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Executive Profile

Power Play
Jim Cain, who sold the Triangle on the Hurricanes,
now ponders his next opportunity to score big

By Phil Kirk

Odds are you will never oppose Jim Cain at a poker game. If you do, however, smart money says to fold because the Raleigh lawyer has established a reputation for playing his hands well.

Nowhere was that more evident than in his recent — and extremely successful — years as president and chief operating officer of the Carolina Hurricanes, a tenure capped by the National Hockey League team’s remarkable run to the Stanley Cup finals last June.

His work there done, the 45-year-old Charlotte native left the Hurricanes in December to return to the Kilpatrick Stockton law firm, where he had practiced since 1985. His winter has been spent strengthening client relationships and developing some “significant infrastructure projects.”

Something else significant may be brewing. Cain has long maintained an active role in politics and admits to be debating the pros and cons of a possible run for the governor’s office in 2004. “When I left the Hurricanes, I did not leave to run for public office,” he says. “Since I left, friends and acquaintances have suggested that the state needs new leadership, and they have encouraged me to consider running for office. I am flattered and am highly motivated to make a difference.”

He’s aware that the time to make a decision draws near. “It is time to make a fundamental re-examination of the role of state government,” he says. “A leader needs to lead, and I am not convinced that our elected leaders are doing that currently.”

The early years of Cain’s life were spent in Charlotte, Asheville, Win-ston-Salem and High Point because his father, Lee, was an executive with Wachovia and back then it was normal banking practice to move their executives every few years. Cain’s mother, Patricia, is in real estate in High Point and his dad now works for Legg Mason.

Moving every several years meant different schools and the chance to make new friends in several locations, and Cain took advantage of those opportunities.

It was in High Point when he was 15 that he played shortstop and left field on the baseball field, along with competing in swimming and tennis. “I loved to compete, but I did not excel in any sport,” he recalls.

However, because he figured out his limitations at a young age, he turned his attention to the speech and debate team at High Point Central High School, and it was there that he learned to speak effectively and to argue forcefully the points he wanted to make. “I enjoyed politics, government and speaking,” he recalls.

Those qualities led him to Wake Forest University where he majored in politics. Coming from a conservative Democratic family, the first candidate he supported was Charlotte businessman Ed O’Herron, who ran unsuccessfully for governor.

Cain worked for then California governor Ronald Reagan in a bruising presidential primary in North Carolina against President Gerald Ford in 1976. It was during that campaign that he met John Hutchens, a former grocery story executive in High Point. “He became my first mentor in politics,” Cain says. Then he ran the youth campaign for Sen. Jesse Helms’ successful re-election win over Commissioner of Insurance John Ingram.

Cain’s next political accomplishments were helping to run the campaign and organize the office of the late Sen. John East in Washington and working in the successful Reagan for President campaign in 1980. Then it was back to Wake Forest for law school.

He gained more than degrees at Wake Forest. Helen Revelle, a member of the politically connected Revelle family (Democrats) in Murfreesboro, transferred to Wake Forest after two years at St. Mary’s. The two dated for five years before getting married. “She opened my eyes to the virtues of the northeastern part of the state,” he says.

Cain graduated from the Wake Forest School of Law in the spring of 1984 and served as legal counsel for Helms in his challenging re-election campaign against then Gov. Jim Hunt. Then he went to work for the Winston-Salem law firm of Petree Stockton and opened the Raleigh office for them. After a merger in 1996, the Raleigh office of Kilpatrick Stockton grew from three attorneys to as many as 60.

Cain’s earlier experiences in sports, plus enjoying golf as another hobby, led him to begin doing legal work for sports-related clients in golf and soccer. In 1996, as a part of his commitment to improving the already good quality of life in the Triangle, he joined in the campaign to bring a professional sports team in this area.

“At that time Charlotte had the Hornets and the Panthers. The Triad was debating baseball, so ice hockey seemed to be our best opportunity,” Cain says.

His friend and political ally, Tom Fetzer, was mayor of Raleigh at that time, and he asked Cain to work on getting a major-league hockey franchise for Raleigh.

And work he did. Cain was a major player in helping persuade Peter Karmanos to move his Hartford Whalers from Connecticut to the Triangle. While the hockey franchise had excellent legal representation from a Washington law firm, it obviously needed someone in the Triangle who knew the people here, especially the elected officials and the community power brokers who would be key to the team’s success.

What better choice than Cain? He possessed all of the talents the Hurricanes were looking for — legal expertise, knowledge of people, love for sports, and a strong desire to help the Hurricanes succeed in a challenging market.

“A local face was imperative, especially since the Hurricanes had a remote owner who did not live here,” Cain says. “They needed someone to identify and to connect with the community.” This was especially true because hockey was a new sport for a community in love with ACC basketball and football.

In addition to having to play for two years in Greensboro while a state-of-the-art arena was being built, the Hurricanes did not initially realize the need to have a Jim Cain-type person in a high level, visible position. It took several miscues along a bumpy road in the Hurricanes’ early days to convince them to hire Cain as their president and COO.

Cain went from being hired as the legal counsel in 1997 to the high profile position in early 2000. “I gave the Hurricanes a two-year commitment, which we extended for another year,” he says.

After the unbelievable fairy tale run all the way to hockey’s World Series last year, Cain had a few more goals to accomplish before he returned to Kilpatrick Stockton.

Those challenges included settling the naming-rights issue for the former Entertainment and Sports Arena (now the RBC Center), increasing the season-ticket base, and negotiating new contracts for the team’s TV and radio broadcast rights. “I also wanted to finalize the Hurricanes Academy to work with students,” he says. The academy is a partnership with the Hurricanes, Wake County Public Schools, Wake Education Partnership and Communities in Schools.

