities), is ideally suited to manage the fund. His extensive career in investments has given him a rich perspective evaluating new companies. A member of both CAP and TIG, Kulman offers important advice for entrepreneurs seeking financing. “The biggest problems I find,” he reveals, “are companies that focus on what’s hot right now instead of what really makes sense as a business.”
These days, it seems as if everyone is on the fast track to launching a company , but Kulman notes, “It still takes more time than people realize to raise money and execute a business plan.”
He anticipates the $5 million proceeds from CAP’s first fund will be distributed within two years. And after that? The next fund: CAP II.
Together, the two companies create a soccer news service with a global reach. TeamTalk.com, which went public in April and trades on the London Stock Exchange under the symbol “TTK” will continue to develop its European customer base, while internetsoccer.com will now focus its customer acquisition strategy on North and Latin America.
As part of the deal, TeamTalk.com will keep in place the current management team, led by CEO and co-founder Mac Lackey. For Lackey, a native Charlottean who attended East Mecklenburg High and went to Wake Forest University on a soccer scholarship, the infusion of capital is a welcome relief.
“We were ‘fortunate’ victims of the market crash,” says Lackey. The company had a $15 million round of financing lined up with a New York firm but could not close due to the shifting valuations in the market. “While we were going through all this, we started getting acquisition offers out of Europe,” he adds. After traveling to Europe to meet with three potential suitors, Lackey thinks he has found the perfect match in his new parent company, TeamTalk.com. “They are market leaders in Europe, the number one traffic sports site there, and they do a lot of work with wireless devices. We’re the market leader here and are more focused on the Internet,” says Lackey. “By joining forces, we can accelerate our goal to becoming the world’s largest soccer property on the Internet.”
Lackey is also glad that the sale will allow his company to remain in Charlotte. “We’re committed to this market, even though for the past year venture capitalists have said they would fund us if we moved to New York or California.”
He adds that while it has been frustrating at times, “We feel this is a terrific time to be here, and we think we can have a positive impact in the market here. We’re going to be hiring a lot of people” – likely doubling the company’s size to 60 employees by the end of the year.
As a wholly-owned subsidiary of TeamTalk.com, internetsoccer.com will remain relatively autonomous. The site has built its market share by combining sheer volume of content on the world’s most popular sport – up to 500 articles per day according to Lackey – with an emphasis on exclusive, original content from over 120 contributors worldwide. “Not only do you get the sort of ‘scrubbed’ news that’s available everywhere,” notes Lackey, “You also get an insider’s perspective from people who are at the games and interviews with fans, coaches and players. Plus we cover 40 countries around the world.”
Internetsoccer.com will also do about 100 audio webcasts of matches this year, including the U.S. national team’s World Cup qualifying matches, and will likely provide video streaming of games and highlights in the future as the broadband market matures. “We consider our network basically a distribution platform. Today that platform is delivering primarily Web pages,” points out Lackey. “Over time, that will diversify based on our customers’ ability to receive different types of information.”
In addition to enabling its basic growth strategy, the capital infusion will allow Lackey and his team to aggressively pursue the passionate, but largely untapped, Latin American market. It’s a natural fit for Lackey, a fan of Brazilian soccer who once traveled there to play and meet soccer legend Pele. Now Lackey has the chance to create his own legend in the world of Internet business.
The Charlotte Chamber of Commerce touts the city as “a national sports hub.” To support its boosterism, it points to the presence of the Carolina Panthers
Certainly the local professional teams provide their share of exciting moments for their fans and contribute to the entertainment diversity that can be found in and around the Queen City. But how much does the city and the surrounding region benefit from having these professional sports here? At a time when city leaders are debating investing in a $224 million downtown arena for the Hornets and the Panthers’ owners are renegotiating many of their sponsorship agreements, the time is right to look at the economic impact professional sports, particularly the NFL and NBA teams, have on the greater Charlotte area.
coming to play
John Connaughton, a professor of economics at UNC Charlotte has conducted several studies of the economic impact of professional sports on the area, and is, perhaps, the local authority on the subject. He estimates the impact of professional sports on the region approaches the billion dollar level.
