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Mover and Shaker

The third-generation head of Carolina Tractor
reshapes the company while keeping it true to its construction roots

By Ed Martin

Explosions rock the earth and huge Caterpillar D10 bulldozers rumble across a 30-mile swath of blasting zones, granite dust and bare earth west of Asheville as construction proceeds on a $290 million extension of Interstate 26 into Tennessee. But it's whisper-quiet in the halls of Presbyterian Hospital and in Uptown Charlotte bank buildings where Caterpillar emergency generators stand ready to kick in during a power failure, saving lives and fortunes.

The divergent uses of that Caterpillar equipment in many ways reflects the growth and evolution of Carolina Tractor & Equipment Co., one of the nation's oldest Caterpillar dealerships. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Edward Weisiger Jr., 38, is the third generation of his family to run Carolina Tractor, which in its 73-year history has grown in lockstep with a state that in that time has progressed from farm roads and the boll weevil to superhighways and international airports.

Weisiger's grandfather sold milk-bottle caps and dairy supplies to keep the young equipment company alive during the Depression. Today, his grandson is Harvard-educated, at the helm of a firm whose products range from Caterpillar bulldozers and motor graders to truck engines, equipment rentals, fork lifts and service contracts.

The building of the Carolinas remains the driving force behind the company, which has 700 employees, and Carolina Tractor is at the forefront of its industry in both traditional and new ways "We've put a lot of effort into changing the image of the mechanic, and we refer to them today as technicians because that's what they are," says Weisiger. "It's not a grease-monkey kind of position any more. They train in sophisticated electronic systems, and most have personal computers in their service vehicles." Salaries can top $50,000.

At the same time, Weisiger's own role as president and chief executive of Carolina Tractor is dramatically different than that of L.M. Weisiger, his grandfather, a Hickory equipment dealer who bought the company in 1930 when it was only four years old. Today, Weisiger is often out in the field but he is as likely to be found in the board meetings of trade associations or sitting on public task forces mapping transportation priorities.

"Ed brings a lot of level-headed thinking on issues, particularly as they relate to legislation, both on the state and national level," says Elbert Peters, president of the North Carolina Trucking Association in Raleigh. Weisiger serves as an allied member of the association board, as a supplier to the industry rather than as a trucker.

"Ed's personable and easy to get to know, but beyond that, he brings us a lot of expertise from the vendor side of the business and helps us make good decisions not only for the operators, but suppliers," says trucking association chairman Tony Pope, president of Catawba Transportation Group in Claremont.

Pope says Weisiger's advice is perhaps most useful on sensitive issues such as fuel and property taxes, and regulations. "When there are questions about things like environmental issues, it is guys like Ed who bring us the expertise on what's right and reasonable." One issue, for example, is whether the government should mandate particulate scrubbers to clean truck exhausts.

"They would be extremely burdensome and expensive on the trucking side," adds Pope. "With the help of guys like Ed, we can work together to keep the government informed and seek other options that are just as good. We both come out winners."

In its sprawling complex on Charlotte's northwest city limits, Carolina Tractor today is being engulfed in construction in one of the region's busiest building areas. In Mecklenburg County alone construction will approach $2.5 billion this year. And when construction flourishes, so does Carolina Tractor.

Surrounded by trucking terminals and office parks Weisiger also is founder and principal in Beacon Partners, a commercial real estate company that has developed more than two million square feet of Carolinas industrial and warehouse space Carolina Tractor's cavernous service bays are filled with machines that dwarf the technicians who service them.

Beneath a painting of a hunting scene, bent over a computer in a dark paneled windowless office, Weisiger heads one of two Caterpillar dealerships covering North Carolina. His company and Raleigh's Gregory Poole Equipment Co., formed in 1951, recently were ranked the 20th and 21st largest private corporations in the state, both with annual earnings in the $100 million to $249 million range, in a survey by Arthur Andersen LLP, the accounting firm.

From here, Weisiger manages a vast operation with branches in Greensboro, Hickory, Statesville, Asheville and Mars Hill the I-26 project is nearby and Greenville, S.C., blanketing the western Carolinas much as Poole Equipment does the east.

But the success story of Carolina Tractor is also a personal one. In an era of vanishing family firms, the passing of the reins from Edward Weisiger Sr., former chairman of the N.C. State University Board of Trustees and now Carolina Tractor chairman, to his son, could serve as a model for others facing such inevitable transitions.

The Weisiger family moved to Charlotte in 1971 when Carolina Tractor relocated from its 1926 Salisbury home to be in the middle of the Piedmont construction dynamo. Weisiger was 11, and after graduating from private Woodberry Forest School in Virginia, he completed a degree in industrial engineering at N.C. State University in 1982.

