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Executive Profile

First Lady
Helen Powers, who broke many 
glass ceilings, chalks it up to 
timeliness, teamwork and tenacity

By Phil Kirk

Helen Powers’ close friends will attest to her talents as a gourmet cook, which is a skill that seems particularly fitting given her decades of knowing the exact ingredients needed to ensure success in business.

After a long career as a banking executive, as an investment business leader and as secretary of the North Carolina Department of Revenue, Powers no longer draws a regular paycheck, but she still “works” full-time. Nowadays, though, she can carefully choose where to spend her time and money.

Powers began working when she was only 15 years old, and although she has retired at least three times from influential jobs in her beloved city of Asheville and in the capital city of Raleigh, truthfully she has never stopped. Perhaps the driving force behind the development of her work ethic, other than the influence of her mother, was the loss of her father when she was only 10 years old.

Because she had no brothers or sisters or grandparents, she realized at a very early age that she would have to make it on her own. And while she has achieved an impressive number of “firsts” as a female executive and leader, she has never been one who asked for special favors or special treatment because of her gender.

A trendsetter, Powers was the first woman to become a senior vice president of a North Carolina bank, the first woman to serve as state secretary of Revenue, the first business woman to be inducted into the North Carolina Business Hall of Fame, and the first woman in the United States to complete both the University of Wisconsin School of Bank Administration and the Stonier Graduate School of Banking at Rutgers.

While she has never complained about the challenges of being a woman in business, she does say, “Women then — and often now — had to be twice as good and work twice as hard to get good jobs and big promotions.”

But that has not left even a touch of bitterness in Powers. “Men were very good to me and gave me wonderful opportunities — some that were not given to women in those days. I have always tried to work very, very hard and be a valuable employee because I was getting opportunities to do jobs that women were not generally given back then.”

Powers studied at Western Carolina University, and graduated from the School of Bank Administration at the University of Wisconsin and the Stonier Graduate School of Banking at Rutgers University.

She joined the Bank of Asheville in 1960 and later became the senior vice president, chief operating officer and a director before playing a major role in handling the merger with North Carolina National Bank, now Bank of America.

It was during her banking career that she developed her management style and philosophy. “It is important for a manager to first have a vision for the organization,” Powers says. “One needs to know where he wants to take the organization and have a strategy for getting there. The plan must then be executed in a timely and efficient manner.

“Integrity, honesty and loyalty are the most important qualities a person can possess. Those qualities are most exemplified by (retired NCNB executive) Tom Storrs, who was my role model.”

Storrs, who still lives in Charlotte, remembers Powers’ influence. “Prior to the merger, the two banks had done substantial business with each other as correspondents,” he says. “Officers at NCNB knew Helen as one of the policy group at the other bank and as the executive who made sure those policies were implemented. We knew then that the merger was bringing a strong executive to the combined bank, and we were not surprised in the least as she took on increasingly broader responsibilities — and met them well. She really is an extraordinarily competent person.”

Powers also believes strongly that managers must have the proper regard and respect for the people with whom they work and for their customers. “Progress and success are due to teamwork,” she notes. “Give credit where credit is due and don’t be afraid to surround yourself with the best people you can find. That has always been the key to any successes I have had.”

After working a couple of years to make the Bank of Asheville-North Carolina National Bank merger a success, she decided to retire from the bank. “I was burned out,” she remembers. “I’d had a long, hard career.”

But her first retirement did not last long. Friends talked her into going into the investment business, an opportunity that almost caused her to turn down the invitation from the then-new Gov. Jim Martin, who asked her to join his Cabinet in Raleigh in 1985.

In fact, Powers first said “no” to the surprise offer. Despite being a lifelong Democrat, she supported the Republican Martin in his successful campaign. While she worked closely with his brother, Joe Martin, at Bank of America, she did not know they were brothers until she was asked to come to Raleigh for an interview with the new governor.

“I initially told Joe ‘no’ when he called because I had too much going on in Asheville and I had more than 300 active accounts in my investment business,” Powers recalls.

After meeting with the governor in Raleigh, she talked to a number of her friends who encouraged her to seize the opportunity to make a difference in the new administration. “This was the biggest decision I had ever made,” she says. “I told the governor that he was the only man in my life who had ever talked me into leaving home — and it only took him 20 minutes!”

Calling her five-and-one-half years as the first female secretary of Revenue the “most interesting and rewarding years of my career,” she says she will always be grateful for the opportunity to serve her state.

Martin agrees with those who credit Powers with turning the Department of Revenue into a more efficient operation. “Helen has served North Carolina ably and has been an excellent example of strong, intelligent leadership,” he says. “She was an efficient tax collector, yet innovative in ways to improve the department. Always open to any idea that was fair and good for the state, she had a ‘soft’ way of responding when the request to her was out of line. She was ‘tough, but oh, so gentle,’ as they used to say about a brand of automotive parts.”

Her accomplishments in Raleigh were many, but perhaps the most impressive was getting legislative approval for a $36 million new building for the department. The completion of this structure fulfilled her vision of a much-needed, functional, efficient workplace for the department’s 1,200 employees. While others may not have attempted to get such a project approved, Powers’ dogged determination earned the respect and approval of powerful legislators who listened to her and voted for the appropriations that allowed her dream to be funded.