“In terms of the income created and the jobs generated, the bottom line is that sports have a tremendous impact in dollars and cents,” he says. “While calculating that impact is complicated, there is no question that professional sports, particularly NFL and NBA teams, make good economic sense for the community.”
While NASCAR has by far the greatest economic impact on the region, it is the Panthers and the Hornets that generate the most publicity and give Charlotte its big-league status.
Max Muhleman, a nationally known sports marketer based in Charlotte, says major league sports teams are very important to the quality of life, pride and focus of a city, particularly to medium size markets like Charlotte.
“There is no doubt that sports teams are part of the index of liveliness and attractiveness for cities which aren’t at the very top level of markets,” says Muhleman. “The economic figures, as impressive as they may be, are only about one-third of the value these teams represent to Charlotte.”
Connaughton and Muhleman agree that, of all the professional sports, NBA and NFL franchises are the best fit for Charlotte because they have the best chance of being successful here.
“When you look at the economics of different sports, the NFL is the model for how you create a league with parity between small market cities and large market cities,” says Connaughton. “Because of the hard salary cap and the broad based revenue sharing policy, all teams in the league are on equal footing. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Green Bay or New York.” Or Charlotte.
“We have the right two leagues here in the NFL and the NBA,” says Muhleman. “The NFL is the number one sport in the nation and our great college basketball teams have created an interest and market for the NBA.”
dunking for dollars
The Hornets and the Panthers are more than sports teams of course; they are in business to make a profit. Both earn money from a variety of sources, including ticket sales, stadium rentals, permanent seat licences, broadcast rights, advertising, and corporate sponsorships.
This is a particularly important time for the Panthers because many of their sponsorship arrangements are up for renewal this year. One major sponsor, Bank of America, has just signed a new long-term partnership agreement, estimated at $2 million annually. “Sponsoring the Panthers is great for Bank of America’s identity,” says Todd Lankford, managing director of Banc of America Securities. “The demographics of the Panther client base matches well with our target base. It’s a great association to have.”
For its money, Bank of America receives naming rights to the club level at Ericsson Stadium, the right to place automatic teller machines at the stadium, and a backdrop for Panthers press conferences featuring the bank’s logo next to the team logo. An annual Bank of America Carolina Panthers Caravan Tour takes Panthers players to other cities in the Carolinas, extending Bank of America’s identification with the team throughout both North and South Carolina.
Another major source of revenue is broadcast rights. The Panthers have recently restructured both its radio and TV deals, so the franchise retains more advertising inventory revenue. According to Scott Crites, who worked in Panther radio sales for Capitol Broadcasting, the Panthers generate millions of dollars in broadcasting revenues. On the radio side alone, the annual income is $5.5 to $8 million.
Since leaving Capitol in January, Crites has started his own company, called First in Ten Marketing, which develops events for entertaining clients. He says the business grew out of the relationships he formed when doing business with the Panthers Radio network.
“Corporations have entertainment budgets they didn’t have before professional sports came to town,” says Crites. “The entertainment side of the Panthers is a huge business. It’s also a business which generates business.”
show me the money
Attending a professional sporting event isn’t cheap. Part of the Panthers’ annual revenue comes of course from ticket sales at the 73,248-seat Ericsson Stadium. A 9 percent increase in ticket prices this year will generate at least $2.9 million yearly. Sports Illustrated recently reported that a family of four spends an average of $304.31 to attend a Panthers’ game. For that price, they get four tickets, four hot dogs, two soft drinks, and two beers. The comparable cost, according to SI for a Hornets game, is $183.15. And that’s for regular seats. The real money in stadiums these days is in leasing corporate luxury boxes.
David Goode of Southern Real Estate says his company shares a box for Panthers’ games with another company. They use it for entertaining clients.
“Are we doing more business because we take them to games? Absolutely,” says Goode.
Lankford agrees that taking clients to games is more than entertainment. It’s an opportunity to spend several hours with a client in a totally different atmosphere than at the office.
“From a client entertainment perspective, it’s great,” he says. “There’s a social environment; everyone’s having fun.”
