Outer Banks Visionary
Business growth advocate R.V.
Owens avoids the spotlight
because he knows most decisions are made in
By Phil Kirk
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
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
“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
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
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
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.
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
“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
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.”
Return to magazine index