After working for Raleigh's Tompkins Associates Inc. as a senior engineer in materials handling and distribution, he completed a master of business administration degree at Harvard in 1986. He also worked with Westchase Development Corp. in Raleigh and as an intern with Trammell Crow Co., in Atlanta, learning real estate development.

"I knew the opportunity was always here, but I also had plenty of other interests and wanted to do some things on the outside," he says. In early 1987, father and son began discussing Weisiger's return.

"One of the things my dad did during his leadership of the company was to consolidate ownership into people's hands who were active in the business, rather than inactive stockholders," says Weisiger. "That's one of the chief causes of tensions, when family members become dependent on a business, but don't have a stake in it."

Family-business expert Leon Danco calls it "stockholder proliferation," and among Tar Heel dynasties that have succumbed are Broyhill Furniture Industries, which sold to outsiders in 1980, and Richardson-Vicks Corp., sold by descendants of founder Lunsford Richardson in 1985. "Three sons have three wives and each have three kids and suddenly, in the third generation, you have 64 stockholders," says Danco.

The Weisigers were determined to make the transition work. "We each talked about our wants and expectations and carved out a transition plan," says Weisiger. "Compared to the horror stories you hear about some family businesses, everybody lived up to his end of the bargain. Then the economy blessed us." He came to the firm in 1988.

The senior Weisiger had taken one other step toward making the changeover graceful. "My father hired a transition manager about a year before I came back," says Weisiger. "We didn't refer to him as such, but he really was a bridge manager. At that time, dad was decreasing his day-to-day role, and the manager acted like a dutch uncle to me. It allowed me to report to someone other than my father. Even though my relationship with dad was good, it gave employees a greater comfort level with the change."

In 1991, Weisiger was promoted to president. By then the economy was in recession but he saw it as an opportunity. "We had been doing just fine, but probably in the range of mediocre to good, as a dealership," he says. "The business didn't need to be turned on its head, but when you've got an external force like the economy to deal with, it makes it less painful to make changes. We wanted to be in the range of great to excellent."

While the 1950s and the Interstate Highway Act had brought heady times to heavy equipment dealers, the 1980s and 1990s had brought competition and sweeping technology changes. Foreign companies like Komatsu America International Corp. and domestic competitors such as Case Corp. came after Caterpillar. "In many cases, they compete against us in small niches, and they're very good," says Weisiger. "We have to make up for it by providing customer service."

To do that requires training. "We do a lot on our own, but we also work with technical schools and community colleges like Asheville-Buncombe Technical College, Guilford Technical College, and Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, because they provide a lot of the basic math, science and diesel mechanics that once learned can be applied here."

Two years ago, Weisiger was named one of the region's most promising under-40 executives by a local business newspaper, and today, Carolina Tractor's growth is accelerating, particularly in its materials handling division forklifts, for example but also in paving equipment and other areas, such as forestry machines. Last year, it moved up five notches in the rankings of state private companies, inching a spot ahead of Poole Equipment. About 65 percent of its revenues come from construction equipment, but engine sales and service, both for the trucking industry and applications such as power generators, are growing.

Weisiger is easing into the model set by his father, leading not only the company, but taking a decisive role in state and local affairs. And, with his family.

On a recent morning at the Carolina Tractor headquarters, Weisiger's attention was focused on smaller equipment than that his company normally sells. He puts in 60- to 65-hour weeks, but on this day, Marshall, 5, the middle of his three daughters, is learning to ride her bicycle.

"We'd taken the training wheels off twice before and gone to the park, but she never quite got it," he explains. This morning she does. "From a father's perspective, the pride you see in a child's eyes when they have an accomplishment like that is the greatest milestone on earth," he says.

Weisiger enjoys golf and hunting duck, dove, quail. But in the competition for his time, family usually wins out. He is an elder in Charlotte's old Myers Park Presbyterian Church, and feels running a family business carries a community obligation.

"This city was built on the shoulders of people who wanted to make it a better place, and that's what they did," he says, leaning forward over a desk in an office next door to his father's. "But they also created an expectation for the people who followed them that you'll do more of the same."

Through the summer of 1998, as a member of the Charlotte Transit Planning Advisory Committee, Weisiger spent hours with other members, hammering out a plan for a county mass transit system that will combine special bus highways and a 30-mile light-rail system. Voters in November approved a $1.2 billion sales-tax plan to pay for it.

He views such measures as groundwork for his children's generation. They'll be in their 30s when the plan is finished in 2025. State and local voters, who've approved more than $2 billion in highway construction funds since 1989, have shown their willingness to pay for that future, he says, but they also must come to grips with changes in how they live. That means living closer together in urban areas.