For William Bray, whose business, Welton Sports, designs custom golf vacations and arranges corporate entertainment, the presence of the Hornets and Panthers has tremendous value.
“Professional sports give a company like mine more venues to entertain clients and more ways to do it,” he says. “I can sell a client in the Triangle area on taking a long weekend in Charlotte. They bring in 20-50 salespeople to play golf on Saturday and go to a Panthers game on Sunday. They stay overnight, eat dinner and spend money.”
Fans come to Charlotte from a 150-mile radius to attend Panther games, and from a smaller geographic area for Hornets games.
“There’s a huge increase in game day business,” says Crites. “All kinds of business around the stadium benefit, from discount shoe stores to restaurants. Eating establishments, transportation companies, parking garages — all of them benefit.”
Goode’s business is commercial real estate. His company has been doing business in Charlotte for 100 years. He says there is no question that Ericsson Stadium has significantly increased the economic value of the properties which surround it. He believes the same thing could happen downtown with a new Hornets arena.
Steve Luquire, a principal with Luquire George Andrews, a local advertising firm that works with the Panthers, agrees the location of Ericsson Stadium has had a very positive economic impact on the surrounding area.
“The stadium was built in an underutilized area,” he says. “It has led to a lot of development in South End and the west side which has led to an expansion in tax revenue and helped rejuvenate the area.”
Charlotte Hornets owner Ray Wooldridge is trying to sell a new downtown arena for the team as an economic development package for the city of Charlotte. In a recent interview he said, “The arena acts as a catalyst for the redevelopment of downtown. There is approximately $250 to $300 million of additional construction that we can identify and associate with the arena placement. And over the years, it’s going to produce a tremendous tax base and a lot of tax dollars for the city of Charlotte.”
One of the biggest economic payoffs of professional sports, and one of the most difficult to measure, is the visibility they give to the region.
“National TV games reach a broad audience of people who watch professional ball,” says Connaughton. “The increased exposure for Charlotte through the Hornets and Panthers helps eliminate any confusion over who and where Charlotte is.” (Of course, sometimes that kind of exposure can backfire when players get into high profile scrapes with the law, as has occurred in Charlotte recently.)
Bray says Hornets merchandising has given Charlotte international name recognition. “I was in Dundee, Scotland recently and was amazed at how many people knew Charlotte because of the Hornets,” he says. “That can’t help but benefit the city.”
Adds Goode, “Everybody who buys a T-shirt or cap and wears it out-of-state is helping to market Charlotte.”
How does name recognition pay off in financial decisions? Luquire explains, “The Panthers, Hornets and NASCAR play an important role in people’s perceptions of this as a growing region. Having pro sports here influences decisions like whether Bank of America keeps its headquarters here and whether we are a hub city for an airline.”
National, even international, name recognition is also an important element in attracting new businesses to the Charlotte area. And, new and expanding businesses are fueling the city’s economic growth.
“Charlotte is no longer recruiting manufacturing firms,” says Connaughton. “The economic development focus is aimed at headquarter type firms. There is a different set of amenities that you need to recruit at this level. Pro sports, while only one element, is an important one. If you don’t have all the amenities, you’re not a major player.”
As the market becomes increasingly competitive, pro sports become an even more important element in an area’s mix of amenities. The presence of pro sports also makes it easier for companies to recruit and retain employees.
Bray is an example of the attraction pro sports have for talented young professionals. In 1993, he had just graduated from law school and was considering where he wanted to practice.
“One of the reasons I moved to Charlotte was the presence of the Panthers and the Hornets,” he says. “I’m a huge NFL fan. Seeing a team here made it a more attractive place to live.”
As evidence of the importance of professional teams on the economic impact of an area, Connaughton points to the example of cities like Baltimore, Cleveland, and Houston, which lost franchises and the price they paid to get one back.
“They spent a lot of money to get a team back because they found that without a major league team, an important part of their economic puzzle was missing,” says Connaughton.
Sports teams provide one other important ingredient to the life and business of a city. A major league team provides an emotional release and a common interest for hundreds of thousands of people. Communities come together to root for the home team.
