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Executive Profile for May 2004


Louise McColl's political 
activism and dogged service 
on several key boards helps 
raise all boats in the Port City

By Phil Kirk

Wilmington native Louise McColl has many loves in her busy life. From politics and public service to planning meetings, celebrations and birthday parties to spending time playing golf and playing with her dog, Buttons, McColl has compiled an enviable record of service to the Port City area and to her beloved North Carolina.

She has been a confidant and major force behind the scenes for numerous successful Democratic officeholders. This service, mostly volunteer and occasionally paid, has led to a series of high-profile appointments as a leader on the North Carolina Economic Development Board, the State Board of Transportation, and the North Carolina State Ports Authority, where she serves as vice chair.

But her life has not been an easy one and she has worked steadfastly to overcome two major challenges — the separation and divorce of her mother and father when she was 2, and the death of her husband, Hal McColl, who died from a heart attack at age 42 the night before Thanksgiving 1986.

Never one to complain or dwell negatively on the past, McColl says she learned many life lessons from her mother, Margaret Vinson. That relationship is quite a story in itself. McColl was born and raised in Wilmington. She entered the working world at an early age and she worked two summers with her mother in the bindery of a printing company. Now her mother works for her at McColl & Associates, a firm that specializes in planning and executing meetings and events, along with campaigns.

“My mother spent her life raising us (McColl has a brother, Bernie Flynn, who lives in Wilmington and is assistant plant manager at Guilford Mills in Kenansville),” she recalls. “She taught us how to be productive citizens and we learned a strong work ethic from her. She taught us that we could do anything and be anything we wanted to be. She encouraged us to do things we did not think we could do and she continues that even today.”

Working in her daughter’s office five half-days a week, Margaret answers the phone, handles the fax machine and manages many of the minute details that must be handled. “We get along real well together inside the office and outside,” McColl says. “If I don’t have meetings at lunchtime, we go to lunch together a lot.”

McColl was active in sports at New Hanover High School where she was named the “Most Athletic.” She played basketball, softball and tennis and was the state champion in ping-pong. Her main sports activity now is golf, a sport she took up less than 20 years ago. “I played with my brother and husband before he died,” she says. “I really like golf — I like trying to figure out how to get the ball in the hole.”

Like many golfers, her short game is the weakest part of her game. Lessons? “I am a left-hander and I took lessons once from the pro at Porter’s Neck, but he was a right-hander trying to teach a left-hander,” she says.

Married at age 22, McColl’s went to work at Belk Berry in Wilmington, where she’d stay 25 years. For about six months she worked in the stationery department, selling and monogramming. She was offered a chance to move from sales to the office where she was in accounting. “I like working with figures,” she says. McColl was heavily involved in managing new start-up systems within the retail company and was also responsible for training and working with the merchandise manager on budgeting, planning and training.

Three years after the sudden death of her husband, she decided to open a business that began as a meetings, events and public relations firm. PPD, a pharmaceutical firm in Wilmington, was her first client and she planned meetings for the company throughout the country. “Before 9/11, we were basically meetings and events planners,” she says. “But the emphasis grew in the area of public relations and campaigns.”

A staunch Democrat, McColl does not recall supporting any Republicans on the state level; however, that does not hold true on the local level. She raised some eyebrows when she ran the campaign for David Jones, who was elected mayor of Wilmington several years ago. While it was officially a non-partisan race, everyone knew of Jones’s party affiliation — he had served as secretary of the Department of Corrections in the administration of Republican Gov. Jim Holshouser in the 1970s. Like McColl, Jones is willing to cross party lines when he feels the better candidate sits on the other side.

“I thought he was fair. He was not partisan and I believe he wanted to help both sides and he did,” McColl says. “He is a good person.” Jones did not run for re-election, but if he had, McColl would have been right in there working on his behalf. They remain close friends.

McColl also has run the campaigns of Wilmington Mayor Spence Broadhurst, Wilmington City Councilman Billy Saffo, and Wrightsville Beach Alderman Ed Paul. The fact that each won is a tribute to McColl’s organizational skills. “As long as I believe in the candidate and as long as I will cast my personal vote for him or her, I have no hesitation in taking on their campaigns regardless of their party affiliation,” she says.

McColl’s first involvement with politics came in the early ’70s when she volunteered to work in Jim Hunt’s initial campaign for lieutenant governor. She worked in the trenches in all four of his successful gubernatorial campaigns and in his unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate. Of all her years in politics, that loss left her the most empty. “That was my most disappointing night when Jim Hunt lost to Sen. Helms,” she says.

However, she knows many more wins than losses, having been active in nearly every major Democratic campaign in North Carolina for the past 35 years, including Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue, U.S. Senators John Edwards and Terry Sanford, Congressman Mike McIntyre, and Lt. Gov. Bob Jordan.

She is also a strong supporter of current Gov. Mike Easley. “I expect to work with him for the next four years and appreciate his leadership.”

The politicians are appreciative of her work ethic and her success rate. Says Hunt: “Louise is a real force to be reckoned with in Eastern North Carolina. She is passionate about economic growth and jobs. And she is so energetic and capable that when I was governor she served on both the Ports Authority and the State Board of Transportation at the same time.”

