As the daughter of an electrician father who worked in a large machine shop and a stay-at-home mother, I was the first in my family to go to college and graduated from Ohio University (Go Bobcats!) in 1972. This was the era of Watergate, and I did temporary work in Charlotte until I found a communications position at J.A. Jones Construction Company. I soon learned that women were not going to advance very far in a family-owned construction business during that era.
Coming to RJR
I came to RJ Reynolds Industries in 1976 to work in employee benefits, writing descriptions of health and welfare plans in layman’s language, per the requirements of the Federal government. Kent Taylor was my supervisor, and he had these writing tests and for applicants to see if they could reason, think, and communicate. I’m not sure they were legal, but I must have passed because they hired me and moved me from Charlotte to Winston-Salem. With a background in journalism, I knew how to write for the “average” reader.
I really didn’t know how big a deal it was to get hired at Reynolds. Our offices were in the old Wachovia Building, and people would stop me in the halls, asking me how I got on with Reynolds. At the time, I found that pretty funny since all I knew was that I applied for the job, interviewed, and was hired. I am so grateful that RJR paid for me to get my MBA at night while working full-time. The company always valued education.
After about two years, I was getting pretty bored writing life insurance and retirement plan descriptions, and I had the opportunity to work for Virgil McBride who was the company’s lobbyist in Raleigh. My responsibility was community relations. Again, I don’t know why I was chosen since I had no experience in community or government relations. This was a newly-created position, so I had a lot of leeway in doing it, especially since Mr. McBride was out-of-town lobbying in Raleigh most of the time.
This position gave me the opportunity to learn much about Winston-Salem and Forsyth County and, actually, the entire State of North Carolina. I spent 11 years representing the company to local and state elected officials and serving on a number of non-profit boards, first representing the holding company, and then, when it was moved to Atlanta, working for R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Once there, my issues were narrowed to smoking and health and tobacco taxes, too narrow a focus for a generalist like myself, so I took one of the first “buy-outs” the company offered in 1987.
In my years at RJR, I saw a company go from one where the average employee had complete faith and trust that the company would do what was best for him or her and for its communities to one of skepticism that many of those at the top did not understand or appreciate the employees or the communities in which they operated.
I remember early on, in an employee meeting at one of the factories, explaining a change in a benefit plan, asking a group of employees if they had any questions, and one man saying, “If this is what the company wants, it’s good for me.” Several years later, I remember being in a meeting in Washington, D.C. with Tylee Wilson and Ross Johnson where Mr. Wilson told us how the merger with Nabisco would be good for everyone. A month or so later, Mr. Wilson was gone, the corporate headquarters was in Atlanta, and the company we once knew was no more.
I remain grateful to those in the company like Virgil McBride, Tylee Wilson and Jerry Long who gave me a chance to represent the company throughout the community and the State. They understood that a healthy company had to look out for its employees, its communities, and its nation. What I learned as leadership changed and the focus became solely on earnings per share and profits, was that while it was possible to do “good” and do well economically if you took the long view, it wasn’t possible if those at the top didn’t share your philosophy.
Working during very difficult circumstances, balancing the needs of one vs. all prepared me well for my time as President and CEO of the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce where I worked from 1989-2017. One of my earliest collaborators was Dr. Doug Maynard, then head of Radiology at Wake Forest, who shared my concern about our changing economy and where our community was headed. Together, we led the redevelopment of the former RJR factory locations downtown into the Innovation Quarter. That project, 20 years in the making, took vision, perseverance, and just plain hard work to fight through or go around the obstacles and those who said it couldn’t be done. By creating alliances with many others throughout our community, we were able to birth what is said to be the largest urban research park in the United States.
Innovation Quarter occupies more than 330 acres in downtown Winston-Salem. Currently, it houses 90 companies, 5 academic institutions, numerous restaurants and bars, and 1,000 apartments and lofts. Also located in the IQ are 1.6 acres of green space and 20 miles of connected greenways. Today, about 3,600 people work there, along with 1,800 degree-seeking students. It is focused on clinical research, business, advanced data analytics, health and education in biomedical science, information technology, digital media, and advanced materials.
How proud those “old-time” Reynolds executives would be that those downtown factories, once centers of innovation in their industry, have come full circle and once again are the sites of thousands of people with visions and dreams for the next Century.
Gayle deserves much praise for her work after leaving RJR. In the twenty-eight years she spent at the Chamber of Commerce, she contributed much to the revitalization of the city. At the beginning of her time there, RJR Nabisco had been sold, and the city’s major business and important benefactor was in disarray. It would have been easy for the community to spiral down, economically and socially, but for the hard work of Gaye and others who have created a vibrant new community and inner-city with a life after RJR.
Winston-Salem will always be home to me. If I can be nostalgic – In 1945 I had lived with my grandparents on a farm in Davie county for the last three years. My parents worked in an aircraft plan in Baltimore, during WWII. After V-E day, they returned home and rented at Wachovia Apartments at First and Spruce Streets. (It still stands.) I went there to live with my parents for the first time in three years. Dad got a job at Western Electric on the night shift, and every evening when the movies changed, Mom and I would walk up to see the movie. There were two theaters (The Forsyth and next door was the Carolina Theater (the Stevens Center now.) My ticket was six cents and popcorn was a nickel. Fourth Street was lively in the evenings with stores open.
On August 15, 1945 the Japanese surrendered and there was an almost spontaneous parade that marched east on Fourth Street. My Mom and I stood at the Corner of Fourth and Spruce and watched that parade. It was my sixth birthday, and of course that was seventy-five years ago.
So time comes full circle. Gayle’s leadership has made a difference. Going through several years when Winston-Salem looked like a city with no future, Fourth Street now has the vibrant feel that it had three-quarters of a century ago. And as Gayle says, the old RJR Tobacco facilities have found a new purpose and a new life. GAH