“Sports teams have a unifying influence on the area,” says Luquire. “They create an allegiance, giving people the ability to connect with one another and to share a common goal.”
Rising out of the ashes of the former Neble hosiery mill in trendy South End is a phoenix: iXL, Inc. The old textile mill has been transformed into a tech-heavy Bat Cave, home to general manager Allan Lackey and his posse of Gen X’ers: a group whose bravado and technological savvy are complemented by the skills and experience of older members of the firm. The goal of this hip outfit? Simply “to be the world’s best consulting company for Internet and e-commerce services.”
Bert Ellis, Chairman and ceo of iXL Enterprises, founded iXL, Inc. (iXL stands for Internet Excellence) in 1996. iXL Enterprises is the parent company of iXL, Inc., as well as of the Consumer Financial Network (CFN) and iXL Ventures. While headquartered in Atlanta, iXL Enterprises, Inc. is definitely not Southern-centric. The company has offices in 20 cities in the United States, Europe, Latin America and Japan, and employs approximately 2,500 people.
The Charlotte iXL, Inc. operation is one of the corporation’s fastest growing outposts. The staff has doubled since December 1999 to 120 today. It has just leased additional space at the same location to house new employees.
Jennifer Lucas, senior marketing manager, says iXL’s primary goal is “to partner with corporations in changing their business. We are a consulting firm whose niche happens to be the Internet.” Ashley Summerlin, senior quality assurance analyst, emphasizes the demand for this type of service: “We’re consulting about something people want desperately.” Lucas agrees and notes the frustration factor so often encountered by businesses wanting to get involved in e-commerce: “Companies are often so structured that they can’t get out of the box. That’s what they pay us for.” General manager Allan Lackey sums up the iXL product this way: “This is a complete soup-to-nuts, cradle-to-grave service. We will help the customer do everything it needs from writing a business plan to delivering the product.”
iXL’s business is composed of 80 percent large corporations with the remaining 20 percent in dot coms. While iXL employees enjoy the rewards of working with the larger companies, they also seem to enjoy the thrill of working with dot coms. Beth Quantz, resource manager, notes, “They [dot coms] are entrepreneurs. One of iXL’s core values is passion for what you do, and it helps us to be around that.” Lucas concurs, “The risk reward factor is intriguing.”
Quantz explains that just a few years ago, bigger companies were resistant to the idea of Internet service companies. “Now, they want it done yesterday. They’ve seen that they have to get on board today. Now, their competitors are all over e-commerce. They know they have to develop that portion of their business.” Lucas points out that Charlotte’s banks were a little ahead of the game “since they had to be nationally focused.” However, “with business to business, we’re still on the cusp. Textile companies are an example of the type of company that may want to sell to their clients online. We help to create a common platform for buyers and sellers to transact business.”
As visitors enter the Charlotte office of iXL, they are immediately drawn to a large computer kiosk flashing up synchronized movies of iXL clients and staff at work. Oversized, mod furniture looks like it might have come from movie character Austin Powers’ London apartment. Lucas acts as tour guide: “Bold colors are our corporate standard.” As we proceed through an enormous workspace, Lucas comments: “Everything is set on an angle so staff don’t feel like they are working on top of each other and so they can think more creatively.” All the conference rooms are equipped with state-of-the-art audio-visual gadgets, speakers, remote blinds, tabletop connectivity and teleconferencing capabilities. Giant neon signs that say “Chill” accompanied by HTML symbols point employees to break rooms furnished with pinball machines, video games and a ping-pong table. “People come in here during work and after work to hang out and to talk,” says Lucas.
Like many of their associates, Lucas, Quantz and Summerlin range in age from 25 to 30. Fashionably casual, they reflect a key part of the business culture at the firm. Lackey at age 51 represents the older guard. He comments: “Working with young people keeps you young. Young people are much smarter today than when I was coming along. They have a great knowledge base. However, their problem is that they might not understand the ‘blocking and tackling’ styles that you have to have to turn a profit, serve your customer and so on. Having a little bit of experience from other jobs in other industries helps a lot.” Summerlin agrees with Lackey’s statements: “As we’ve grown bigger and bigger, we’ve needed the experience that comes with age” on iXL’s project management teams.
