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Executive Profile

Outer Banks Visionary

Business growth advocate R.V. Owens avoids the spotlight 
because he knows most decisions are made in the kitchen

By Phil Kirk

Next time you’re at the Outer Banks and looking for good seafood, stop by R.V. Owens’ place. It’s easy to remember — R.V.’s Restaurant is the name — and it’s easy to locate — just east of the causeway on Highway 158.

As for the owner, he might not be so easy to find, particularly if it’s late in the day. That’s because the glare from the sun setting behind the Roanoke Sound is akin to the glare from a spotlight, and anyone who knows Robert Valentine Owens III knows that he’d rather not be in the spotlight.

These are the same people who’ll tell you that Owens favors blue jeans to khakis and deck shoes to dress clothes. He looks at a necktie the way someone might a noose. And socks? Let’s just say that he doesn’t need a new pair every Christmas.

A mover and shaker who prefers anonymity, Owens had to be persuaded by several people to agree to be interviewed for this story. Still, despite his aversion to attention, the Dare County native can’t escape it, at least not now. He made that decision himself in 1992 when, at age 35, he followed through on lessons learned from his father and decided that the needs of Northeastern North Carolina outweighed his need for privacy. That’s when he reluctantly delved into politics.

So it is, 10 years later, that if you ask a resident for prominent names, both past and present, of this historically rich region, you’ll get a list that includes the likes of Andy Griffith, Virginia Dare, the Wright brothers, Marc Basnight — coincidentally R.V.’s uncle — and Owens.

“R.V. likes to be a tough guy with rough edges,” says Gov. Mike Easley, who counts Owens among his most ardent supporters. “But he’s just a big teddy bear stuffed with kindness and compassion. Everything he does is for somebody else, and that’s why he’s so credible.

“He wants to be on everybody’s kitchen cabinet,” the governor adds. “He’s in the restaurant business. He knows that important decisions are made in the kitchen.”

Owens was born into a family with powerful political connections, although it’s a fact that he downplays. His father, Bobby Owens, was a county commissioner for 26 years as well as being in the restaurant business and is now a member of the powerful N.C. Utilities Commission.

Without any desire to ever hold political office, R.V. has been the one person in his part of the state — perhaps even more than his well-known uncle, the powerful Senate leader — whom many Democratic politicians have hungered for support from.

Not only has he gained the reputation of working both diligently and smartly, but also he has a keen sense of what issues resonate with the voters. That is a side of Owens not widely known. Another is his prowess as a fund-raiser.

All are characteristics gleaned from growing up under the watchful eye of Bobby and Sarah Owens. “The world is divided into givers and takers, and you have to decide what you will be,” he says. “My dad helped me to decide to be a giver.”

The elder Owens is called “my best friend,” by his only son. As proof, the son calls the father every night between before going to bed. “I want to see how he’s doing, whether he’s in Raleigh or at home,”

Sarah made her own impressions. “My mom was always there, raising the children while Dad worked at the restaurant and as a county commissioner,” R.V. says. “She taught us a lot, but I especially remember about her teaching us to always tell the truth.”

Outside of family, longtime Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce President and CEO John Bone probably knows Owens as well as anyone. “I taught R.V. when he was in school, worked with him as chairman of our chamber board of directors, and have served with him on many community projects over the years,” he says. “I have never known anyone with the amount of energy, vision and perseverance as R.V. His constant persistence and belief that people can make change for the common good is what makes him invaluable to the Outer Banks and our state.”

Some may initially confuse Owens’ bluntness with abrasiveness, but that feeling disappears with time and with familiarity.

Erskine Bowles, a current recipient of the Owens influence, describes his personality as “straightforward, fiercely honest and direct. R.V. is the real deal. With R.V., you get what you see.”

His “current passion” combines his fierce determination on behalf of economic development for Northeastern North Carolina with his realization that technology is the best hope for speeding up the process.

Owens and others recognize the lack of natural gas and high-speed Internet access in most of the region is a negative. Ever the visionary, Owens led others to wonder aloud why fiber optic cable couldn’t be laid at the same time in the 800-mile trench for the natural gas pipeline that is being dug.

So he’s spent months convincing leaders such as UNC President Molly Broad, ECU Chancellor William Muse, Gov. Easley, House Speaker Jim Black and Basnight about the vitality of such a common-sense idea.

When the plan was unveiled to the public in a January news conference in the Legislative Building, the leaders of the state were all present and singing from R.V.’s hymn book.

“R.V. is one of the most passionate and colorful dealmakers I have ever encountered,” says Broad. “His leadership in building information technology networks in Eastern North Carolina has brought us together in the active pursuit of better education, better access to quality medical care, and expanded economic development opportunities for that important part of the state.”

The project exemplifies Owens’ good intentions. “Most of all, he cares about the little guy,” Bowles says. “He’s plenty smart, although he does his best to hide it behind his ‘I’m just a little shrimp fryer’ persona and he uses those brains to help others. That’s what he’s really all about — helping folks.”

Owens never strays far from his roots in his beloved Dare County. “It is the best place in the world to be a kid,” he says. “If you like to hunt and fish, you can’t beat it. I absolutely had the best childhood one could have. The natural beauty of Dare County is the best in the world.”

And he is determined that he and his wife, the former Julie Tillett of Manteo, will provide the same experience for their children, Shannon, 15, and Bo, 11, that he enjoyed growing up.

