The Voice of Business, Industry & the Professions Since 1942
North Carolina's largest business group proudly serves as the state chamber of commerce


Executive Profile

The old saying that clothes make the man also holds true for women. “I’ve always worn (Tanner) clothes,” says Decker (right), who now runs the direct selling division of the women's clothing maker. “Bob used to joke that we couldn’t go to the mountains without stopping at the outlet in Rutherfordton.”

Perfect Package

Sure, she's smart, but other skills helped propel 
Sharon Decker to the top of the corporate ladder

By Kevin Brafford

Sharon Decker rattles off a list of cities where work has taken her in the past month and you envy her frequent flyer miles but not her time spent in airports. She recites a list of achievements and activities of her four kids and you envy her energy but not her commitments.

She says a lot, and you have to say little, which is how the best interviews progress. As you sit across from this bright-eyed corporate executive, who communicates effectively with her hands as well as her words, and who’s dressed to the nines in the latest in fashion, you imagine that when it comes time to remake the old TV series “Wonder Woman” into a movie of the week, she would be a perfect leading lady.

“I probably travel for about 60 percent of my job,” says Decker, the president of Doncaster, the largest direct selling division of the Tanner Companies, a women’s apparel manufacturer. “Sometimes I’m interviewing potential sales managers, sometimes we’re helping sponsor nonprofit fund-raising events, sometimes I’m at a sales meeting.”

She makes six or eight trips from the company’s Rutherfordton headquarters to New York a year — so regularly that for a time she’d block off a couple of hours just to visit a hair stylist whose work she had grown to trust. That’s because image and style are important when your business is producing women’s clothes. “He was wonderful,” says Decker, who transpired from a brunette into a blonde at his urging. “He helped me find this look, and I love it.”

There’s an old saying that clothes make the man, and in today’s world one assumes the same holds true for women. It does for Decker. “I’ve always worn (Tanner) clothes,” she says. “Bob (her husband of 22 years) used to joke that we couldn’t go to the mountains without stopping at the outlet in Rutherfordton.”

While Decker’s clothes now come at a steep discount, even the most savvy of shoppers wouldn’t have given up being president and CEO of the Lynnwood Foundation in Charlotte — that she established, no less — to log more than 100,000 miles a year marketing women’s apparel. “I thought I’d be (at the foundation) forever,” says Decker. “But the connection here felt very natural. Like so much of my journey, the door opened and I simply walked in.”

That’s fitting, because Decker has never been one to stand still. Born March 6, 1957, the last of Hoyle and Dot Allred’s three daughters, she remembers an active, fun-filled childhood in Gastonia.

“My sisters were much older — 13 and eight years older than me — so in a lot of ways I was like an only child,” she says. “My father was a Baptist minister and the church was the center of my social life. It was great fun. Every Sunday night after church, even in the winter, we’d go to Tony’s (a landmark ice cream parlor) and I’d have a chocolate cone.”

She had an athlete’s build and certainly one’s competitiveness, but she grew up in an era when most girls didn’t focus on sports. Instead, she concentrated on playing the piano and being active in school and at church. “My parents instilled in me that I had been given a lot of gifts and talents,” she says, “and to go use them.”

So she did. Her looks, talent, charm and poise wowed judges, who crowned her Miss Gastonia. The scholarship money she received helped pay for her education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she majored in economics and consumer service and also took an interest in interior design. “My parents only gave me one piece of advice when I was deciding what I wanted to study,” she says. “They said, ‘Whatever you choose, make it be something that you can love for a lifetime.’”

One guesses that the same advice would hold true in a mate. Sharon Allred first laid eyes on Bob Decker during her senior year in college. He was teaching at Cleveland Technical Community College while pursuing his MBA at Winthrop — just over the state line in Rock Hill, S.C. “A friend of mine taught with him at Cleveland Tech,” she says, “and she said she had this guy that she wanted me to meet. So she asked me to come speak to her class on resume writing and interviewing skills, which was interesting, now that I think about it, because at that point, I was a practicing resume writer trying to find a job.”

The friend introduced them in a parking lot at the college, and the three later spent nearly three hours over lunch at a nearby Chinese restaurant on Highway 74. “It’s a pancake house now, but I think about that Chinese restaurant every time I ride by there,” she says. “Bob said he liked me because I bought his dessert.”