This staff dynamic creates a relaxed, playful atmosphere at iXL’s Charlotte office. To emphasize this, Lackey cites two concepts employees must buy into: “We try to put the customer first: we continually try to improve on that. The second requirement is fun. I refuse to stay here if it’s not fun anymore…I have purposely hired people with similar mindsets.” The company features themed parties like “Vegas Day” where work is put aside for a turn at the blackjack tables (with fake money, of course!). Monthly staff socials, sports teams and community outreach programs are also an important part of the iXL landscape.
Staff development is also encouraged. Summerlin is enthusiastic about “fabulous training opportunities” and the start of an “employee exchange program” to other iXL offices. According to Quantz, “staff have an opportunity to move to any city, any office.” The challenge, says Lucas, is “recruiting the right people and keeping the right people.” The key component is “concerned managers that work with you to keep you engaged.” Lackey agrees. “We do have turnover, but sensitivity up front can help.”
According to Lackey, the Charlotte office has a reputation for being “a pretty well-run office, very steady. The entire management is experienced at what we’re doing. When corporate wants to try something new, they call us.” Lucas agrees that the Charlotte office is a progressive one. “If a new system is proposed, we’re always the guinea pig. We’ve had a lot of experience, and we like to adopt enterprise projects to see if they’re doing good things. We’re pretty open-minded here, and Allan is a crazy nut!” Quantz has also noticed the office’s willingness to take a risk: “We’re the first ones to say, ‘We’ll try that!’”
Lackey points to the company’s six “Core Values” as key to iXL’s success. “These are the basic rules for life” in this office: Commitment to Client, Commitment to Team, Passion, Accountability, Adaptability, and Effective Communication. Each employee is given a card to carry in his or her wallet with these values as a reminder. Core Values posters are plastered all over the workspace. These commitments help keep employees on track.
In addition, iXL has developed its own engagement methodology known as “iD5,” which Lucas describes as “a melting pot of different consulting strategies. It’s a process and a mixture of the best experiences.” iD5 has five stages: Discover, Define, Design, Develop and Deploy. The methodology directs an entire project from start to finish. Lackey emphasizes that this process can be interpreted in both simple and complex manners.“iD5 is simple enough that most people can understand and explain it. However, it can be very detailed in its complex form.”
The firm features a multi-discipline team approach to strategy and problem solving. Quantz emphasizes, “When you first kick off a project, everyone is present as a team.” Lucas adds that the inter-disciplinary approach is “vertical and horizontal. We want to leverage the enterprise.”
iXL competitors in Charlotte include marchFIRST, Andersen Consulting, IBM, Mckinsey and Lante. What sets iXL apart? Lackey cites GE, one of iXL’s larger clients, as proof of their dedicated approach to customer service. “GE is huge and extremely demanding as a client. They have a very rigorous model that you need to conform to. If you can meet their standards, you can work with anyone.”
One look at iXL’s client list is further proof of their reputation. Companies like AOL, Belk Department Stores, BellSouth, Chase Manhattan Bank, Delta AirLines, First Union, Intel, Microsoft, and Virgin Atlantic Airlines, all come to iXL for Internet advice. Lucas says that iXL is “the biggest consulting firm you’ve never heard of” due to several years of acquiring and integrating so many different companies. The goal now is to make the public aware of this major Internet service resource. Later this year, iXL in Charlotte will launch new media advertising campaign in order to “differentiate ourselves from the rest of the marketplace.” The message? Lucas again echoes the firm’s mantra: “We aim to be the premier Internet services firm in the world.”
Richard Siskey has always had an uncanny ability to discern situations in advance, then devise and implement a strategic response accordingly. He honed those skills while becoming a chess master as a youngster, once even playing 10 opponents simultaneously.
In his arenas of competition, he says it’s the challenge and art form that motivates him.
After college, his game board became the financial markets. Now he’s got all the moves covered and is expanding his mastery of the challenge to other markets.
From the beginning, Richard Siskey envisioned a company that focused on the corporate marketplace. It would facilitate all the financial issues of high net worth individuals and entrepreneurs by providing the talent and skills under one roof.
