Mover and Shaker
The third-generation head of
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
Edward I. Weisiger Jr.
President and CEO
Carolina Tractor & Equipment Co.
Principal and Founder
Business address: 9000 Statesville Rd., Charlotte, N.C. 28269.
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