The affection was returned, with no sweets necessary. When Bob called Sharon the following week and invited her to a faculty dance, she was smitten. As was he. “She was very pretty — it was hard to overlook that,” he says. “And she had an enthusiasm and a spirit about her that were very unique. It was good from the very start.”

By the time graduation rolled around in the spring, the two were a couple, and Sharon’s job search had produced three good offers. “There was one in Minnesota and one in California, and the thought of blossoming in big cities in either was appealing, but I was in love with this guy from Shelby.”

There’s no doubt the board of directors at Duke Energy, where Sharon would go on to work for nearly 18 years, owes a debt of gratitude to Bob Decker. “I just flipped for him,” she says. “He was so kind to me, so giving — and very respectful. Bob had a deep spiritual side to him that I admired greatly and longed to learn more about. He was secure in himself, and he didn’t need me to make him whole — I liked that. He reminded me a lot of my Daddy.”

She was ready to get married that summer, but Bob insisted they wait. “He said, ‘You need to work at least a year, pay your own bills and live your own life. You need to know that you can do that.’”

So she rented an apartment in Gastonia, not too far from either her parents or Bob, and commuted to her job at then-Duke Power as a consumer education representative. “We still saw other people some, but we always dated each other,” she says. “I felt like it was just a matter of time.”

It was. The two were married in June 1980, and perhaps in a bit of foreshadowing, incorporated their honeymoon into a working trip for Sharon.

She moved up in the company ranks quickly — from a consumer educa-tion representative to a consumer products specialist to a residential energy specialist to a supervisor of appliance sales and service. The big-sounding titles masked grunt-work roles but mirrored her aspirations.

After moving to South Carolina for two years to serve as a branch manager for Duke, she returned to the Charlotte office in 1986 as a manager for marketing program development. A short period earlier, she and Bob had welcomed his 13-year-old nephew into their home, and the couple now felt it was time to begin raising their own family.

It wasn’t long after Rob Decker was born that his parents saw that two careers parlayed with two children — with more likely on the way — wasn’t for them. Bob was a vice president of investor relations at Southern Bank, which was in the midst of being acquired by First Union. “From my position at the bank, I was as aware as anyone that we were overstaffed and we’d been downsizing,” he says. “I also knew that my position would be one of the first to go.”

It was. But rather than pursue other job opportunities, the Deckers agreed that Bob should tend to family matters and that Sharon should continue to work. This was three years after the release of “Mr. Mom,” the hilarious blockbuster movie starring Michael Keaton as a bungling stay-at-home father. For the Deckers, though, this wasn’t played for laughs.

“One of us needed to devote more time to the stability of our home life,” Bob says. “Sharon’s always been very driven by her career and very good at what she does. She’s always thrived on that, and while I thrived on it to some extent, I always kind of worked to live rather than lived to work.

“That doesn’t mean it was always easy, because it wasn’t. Anybody who goes from being in the workplace to being at home fulltime can tell you about the withdrawals. I didn’t realize all of the things I gained from being in the workplace — being around a number of people every day and the things that are built into that system, like raises, to pat you on the back.”

“To make a commitment and sacrifice like he did was amazing,” says Sharon. “When Bob made his choice, there were not a lot of men who were home with the children. It wasn’t easy for him to stay the course when a lot of folks were asking questions and not so sure that we weren’t really strange. But his passion for our family was so much greater than that pain.”

Sharon’s career continued to escalate, and the only substantial time she took off from work was to give birth. Matt arrived in 1989 and Abby followed two years later. The youngest, Emily, was born six years ago.

Along the way Decker grew in stature at Duke, elevated in a series of vice president’s positions — she was the youngest and first female VP in Duke’s 90-year history. The promotions culminated with her appointment as the corporate vice president and executive director of the Duke Power Foundation in 1996. As her work visibility increased, so did her responsibilities and time away from home. “There were times in my mid-career when I longed to be home with the children,” she says. “I would be so angry about it, because I knew I was missing out on things.”

She tried to do something about it, leaving Duke in 1996 to establish the Lynnwood Foundation, a nonprofit with a twofold mission: to maintain and preserve the Duke Mansion (a national historic site) by operating it as a unique meeting facility, and to create and operate the Lee Institute, which focuses on building collaborative community leadership. “I wanted to strike a better balance between work and home,” Decker says. “I longed to have flexibility so that when the kids were sick, I could be home and not feel guilty about it. I also could work from home when I needed to, and that was a big plus.”