The current mayor of Wilmington, Spence Broadhurst, adds, “Louise McColl is a person who gets things done. When she truly believes in a person or a cause, she will outwork anyone I know.”

McColl attributes her interest and success in politics to her leadership roles and involvement with the U.S. Jaycee Women’s organization, a group for which she served as president on the local, state and national levels. She spent 1977 as national president and worked with Jaycee Women in all 50 states. At the beginning of her term, there were 10,000 members. Twelve months later, the number stood at 30,000.

It was with the Jaycee Women that McColl developed her leadership strengths and style. “We trained women how to be leaders,” she recalls. “We traveled all over the country. We taught women how to be public speakers. We taught women that the word ‘no’ should not be in their vocabulary.”

Through her professional career, McColl has practiced what she preached. Susan Hughes of Tarboro — whom McColl calls her best friend — says that “leader, as defined by Webster, means, ‘a person who has commanding authority or influence.’ Leader as defined by the United States Jaycettes means, ‘Louise McColl.’ This was the opening statement I used when nominating her for the office of the president of the United States Jaycettes in 1977.

“She is a special lady who combines a genuine concern and caring for people with her drive to be the best she can be in all areas of her life,” Hughes adds. “She has influence in areas nationwide and has proven to be a person of character and determination. She loves Wilmington, she loves North Carolina, and she loves the Democratic Party. She is a person who leaves footprints in the sand for others to follow, and she is a person that I am proud to call friend.”

There have been some disappointments in her personal political endeavors. She has run for county commissioner and the North Carolina Senate and lost both times. In the county commission race, she lost by only 150 votes, and in the Senate race, she readily admits, “I did not do the research I should have before I decided to run. There were five counties involved and they were mostly Republican.”

She has no plans to run again. “I like running campaigns and I like organizing them,” she says. McColl also enjoys recruiting candidates and then making sure they keep their campaign promises while in office. “I like to find candidates who can make a difference. Then I help them keep focused on keeping their promises.”

Campaigns have changed since her first involvement with Hunt. “They have gone from the grassroots to more media. A lot of candidates don’t get out and meet the public. The costs have gone up dramatically.”

Her active role in specific campaigns and in the Democratic Party have given her opportunities to serve in non-elected positions that most people only dream about. Through appointment by Senate powerhouse Marc Basnight, she served on the State Board of Transportation. Although she served in an at-large position, she had responsibilities in Onslow, New Hanover and Pender counties. “That was almost a full-time job with the phone calls, visits and meetings. I spent a lot of time on roads and in ditches,” she says, laughing. “But I enjoyed it and I learned so much about our transportation system. I was also impressed by the dedication and hard work of the employees in the Department of Transportation. They are often criticized by the public, but many of the employees work extremely long hours.”

She especially values and enjoys her experiences as vice chair of the State Ports Authority. “There are challenges involved in bringing in new business and new jobs to the ports,” she says. “Recruiting customers for the Wilmington and Morehead City ports, entertaining customers, and lobbying on behalf of the ports in the Congress and North Carolina General Assembly are all enjoyable.”

Revenue Secretary Norris Tolson has watched McColl and is effusive in his praise of her. “Louise McColl heads North Carolina,” Tolson says. “She has worked tirelessly on economic development, travel and tourism, transportation and other major opportunities for her state. She is a ‘can do’ person who puts energy into every challenge and who always puts her state first. I’ve enjoyed just being around Louise because her energy and ‘let’s get it done attitude’ is infectious. North Carolina needs more Louise McColls.”

She also has seen a decrease in the number of volunteers willing to work in political campaigns. “Now it is more difficult to get volunteers. More people are working and are involved with their families and they don’t have any extra time.”

Understandably, there may be a few people who are turned off by McColl because of her politics or style, but out of respect for what she’s accomplished, they remain fairly quiet. “People aren’t neutral about Louise,” says Ken Eudy, Raleigh public relations guru who has worked with her in the political arena. “They either really like her, or they really don’t. That’s because she shoots straight and strong. She doesn’t pull punches. You can always expect to get the truth from Louise. But you’d better be sure you want to hear it.”

Eudy praises her abilities to work with all kinds of people. “She was New Hanover County Democratic Party chairman, which qualifies for combat pay,” he says, a statement most would agree with.

Margaret Stargell, executive director of Coastal Horizons, where McColl serves on the board, says, “Working with Louise is not always a day at the park! She expects a lot and wants it done when she says. The end result is that you always have a winning game.”

That is why McColl has been the top sales person in the past three membership campaigns for the Greater Wilming- ton Chamber. She has also brought in a large number of new members for NCCBI, the publisher of this magazine.

Wilmington Chamber President and CEO Connie Majure-Rhett, a close friend of McColl’s, says, “Louise McColl is fiercely loyal, staunch in her beliefs, and as feisty as they come. And most folks don’t know that she’s a real softie inside.”

Perhaps her favorite sidekick, her 11-year-old dog, Buttons, contributes to the soft side of her personality. “Two friends gave me Buttons and I would not take a million dollars for him. My mother still fusses at me and tells me to spend more time with my dog. I do love that little dog! He’s a real ‘live’ wire!”

Just like his “mother,” some would say.

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