Author:Tosczak, Mark
Position:Cover story

Selecting North Carolina's most influential business leaders could be as complex as counting sand crystals at the beach, but it's a lot more fun. No one expects the list to be "right," because influence is subjective and the state business community is packed with so many powerful people. But this best effort stems from gathering ideas from dozens of businesspeople across the state and relying on our staff's collective knowledge based on many years working in North Carolina. Our goal is to cite influential folks who are making a significant impact in their enterprises, industries and, in many cases, the broader community. We omitted political leaders and those who spend very little time here. We also sought individuals who often operate behind the scenes and avoid publicity.

Gathering information about these leaders gives us a renewed respect for the dynamism of North Carolina's economy. The state benefits from rapid growth in its largest metro areas, abundant natural resources and an unmistakable pro-business attitude. The list includes a mix of people who are second-, third- and even fourth-generation family-business leaders (Frank Harrison III, David Congdon) and newcomers who've built cutting-edge operations from scratch (Michael Praeger, Doug Lebda).

Reflecting our mission as a statewide business publication, we looked for leaders making important strides outside the three large metropolitan areas. While we found impactful leaders in smaller regions, power is increasingly concentrated in bigger cities as banking, retailing, utilities and other industries consolidate.

We look forward to hearing your thoughts.



On Dec. 1, 2009, Roy Carroll contemplated the $22 million he still owed to three banks for Center Pointe, a signature redevelopment project in downtown Greensboro. It was the most high-profile effort Carroll had undertaken. He had gutted a 16-story office building built in 1966 and turned it into a residential tower packed with condos selling for as much as $600,000. While such projects are common in big cities, it was new for Greensboro.

When he started Center Pointe in 2006, Carroll's father told him, "Make sure you can afford the worst-case scenario."

"And I kind of chuckled," he says. "Things had been good for a while." Two and a half years later on that December morning, things weren't so good.

Unemployment in North Carolina topped 11%, and foreclosures had soared to post-Depression records. Developers across the U.S. and in North Carolina were handing keys back to their lenders. Many of Center Pointe's prospective condo buyers were backing out of sale agreements. While proceeds from condo sales had whittled Carroll's $33 million project loan, he still owed $22 million, with the loan due for refinancing.

"So that morning," Carroll says, "I'm like, 'You know, I think I'm just going to pay that loan off, that $22 million.'"

Almost a decade later, Carroll has emerged as one of North Carolina's most successful real-estate developers, leading a 400-employee company that has high-profile projects pending in Greensboro, High Point and Wilmington. Carroll estimates his portfolio has a market value of $3.5 billion, including $2.3 billion in completed apartments, mixed-use projects, self-storage facilities and raw land. He says he carries debt roughly equal to about half of his portfolio, which stretches across the Southeast to Texas.

Unlike most of North Carolina's better-known developers, Carroll says he has no equity partners. In short, he appears to be in striking distance of billionaire status. The biggest part of his portfolio is about 15,000 apartments, spread across the Carolinas, Tennessee and Texas, that The Carroll Companies built and owns. (At a hypothetical $75,000 per unit, their value would exceed $1.1 billion.) The apartments provide cash flow even during a down economy, allowing Carroll more flexibility than more leveraged developers. "He can invest and then, as the market rises over the next seven to 10 years, he can see those rewards," says Greensboro developer Marty Kotis.

While his business has expanded into other states, Carroll's biggest mark is in his hometown. "He's certainly changed the face of the city," says former Greensboro Mayor Robbie Perkins, who is president of a commercial real-estate company. "He has a combination of vision and love for the city, and he's shown it by making investments in places where others either couldn't have done it or would have shied away."

Carroll says none of his peers at Southeast Guilford High School in the class of 1981 would have foreseen his success because studies weren't his priority. "I got out [of high school] at 1:30 and drove a school-bus route," he says. "My father always believed in working and really pushed me." He also started a dozen or so short-lived businesses in high school and college. One was a partnership with a friend to build tree stands for hunters. The pair took the stands to a hunting show at the Greensboro Coliseum in the early 1980s. With dozens watching, Carroll's friend inched up a tree to demonstrate the stands, hit a slick spot on the smooth poplar and fell to the floor. "We couldn't give them away after that," Carroll says.