Her profile was higher than ever, and among the many words she’d speak in a day, “no” wasn’t often among them. She chaired the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce in 1998, the same year she was named the city’s Woman of the Year. She was in demand as a speaker at luncheons and conferences. Sharon Decker’s life was one of extremes — both success and happiness.

Dan Ray, a senior fellow at the Institute at Biltmore, whose role is to help businesses develop their charitable endeavors, admires Decker. “With the nature of my job, I only see people at their best,” he says. “Even in that company, Sharon’s exceptionally good. In a leader, you’re looking for someone who people naturally want to follow, and that’s her in a nutshell.”

That year, executives at Doncaster asked Decker to give the keynote address at its national conference. From there she established a relationship with the Tanner family. The following August, she agreed to become the president of Doncaster. “Bob and I talked about it, and my instincts told me it was the right thing to do,” she says. “I’ve never regretted it.”

Not even when she and Bob took the kids to the small town of Rutherfordton, located in Rutherford County about midway between Charlotte and Asheville, for the first time to check out Mom’s new office digs. “My children had known my office to be in the Duke Power building downtown, which was an awe-inspiring structure, and then in the Duke Mansion,” she says. “So we pull into the parking lot here and Abby, who was 7 or 8 at the time, looked at this building and looked at me and said, ‘This is good?’ ”

Indeed it was, and is. “When I took the job, we planned to still live in Belmont,” she says. “I had always commuted to Charlotte, and it was only a half-hour more. But with the children getting to be the ages that they were, it was difficult, and I found myself missing more and more things.”

So a year later, the family moved to Rutherfordton. Imagine taking the Drysdales out of Beverly Hills and to wherever the Clampetts had lived and, well, you get the idea of how the kids reacted. “It was difficult on them, to say the least,” Decker says. “But they’ve adjusted and now everyone’s happy. We are truly very blessed.”

She’s 45 now and needs six hours of sleep a night rather than four or five. She loves that she can drive home from work in five minutes, and that she can get away for a day or two on occasion when her batteries need to be recharged or the cabinets need to be restocked.

“We’ve realized that life is not a synchronized act,” Decker says. “There are things we do today that we won’t do tomorrow. There’s nothing wrong with that. We wanted to simplify things in our life, and we’ve been able to do that.”

When she’s in town, she’s at the house by 6 or 6:30, eager to hear about everyone’s day. “One of the things I love now is that when I’m home, I’m really home,” she says. “My children are at the ages now where they need that conversation, that connection. Sometimes it doesn’t happen — you can’t force it with teenagers — but I want to be there when it does.”

Around 10 or so each night, as the last of the kids heads for bed, Decker will take a half-hour to catch up on work. “Sometimes it may be to answer voice mails; sometimes it may be to respond to e-mails,” she says. “Then I’ll generally close my day by 11 o’clock.”

A new one begins six hours later. “I rise at 5 a.m., almost like clockwork. If I do oversleep, my day is out of kilter. I’ll fix a cup of coffee and go outside and sit in a rocking chair on the porch. I call it my quiet time — it’s where I put my thoughts together. Without question, it’s my favorite time of day.”

The kids are up by 6 a.m. “It’s a nonstop hour and usually very frantic,” she says. “Bob and I work at it together just to get everybody off to school — sometimes he’ll even wait until we’re all gone to get his shower.”

Decker leaves the house by 7:30, resplendent in those designer clothes and looking much like a woman who’s grabbed life by the horns and sees no reason to let go. She walks briskly into her office, willing to meet the day more than halfway. Her office walls are filled with family art, abstract paintings from each of the kids, framing a simple plaque with simple words:  

Work like you don’t need the money;
Love like you’ve never been hurt;

Dance like nobody’s watching.
Amen, Sharon Decker says. Amen.

Return to the magazine index

Visit us at 225 Hillsborough Street, Suite 460, Raleigh, N.C.
Write to us at P.O. Box 2508, Raleigh, N.C. 27602
Call us at 919.836.1400 or fax us at 919.836.1425

Copyright © 1998, All Rights Reserved
Last Modified: December 20, 2002
Web Design By The
Let Us Help You With Your Web Site Needs!