"If you don't tie land-use planning to transit, you're dooming it to failure," he says. "But we also have to start looking at alternatives to the way we've funded roads in the past. People run for the hills when you mention tolls, but that might be a solution in which the actual users pay."

Another solution? An infrastructure bank, similar to South Carolina's. The pool of state funds recently allowed small Rock Hill, on Charlotte's southern city limits, to obtain more than $200 million for highway projects, including the widening of Interstate 77 to Charlotte, by leveraging a local sales tax.

But transportation will have to take its place in line with other priorities. "We also have great needs for schools, and social programs many of us feel dearly about," says Weisiger, chairman of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce's public policy group. "We hear stories of people who commit repetitive or nonviolent crimes who don't come to trial in an expeditious manner or go to jail because we have a dearth of judicial resources or jail space. Some of this works circular. If we educate people and they have opportunities, maybe fewer would commit the crimes."

In that regard, he adds, public transportation like the Triangle's pending $250 million, 35-mile regional rail system, does more than move people. "Transit has to create opportunities within a community, not just for one set of people, but all," he says. "Transit allows low-income people to have more opportunity, for instance, to take jobs that were previously inaccessible to them."

Weisiger has a direct stake in such issues. Now in its 73rd year, Carolina Tractor's future is as solidly linked to the economic health of the Carolinas as its past has been. Its customers construction, transportation, warehousing and distribution are vanguards of the economy. Consider trucks, many of which are powered by Caterpillar diesels sold and serviced by his company.

"Trucking is the '80 percent industry,' because 80 percent of everything you use, eat, touch or see comes by truck," says Peters, the trucking association president. Economists use trucking as a leading indicator because volume rises or falls six months before trends show up in the overall economy. "Ed's got a firm grasp of the importance of trucking to the state," adds Peters. "He supports us on the issues that affect us."

Weisiger, both as president of Carolina Tractor and in his role as developer with Beacon Partners, considers the future bright. Although shy of 40, he nevertheless is astounded by the pace of change. He compares it to 1971 when his family and Carolina Tractor moved to Charlotte from Salisbury.

The Research Triangle Park was in its infancy. Charlotte's small airport was served by now-defunct Eastern Airlines. The state had two interstate highways I-85, I-95 and part of I-40 compared to five today with a sixth under way.

Now, after a two-year lag in highway spending, officials of the Carolinas AGC predict that new federal appropriations, coupled with a backlog from the state's largely unspent, $900 million 1996 highway bonds, could push road building to record levels for the next five years. Piedmont Triad International Airport in April landed a $300 million Federal Express freight hub that will necessitate $130 million in runway construction, and Charlotte/Douglas International Airport is completing an environmental impact study for an expansion that will top $300 million in the next 15 years.

"If you roll the clock back to 1971, there was no pro basketball, pro football or even liquor by the drink," says Weisiger. "You couldn't go into a restaurant and have a drink with a meal. If you tell people that today, they're bowled over."

But he keeps the avalanche of change in perspective. "A lot of that has been what I call superficial change," he says. "The rate of church growth seems to me to have kept up with the rate of office-building growth. Some of the underlying traits that make all of this work a spirit of making things better, of community values haven't changed much at all.

COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL. This article first appeared in the February 1999 issue of the North Carolina Magazine

Edward I. Weisiger Jr.

President and CEO

Carolina Tractor & Equipment Co.

Principal and Founder

Beacon Partners

Business address: 9000 Statesville Rd., Charlotte, N.C. 28269. Telephone 704-596-6700

Born: May 1, 1960, in Salisbury.

Family: Wife, Lisa; daughters Amanda, 9; Marshall, 5; Grace, 3.

Education: N.C. State University bachelor of science degree in industrial engineering, 1982; Harvard Graduate School of Business master's degree, 1986.

Career milestones: 1982-1988; consulting engineer, Tompkins Associates, Raleigh; real estate developer intern, Westchase Development Corp., Raleigh, Trammell Crow Co., Atlanta; 1988 to present, president and CEO, Carolina Tractor.

Professional affiliations: Chairman, Charlotte Chamber of Commerce public policy group; executive committee member, Charlotte Chamber; board member, N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry, N.C. Engineering Foundation, First Union National Bank, N.C. Trucking Association; former president, Southeast Caterpillar Dealer Association; member, Young President's Association.

Community service: Elder, Myers Park Presbyterian Church, Charlotte; board member, UNC-Charlotte Foundation, Discovery Place, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center; board of advisors, Charlotte Central YMCA; former board member, YMCA Camp Thunderbird, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences Society; advisory council, Woodberry Forest School.

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