Today, at age 41, his dream is quickly becoming a reality in Wall Street Capitol, a company that offers financial and estate planning with six divisions that facilitate the financial process. The divisions are insurance, investment, pension plans, employee benefits, investment banking and most recently, real estate.
“Wall Street Capitol offers comprehensive financial services as opposed to having a singular focus,” Siskey explains. “As a client moves between divisions or financial disciplines, it’s a hand-off as far as the talent level and expertise is concerned. Whether clients move between a business consultant and a CPA, or an insurance and pension plan specialist, the expertise is at an extremely high level. The people in each division have been trained in that field their entire lives providing over 25 to 100 years combined experience.”
All The Pieces
When he initially conceived the idea, Siskey found that nothing in the marketplace was comprehensive enough. Ultimately, this type of environment had to be created, he insists.
“No one had the whole picture at this level. When a client moved between financial divisions and areas of discipline something was lost in the talent level and skills set. But 15 years ago, when I would talk about this, people would look at me like I had ten heads.”
Wall Street Capitol targets high net worth and entrepreneurial clients, creating a personal client group. They usually come through referral by other high net worth entrepreneurs.
Stephen Rosenburgh, president of U.S. Land Investments in Charlotte, has been a client of Siskey’s for seven years and has seen the wisdom in Siskey’s vision firsthand.
“Very few small companies have seen this vision of the future — not just managing one product but managing the client’s income strength. Rick knows how to take a client’s income strength and deploy it to the client’s advantage by offering different investment options. But he’s also not a one-man band. He knows how to build a team.”
Rosenburgh sees Siskey’s integrity as the thread that binds the vision together.
“Integrity, without question, has to be number one in financial services. I have personally seen his integrity moved from words to action.”
Rank and File
According to Siskey, his clients are looking for a personal touch. “We’re a boutique and privately held. We think there’s a certain niche of the marketplace that wants a high touch approach. It’s like preferring a community bank to a national bank.
“In most business models, the financial consultant has to be all things to all people. There’s not enough meat on the bones there. Our financial counselors have six divisions to work amongst at any given moment.”
To accomplish this daunting task, Siskey brought his wholesalers inside.
“We identified the rainmaker wholesalers — the ones who make things happen — and brought them here. In the early days, I used to outsource 80 percent of my extra business. Now we insource 80 percent. It allows a great deal of control over the culture and environment.”
Siskey sees his team at the level of their clients, understanding their financial issues.
“We’re business-planning specialists applying for primary financial advisors. If Wall Street Capitol is doing its job correctly, we will receive the first phone call in any financial area.”
For Craig Cass, president of Casco Inc. of North Carolina, that’s a given.
“When we started working together five years ago, I found Rick’s key trait
to be his ability to understand our needs and help us move in the right direction. He’s also an entrepreneur at heart and is constantly bringing dynamic and fresh ideas to us. Then Rick follows through on those ideas. You don’t find that often today, and in my business it’s priceless.”
In April Siskey moved the company to their new 75,000 square foot, four-story building at 4521 Sharon Road. Wall Street Capitol occupies 17,000 square feet on the fourth floor.
“The office has everything I ever wanted,” Siskey smiles. “This should be an extension of our client’s businesses and homes.”
That includes lots of marble, mahogany and leather. But, as is his trademark, Siskey does it like no one else. For example. the media room, with stadium style seating and international satellite capabilities, and the conference room both offer touch of the button controls. Soft recessed lighting creates a soothing and peaceful environment along with lush carpeting to capture any escaping sounds, a harmony of subdued color, a 350-gallon saltwater fish tank and a distant view of the downtown Charlotte skyline.
Although the company is just a year old, within the next 90 days it will open offices in Atlanta, Ft. Myers and Chicago, giving the regional firm anational presence. By 2001, Siskey anticipates offices in Nashville, Boston, New York City and Dallas as well.
“Taking Wall Street Capitol to the national level is the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my career,” Siskey confides. “I’ve had this vision for 20 years. The greatest challenge now is how to maintain a version of Wall Street Capitol in each location.”