At Manteo High, Owens was dating Julie’s best friend before she caught his eye. They were married on June 9, 1984, a date he says he now remembers because he forgot it once. Just as a gentle reminder and as a tribute to the occasion, the date goes on his restaurant marquee for the world to see.

A graduate of Manteo High School, Owens dreamed of walking on to the football team at East Carolina University. But Sonny Randle, then the coach at the University of Virginia, walked into the family restaurant the summer after his senior year and urged him to first go to Fork Union Military Academy. After a year of seasoning, Randle said, a football scholarship would be awaiting in nearby Charlottesville.

But Owens didn’t take to the regimented lifestyle at Fork Union. “We had to march to breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he says. “We had to salute everyone. It was the worst year of my life.”

He lasted until March 4, when he couldn’t take it anymore. So he packed his bags and headed east on Interstate 64 to become a business major and linebacker at the University of Richmond, where he says he received “a good education and a big scar on my knee” — the latter thanks to surgery.

If there was the positive from the Fork Union experience, it was the beginning of a friendship with Mike Hamrick, now the athletics director at East Carolina University. The two lost touch after going their separate ways, but when Hamrick was brought to Greenville in June 1995, one of his first visitors was an old football teammate.

 “My third day on the job R.V. showed up unannounced in my office,” he says. “Since then, we talk every two or three days and have rekindled our friendship. He’s helped me and provided support on many occasions. I can assure you once he sets his mind to do something, he’s like a bull in a china shop. But it always gets done.”

Owens had flirted with the political world in a small way in 1981 when he worked for former Congressman Walter Jones on the Merchant Marines and Fisheries Committee in Washington, D.C. “I delivered mail and I lasted there for 10 months,” he says. “There were eight lanes of traffic on I-395 on each side, and it was a real rat race.”

So he moved back to the Outer Banks, opened his own restaurant and married Julie. They had their two kids and all was well when the calendar flipped over to 1992. Then came the itch to serve, one put in place years earlier by his father. “I hated politics but I went to Marc (Basnight) and told him I wanted to ‘give back’ as my Dad had taught me.”

That resulted in an appointment to the powerful Department of Transportation Board by Gov. Jim Hunt. While Owens often showed his impatience with the process, he proved to be an influential voice for the often-forgotten Northeast.

After working diligently for Hunt’s re-election to an historic fourth term, Owens took a self-imposed hiatus from politics. Then he continued to help the Senate Democrats and became an influential adviser to the Easley campaign.

While Owens operates among “the big boys,” he is so unpretentious and so much a behind-the-scenes guy that he can walk into a meeting of the executive committee of such groups as the North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry and have few people even know who he is.

Owens’ impatience sometimes can be misinterpreted. “Too many people get too tied up with process. I don’t deal well with lengthy processes,” he readily admits. “I do believe I deal well with change, real fast pace, and action. I want to move things along.”

As an example, he undoubtedly is functioning more effectively and having more fun as a member of the Golden Leaf Foundation than he did as a member of the tradition-bound, but important UNC Board of Governors.

“I enjoy the Golden Leaf Foundation,” he says. “It’s new. The history is not there, so it’s ever changing. We’re not hung up on process there, but on actual results.”

Being a leader is not a role he aggressively seeks, but he learned long ago that politics in the most honorable sense of the word is the most effective way to achieve progress. “A leader is someone who is willing to take a stand, even when the masses say it’s not right. That can be an awfully lonely position.”

He wonders aloud how he can convey that philosophy to his children as his parents did for him. “You can tell people, but the best way to lead is by example. I ain’t a talker — I’m a doer.”

Owens says those words as modestly as any human can. Focusing on himself is neither a part of his personality nor his upbringing. He prefers seeking out the big picture, and his successes in doing so is surpassed by a rare few.

Gordon Myers, chair of NCCBI and chairman of the N.C. Economic Development Board, has worked closely with Owens in politics and economic development and thinks so highly of him that he appointed him to the NCCBI Executive Committee. “R.V. has a strong sense of public service. He has no interest in running for office and he has found his niche behind the scenes. He’s done so many things for economic development in his region, and he does them for the right reasons.”

Maybe that’s why, despite his mild objections, he is sought out as a leader. He has served as president of the Outer Banks chamber and as the first chairman of the Dare County Tourism Bureau, as well as president of the North Carolina Restaurant Association. He’s also been named the Man of the Year in the ever-evolving Dare County.

“Tourism had not exploded when I was growing up,” Owens says. “Now it has and people don’t have to move away for jobs like they did before.”

Owens is proud of the role that ECU continues to play in the lives of Eastern North Carolina residents, and is quick to point out that the spiffy new Outer Banks Hospital, which opens this month, is a part of the ECU system. He sees an even more prominent role for the university in the future.

“I’d give Chancellor Muse an A-plus,” he says. “He looks at the role of universities in the right way. He looks at education and can turn it into a better economic engine.”

Owens has evolved as well, noting that Gov. Hunt once told him that his strengths were both his biggest assets and greatest liabilities. “Often patience is not a virtue,” he says, “but sometimes it is. As you get older, your edges get about right. Time has made me a little less edgy. It’s often hard to take defeats, but you learn from your failures. You can brush yourself off and go on.”

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