Under her leadership, a tax amnesty program was completed in 1989 and brought in $40 million of unpaid tax revenues into the state’s coffers. The Council of State, composed of all Democrats except the governor and lieutenant governor, presented her with the first and only resolution of appreciation ever issued to a state government official.

When she retired again, this time in 1990, her life became even busier, although she was able to return to her beloved Asheville on a full-time basis. There she has been active in many civic endeavors, but her time and money have been concentrated largely on Warren Wilson College and Memorial Mission Hospital.

Her love affair with Warren Wilson has lasted more than 30 years and she has been on the board of trustees there since leaving Raleigh. “Warren Wilson is a college where they focus on more than academics,” Powers says. “They teach students how to live and succeed through mandatory work, community involvement and international understanding.”

However, she wanted Warren Wilson to offer a stronger focus on business and finance, so she set about raising the money to allow it to do so. In turn, the school named its business economics program after her, which President Doug Orr says was an easy call to make. “We can all learn from Helen’s story and the remarkable qualities that have characterized her successful career and inspiring life journey: a single-minded determination to overcome considerable odds, personal sacrifice and hard work, a burning passion and vision that affect everyone around her, and an abiding love for her community and state. She has made us a better people and place.”

While Powers shies away from publicity and recognition, a recent example of her caring for the students at Warren Wilson occurred when fire destroyed a dorm at the school. She went through her closets and collected boxes of clothes that she personally took to the campus.

She has raised more than the promised $1 million for the new program at the college and is continuing to collect more. Her passion for the new business economics program is strong. “It is not business as usual for young people embarking on a career today, nor will it ever be again,” she says. “We knew before Sept. 11 that we now live and work in a global economy regardless of our personal interests or location — an economy that will become more stringent and require more of everyone to become successful in the future. You will see this reflected in our curriculum for the new business and economics program.”

Her other primary passion in western North Carolina is Memorial Mission/St. Joseph’s Hospital. As a banker, she was also an active volunteer at Memorial Mission, where she has been a member of the boards of the medical center and the foundation.

As an even more active volunteer board member at the medical center after her stint in Raleigh, she began to see the need to focus on women’s health issues. When she puts her mind to a project or an issue, her will and determination always make certain that it will succeed. Her vision became reality in 1993 with the opening of the Mission St. Joseph’s Helen Powers Women’s Health Center.

Bob Burgin, CEO of the medical center, calls Powers “a rare talent and a unique combination of a financial expert who understands management, strategy and operations. She is generous with her time, talents and financial resources. She is a true friend and a treasure for North Carolina, especially the west.”

Powers remains an influential figure in North Carolina financial circles. She is serving her final term as a member of the North Carolina Banking Commission, having been appointed by Gov. Hunt twice, in 1981 and again in 1994.

She has been a member of the N.C. Capital Management Trust for the past 12 years and is the current chair of the $5 billion trust that was set up in 1982 by the General Assembly. Ninety-five percent of local governments in the state participate in the fund. She also has been an active member of the North Carolina Community Foundation.

Her work has been recognized by leaders in government and in banking circles. “Helen Powers is a wonderful citizen,” says Hunt. “She believes deeply in North Carolina moving forward with education and the infrastructure necessary for economic growth, but she insists that it be done within our means. Governors of both parties have depended on her leadership, and I was particularly blessed to have her help and friendship.”

While not a self-promoter or one who loves the spotlight, Powers nevertheless is proud of being the first business woman inducted into the North Carolina Business Hall of Fame, a joint project of Junior Achievement and NCCBI.

Her talents also have been recognized by those who select persons to take on difficult issues in Raleigh. She co-chaired the North Carolina Government Performance Audit Commission (GPAC), a $3 million project authorized by the legislature in 1991 to study all aspects of state government operations. Her work and that of her colleagues produced a list of savings totaling $275 million. Still, she believes that much remains to be done in this area, and that our state tax system is long overdue for an overhaul.

Other honors include being selected as the Outstanding Woman of the Year in 1999 for her civic and philanthropic service to Asheville and Buncombe County and her selection as a Distinguished Woman of North Carolina in 1987.

Lest one think Powers works all the time on boards and commissions, her friends speak glowingly of her culinary skills and her impressive collection of cookbooks. Since her only relative, her mother, died in 1995, she has realized to an even greater extent how important friends are. “If a friend is not loyal and honest, then he or she is no real friend. It doesn’t matter how much clout or power you have, if a friend is not with you when you really need them, they are not really a friend. I always try to listen, keep in touch, and to be a friend.”

Powers limits most of her traveling to seeing friends primarily in Raleigh and Charlotte and to attend meetings in chosen cities. She also enjoys reading biographies and business-related books, in addition to all the materials related to her service on boards.

An unknown author penned this popular slogan: “At the beginning of the day, it’s all about hard work. At the end of the day, it’s all about results.” Nothing better summarizes the still active and effective career work of Helen Powers.

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