The key is finding local talent. Greenough doesn’t doubt other top-level producers will readily join the teams.
“I met Rick while I was a wholesaler trying to fit a lot of square pegs in round holes because we didn’t have the scope of the products that are available here or the ability to creatively mesh them,” he confides. “What impressed me most was Rick’s insight. He reads the lay of the land well.” Greenough figures they’re starting their national push from solid ground.
“Rick has brought continuity to our business. Our team doesn’t change.
This is a place for people who have outgrown their current business model as a financial consultant, and need extra services for their clientele. It’s for those looking for something deeper.
“If I have a client sitting in the conference room and a problem comes up involving another financial area, I can walk down the hall and pull in the people who can solve it.”
It may appear that building a new age financial empire would take all of Siskey’s time and attention. Not so. In fact, business is several items down on his priority list.
“Attainment of a goal is a second value. That fades,” he philosophizes.
“What it makes of you in the pursuit of it is of primary importance. What you make and get is temporary. What you become is permanent.
“Whatever you are going after, make sure you are creating something unique and special and you’re touching people’s lives. At the end of the day, that’s the only thing that’s gonna be remembered.”
Cass says that philosophy is lived out in Siskey’s life. “Rick’s one of a kind,” observes Cass, who values Siskey as a friend as well as business associate.
“In spite of how successful he is, he’s the type of guy you’d invite to a barbecue and enjoy sitting and talking with. He’s a person you’d introduce to your folks.
“Once I really got to know him, what stood out was that he is such a family guy. His wife Diane is a great partner for him and he obviously loves to be around her and his kids.
“Rick is a giver and our community benefits from that.”
All the Right Moves
Siskey has been involved in the YMCA, Queens College, Mecklenburg Area Catholic Schools, United Way and numerous other non-profits. He says he specifically picked them because of their far-reaching impacts.
Dr. Billy Wireman, president of Queens College, met Siskey as a student while he and his wife Diane were attending the McColl School of
Business Executive MBA program.
“Rick issued a challenge to our alumni that he would match $1 million to help build the Sykes Learning Center. He understands the responsibility of wealth to reach out to strengthen those institutions like churches, colleges, hospitals and such that constitute the fabric of our society. And he has a special partner in Diane. She’s a very high-minded and decent person who supports him in all this. I’m proud to have them in the midst of our community.”
Their reason? “It’s important for any entrepreneur, professional and executive to be active in the community to make it a better place now and in the future,” Siskey says. “The level of leadership drives everything — home, churches, community businesses…their success is based on the leadership.”
“Rick has a tremendous reputation,” Greenough remarks. “In business, there are two or three main line players in town and people know him. He’s plugging into the fabric here.”
N. Bradley Thompson, Jr., isn’t your average banker. His hand-tied bowties and engaging manor belie a keen, insightful mind that approaches banking with flexibility and new ideas. As the North Carolina ceo of SouthTrust Bank , he strategically plans market operations throughout the Tarheel state.
But then again, SouthTrust isn’t your average bank. Birmingham, Ala.-based SouthTrust Corporation is the only big out-of-state banking company with branches in North Carolina. SouthTrust entered the state by acquiring a thrift in 1991. Under Thompson’s leadership, the bank has successfully moved into the Charlotte and Triad markets as an aggressive commercial lender with premier customer service.
Despite its hometown feel, the bank is actually a mega-regional enterprise — the 22nd largest banking company in the nation with 623 offices in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi. That “neighborhood touch”, however, is no accident. Thompson points out the bank’s focus on a consistent service delivery across its franchise. “We’ve improved our client focus to help you have that same feel whether you’re in an office in Palm Beach or on Park Road.”
Of course, North Carolina isn’t the easiest banking environment. Competition is fierce in the face of Bank of America, First Union, and Wachovia — not to mention the proliferation of mid-tier and smaller banks. Steering the North Carolina operations is undoubtedly demanding, but Thompson seems to be up to the challenge.
He has grown the “de novo” market from 11 initial retail locations to 36 branches today, directing the commercial and retail functions of five markets. “It is competitive,” he admits, “but we’re here because we can compete.”
