Leading North Carolina is a series focused on telling the stories of the Research Triangle Foundation’s Board of Directors. Each of these individuals has a unique background, which helps them collectively lead the Research Triangle Park on a successful path towards redevelopment.
Walter McDowell is a dynamo. “I’m not a visionary. I’m not a real estate expert, but I do know how to get things done,” says Walter, the chairman of the Business for Education Success and Transformation North Carolina known as BEST NC.
The Winston-Salem native is also a retired Wachovia executive. In 2007, shortly after leaving 34-years of banking, he became involved in educational issues in his hometown. Walter chaired the Community Education Collaborative to help at-risk children from kindergarten through 12th grade get the help they needed. During his four-year tenure, the program served 4,000 students annually.
“That’s when I realized public education was challenged by decisions made in Raleigh,” he says. “That led to my involvement in BEST.”
“We believe that we need stronger outcomes in public education,” he said. “We want to lift the children of North Carolina and public education to a better place. We think that stronger public education outcomes will accelerate job growth and spur economic development.”
According to a January 2015 issue brief by the Hunt Institute, “Education for a Stronger North Carolina,” 45 percent of North Carolina employers had difficulty in hiring appropriately-skilled workers in 2013. Many applicants lacked technical skills or educational credentials for the vacant positions.
“Education is directly connected to employment and economic prosperity,” Walter says. “BEST is simply bringing the voice of the business leader to the table in public education.”
Walter employs his leadership skills from BEST and banking to the RTF board.
Jack Clayton, the executive vice president and regional president of Wells Fargo, describes Walter as a “high energy” person “who is always outwardly focused on improving whatever he’s working on.”
Mr. Clayton says Walter was his boss twice during his years in banking. He says Walter would set yearly goals and, when his team met the goal by mid-year, he would stretch them a little bit further.
“He’s an arranger, he makes things happen. He knows who the people are, the steps needed and he makes it happen by sheer perseverance and excitement. He helps others catch the vision.”
Since former Wachovia Bank Chairman Archie Davis was one of the founders of Research Triangle Park, Wachovia Bank (now Wells Fargo) and RTF have always shared close ties. A Wachovia executive has always served on the RTF board.
Walter worked for Mr. Davis at Wachovia. Mr. Davis made RTP famous for large, global companies locating in the Park, most notably IBM. “We grew up selling large parcels of land to huge global companies that employed thousands of people,” Walter explains. “But now the world has changed. The world started changing in the ’90s. It became apparent to those of us on the board that we had to reinvent ourselves.”
The success of the Park going forward will be dramatically different than it has been in the past, he explains. The next generation of Park companies and workers are looking for more amenities and services.
Walter believes that the changing faces of the RTF board will help shape that dynamic future. For decades, the board was dominated by white males, he explains. “We have improved gender, race, and resume diversity. We have fertilized the board with a more diverse array of talent and experience than we had in the past. Any organization needs to understand who its customers are. Our customers were IBM like companies…but now are customers are smaller entrepreneurial companies. We need folks who understand the innovative customer.”
“When we hired [RTF President] Bob, we were going 20 mph and now we are going 60 mph… Bob Geolas and Liz Rooks (RTF executive vice president) have just accelerated our progress.”
“I represent the spirit of Wachovia. I represent Archie Davis, Robert Hanes and John Medlin. I represent the history, but I’m pragmatic enough to know we have to change. I’m a little bit of a bridge from the past to the future.”