What did work was what he calls "sticks and bricks." When Carroll's father, Roy Carroll Sr., was laid off from a grocery-store job in 1983, a family friend asked him to build a new house. The elder Carroll enlisted his son, then in college, to help. "After class, I'd come out and we'd both [hammer] nails and sweep floors," Carroll says. "We did a big percentage of the work ourselves."

The father-son duo soon had a company that built about six homes annually in the Triad through the '80s. Carroll's father ran the site crews while the younger Carroll handled billing and office duties.

In 1990, Roy Sr. sold his interest to his son, who earned a contractor's license at Guilford Technical Community College. Instead of custom homes, Carroll envisioned a manufacturing mindset that employed the same designs repeatedly in various subdivisions. Over the years, the company has built about 2,000 homes in the Triad and still owns more than 1,100 lots.

As his real-estate experience grew, Carroll concluded recurring revenue provided by apartments could be more lucrative than competing with national homebuilders. He still builds a handful of single-family homes annually, but the focus has moved to rental properties and other ventures with steady cash flow. The company has opened five self-storage facilities, called Bee Safe, with 24 more being developed in the Carolinas, Tennessee and Texas. Four hotels are planned in Greensboro, High Point and Wilmington. Now, Carroll is contemplating investing as much as $ 100 million in the industrial sector for diversification. As a start, he's considering a 300,000-square foot building on land he owns near downtown Greensboro.

In each of its property types, Carroll uses standard approaches created by his company's own engineers, architects and interior designers. "We have it down to a science on what it costs to build that building," Carroll says of the company's apartment complexes.

Though he insists he has no desire to leave the Triad, Carroll is targeting faster-growing markets. In 2012, he expanded to Austin, Texas, where he says he now has about 2,370 units built or under construction. A year later, he moved into Nashville and now has 1,983 units in the Music City. The Texas and Tennessee capitals are among the nation's fastest-growing metro areas, enabling higher returns than more stable markets like the Triad, Carroll says.

"We build pretty much the same apartment building, be it, you know, Charleston, Asheville, Nashville, Austin, Greensboro." Land costs are higher in some places, but labor and building materials are similar, he says. The rents, however, are different.

In the Triad, an apartment might rent for $1 per square foot, versus $1.40 in Austin or Nashville.

"That's why I get on a plane every 10 days and head out west," he says. "I can get a better return on my investment."

Still, Carroll's biggest impact is in Greensboro. The Carroll at Bellemeade development adjacent to the city's minor-league baseball park will include 289 apartments and a Hyatt Place Hotel, marking downtown's first new hotel in 30 years. It's on land that Carroll acquired more than 20 years ago.

"I'm not sure that people are fully aware of how significant Carroll at Bellemeade is for Greensboro," says Zack Matheny, chief executive officer of Downtown Greensboro Inc. Carroll also played a key role pushing for the Steven Tanger Center for Performing Arts, to be built in the central business district rather than near the Greensboro Coliseum, Perkins says. The relationship got more cozy in December when the Greensboro City Council agreed to pay Carroll's company up to $30 million to help build a 1,050-space, eight-story downtown parking deck.

In Wilmington, Carroll is planning a $200 million mixed-use development called The Avenue that would include apartments, a hotel and high-end retail that he says will be akin to Palm Beach, Fla.'s exclusive Worth Avenue. The site is near the high-end Landfall neighborhood and Figure Eight Island. He's hied requests for building permits and estimates it will take eight years to develop.

Then there's Furniture City, where Carroll was recruited by High Point University President Nido Qubein for a downtown revitalization project that will include a baseball stadium and conference center. The two men discussed Qubein's vision of a hotel that can attract trade associations and non-furniture industry events. "Roy is a very logical, highly reasoned, intelligent business person," says Qubein, who has known Carroll for 20 years. "I know how he thinks."

Sure enough, when Qubein announced in September he had gathered $ 100 million in investments and development...

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