Business development is a daily charge for SouthTrust in North Carolina. The bank’s competitively priced products and commitment to service have convinced many businesses and consumers to leave long-standing banking relationships for SouthTrust. Thompson notes, “One of our new clients moved his business here after 42 years with another company.” Thompson adds, “We have great products that are very aggressively priced, and we focus on a lot of the new growth in the market.” Part of that new growth is in entrepreneurship. “We create partnerships with entrepreneurs and nurture the relationship as their business grows.” Customer satisfaction, in addition to pricing, may indeed be the key to SouthTrust’s success. In its June 2000 issue, Consumer Reports rated SouthTrust as the No. 2 bank for customer satisfaction.
Catherine Pulley, spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association , believes that financial services is one of the most competitive industries in the country. “Customers are the most powerful force in the marketplace,” she says. “We’ve found that if consumers shop around, they can find the services they want at the prices that suit them.” Thompson declined to comment on the Consumer Reports story.
Some regional banks have come under scrutiny lately in today’s uncertain interest rate environment. Rising interest rates put pressure on bank earnings by driving up the cost of their deposits, while dampening demand for their loans. Wachovia, for example, is bolstering its reserves for loan losses partly due to an increase in troubled loans.
Although slower earnings growth has been a problem facing the entire banking sector, SouthTrust is in the enviable position of having healthy reserves. John B. Moore, banking analyst at Wachovia Securities says, “SouthTrust’s reserves have actually increased over recent periods, while those of its competitors have decreased.”
As the Federal Reserve continues to raise interest rates, SouthTrust, like all banks, is adjusting to changing conditions. “It does require us to look at our processes and find a way to be more efficient,” Thompson says. “And that’s an ongoing responsibility at SouthTrust. Our chairman is very encouraging of us finding new ways to do things.”
SouthTrust Corporation, the bank’s holding company, has turned its attention to the state of Texas. The company is pursuing its growth strategy through key acquisitions in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. But despite the corporation’s focus on its Texas franchise, North Carolina hasn’t been left out in the cold. In fact, the bank has raised its profile in the Charlotte and Greensboro markets with impressive new facilities. In Charlotte, SouthTrust recently moved into the Prosperity Place development near the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
The new building houses SouthTrust Mortgage Corp.’s regional operations, commercial loan documentation, deposit operations for North Carolina, sales and marketing and retail operations, as well as training and administrative offices. Although Thompson’s office is officially in the Prosperity Place location, he is constantly on the move, traveling throughout the state and the Southeast.
In February, SouthTrust found a new home for its Mecklenburg County headquarters on Fairview Road. This tower, named SouthTrust Plaza, encompasses 50,000 square feet, with the bank occupying 33,000 square feet. Greensboro, N.C. recently gained its own SouthTrust Plaza, a five-story, top-quality office building — one of the few new projects in its downtown area.
“Our commitment to North Carolina is very strong,” Thompson says. “In addition to the new facilities in the past few months, we anticipate more branch expansion by the end of this year.”
Bradley Thompson grew up in Shelby, N.C., the oldest of four boys. In high school he discovered a flair for numbers and set his sights on the accounting profession. He earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Appalachian State University in 1980 and completed the master’s program in business administration in 1982.
Thompson planned to be a CPA, but fate beckoned him to banking. “BB&T offered me an intriguing opportunity out of graduate school,” he recalls. Thompson accepted and his banking career was off and running. That opportunity turned into a twelve-year tour of duty as Thompson rose through BB&T’s corporate ranks. But in 1993, SouthTrust made the young executive an offer he couldn’t refuse. “BB&T is a great company. But I had a chance to work and learn a little closer to the heartbeat of the company at SouthTrust.”
Thompson’s community involvement includes the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors, executive member of both the North Carolina Citizens for Business & Industry and the Charlotte Regional Partnership. But his most important commitment is to his family-wife, Amanda, and children Sallie Katherine, eight, and Ellison, four. At only 42, Thompson has his best years ahead. When asked about his professional aspirations, he simply replies, “I’m confident about the future.”
Nethea Fortney-Rhinehardt is a Charlotte based freelance writer.