How could a lawyer be a successful high-level executive with a professional sports team, one could legitimately ask. With Cain, it was his people skills and his emphasis on quality, efficient, friendly service to the customers — in this case the fans of the Hurricanes.

In early 2000, he decided that changes were necessary if the Hurricanes were going to succeed in the Triangle. “It was apparent that we had to improve our relations with the fans. Ticket sales were slow and there was very little media attention,” Cain recalls.

Perhaps borrowing some ideas from past presidential administrations in Washington, he says, “I felt it was very important to be very active and visible during the first 100 days as the new executive with the Hurricanes.”

From doing a lot of questioning, listening and very little talking, along with calling fans on the phone, organizing focus groups and sending out surveys, Cain devised a “Contract with the Fans.”

“It was a very sobering experience to find out that the one thing some fans said they liked best about coming to see the Hurricanes play was the popcorn,” Cain says seriously.

With opinions gathered from fans, the top brass of Gale Force Holdings, the team’s parent company, drove to Pinehurst for a crucial three days of planning. Out of that experience came the now nationally recognized “Contract with the Fans.”

“Jim understands the value of public relations,” says Smedes York, a former mayor of Raleigh. “He is an astute individual who sets clear goals and then executes. You can count on Jim Cain.”

Notes Cain: “Our new mission statement said we would earn the support of the community by providing good value, high-quality entertainment and excellence in customer relations. Our 1,800 employees learned the mission statement, they believed it, and they put it into practice.”

Not only did the execs write down their commitments to fans, but they published them on the Hurricanes’ web site, along with a timeline for accomplishing the improvements. “We confessed that we had not done well and we committed to major changes,” Cain says. “We became more fan-centric, and there was a tremendous change in attitude.”

Cain terms this phase of his life as “a tremendous opportunity, a fascinating experience, and a fun time.”

Obtaining an agreement on the complex issue of the naming rights for the arena probably taught Cain the value of patience as much as any of his experiences in sports.

RBC Centura executive Kel Landis, a major player in the naming rights negotiations, says, “I came to respect and admire Jim’s professional persistence and determination to make the partnership work for all parties. He is a straight talker, and I’m sure he will be a successful business leader in our state in the years to come.”

Cain believes his time spent in politics earlier in life provided good training for his short career with the Hurricanes. “My early involvement in politics gave me a great opportunity at a young age to understand what motivates people. Making friends is also important. It is better to make friends with people before you need them. It makes for a happier life.”

Those contacts in the corporate community resulted in major dividends for Cain and the Hurricanes. In the spring of 2001, Cain and his colleagues began a “crusade” to involve the business community with the team. “Very little effort had been made earlier to engage the Triangle business community. We formed a group called ’Friends of the Canes.’ Leaders were Bill Cavanaugh (Progress Energy), Jim Hyler (First Citizens), Jim Goodmon (Capitol Broadcasting) and Bob Ingram (GlaxoSmithKline).”

Cain said their support had as much to do with the turnaround in the support for the Hurricanes as any other single factor. Not surprisingly, there is a mutual admiration society between Cain and those early business supporters.

“I think we have to credit Jim Cain for the success of building such a positive relationship between the Carolina Hurricanes and the entire Triangle business community,” Ingram says. “Jim has all of the skills great leaders possess. I would be proud to have him represent me in any form.”

Hyler agrees. “Jim Cain did an outstanding job as president of the Hurricanes due to his ability to relate to the community as a whole and their fans in particular. He had the right touch to maximize the community’s exposure during the 2002 Stanley Cup playoffs.”

From living with the Hurricanes for several years — he is still a fixture at games from his front-row seats — Cain is now focused on the practice of corporate law back at Kilpatrick Stockton.

Not known to many people is his involvement in the restaurant business with his brother-in-law, Guy Revelle. In the late 1980s, they opened Fat Tuesday in Charlotte and now are involved with 15 restaurants, including the first and only NFL Players Grill in Orlando, Fla. “I am not involved in the day-to-day operations,” he says. “I am a passive investor — and not in any restaurants in North Carolina.

“I am very interested,” he adds, “in being free to devote time on issues and projects that are important to this region.”

Examples include heading a $6.5 million campaign for the Food Bank, an assignment Cain accepted after much prodding from former Gov. Jim Hunt. Cain and Helen are also working as an effective, powerful team chairing the campaigns for the Triangle Red Cross and American Diabetes Association. In addition, they are active with the Community Learning Centers and Communities in Schools.

“Helen and I both spend a lot of time in our children’s’ classrooms. I am a product of North Carolina’s public schools and am blessed to have received a good education in the Forsyth and Guilford county public schools. We want to make sure future generations have that same opportunity.”

In another example of bipartisanship, Cain worked with state Sen. Eric Reeves and former mayor Tom Fetzer to set up Community Learning Centers in public housing projects in Raleigh.

“It is nice to have the flexibility of time to utilize a platform to make a difference,” Cain says. “I felt like after the successes with the Hurricanes that it was time to make a difference on causes important to North Carolina, and I appreciate the law firm allowing me the flexibility to do this.”

Cain is enjoying spending more time with his wife and daughters, Cameron, 12, and Laura, 10. They take in Hurricanes’ games, and count playing tennis and basketball, along with traveling, as hobbies.

One part of Cain is saying that a political race would get in the way of that family-oriented goal. However, he also knows that timing is everything whether it is politics, sports or business. And he knows that at least the past five governors have raised families while occupying the Executive Mansion.

Time will tell exactly what challenge Cain will take on next. While it is doubtful that he will be content with practicing law and sitting on the front row at the RBC Center, this particular hand has yet to play out.

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