On the road in and around Charlotte, North Carolina:

Lance Co.

About 15 miles south of downtown Charlotte on a 275-acre site, I find the headquarters of Lance--a snack foods and bakery products manufacturer (1991 revenues $450 million). From the guard gate I see several huge buildings on the property. The biggest is a plant/office building with 670,000 square feet. I find out later that all the buildings on the site total 847,800 square feet. There's also a big water tower with the name Lance on it.

Bill Disher, CEO, has been out recently with a bad back so his secretary, Doris Baucon, meets me in the small lobby to find out what I'm up to. During our conversation I mention how impressed

I am that James Stephens, Assistant Secretary at nearby Ruddick Corp., has been with Ruddick 46 years. Baucon smiles leans over and whispers: "I've been with Lance 49 years." Whew!

Baucon introduces me to Thomas Horack, CFO, who answers my questions. He tells me about 1,600 people work in the complex. Of these, 150 work in the two-story brick administrative building built in 1962.

There's nothing fancy about Disher's (CEO) office. I notice a big glass jar filled with Lance snacks on his desk. I see more Lance snacks on a coffee table outside the executive offices.

Someone brings in these snacks every day direct from the company's production lines. This way the executives can keep tabs on quality and make sure everything's up to snuff. That explains the

messy-looking pile of wrappers in the reception area.

Horack and Paul Stroup, III, Executive Vice President, walk me to the cafeteria so I can see for myself if Lance products are being served. They are.

When I get ready to leave, Doris Baucon catches up with me and gives me a spiffy Lance T-shirt along with a big box of Lance products. She's great. It's easy to see how this classy woman has lasted here for 49 years. (For more information: LNCE)

Royal Group, Inc.

Though Royal Group, Inc., (operating in the U.S. as Royal Insurance) is a subsidiary of London-based Royal Insurance Holdings PLC, I decide to visit the company because its 1991 revenues of $1.6 billion and $5.3 billion in assets make it a biggie.

Headquarters is about 12 miles southwest of downtown Charlotte on a company-owned, 40-acre site inside an office park. Interstate 77 is about 200 yards away. Built in 1986, the four-story, 340,000 square-foot structure has plenty of recreation facilities: a softball field, volleyball court, weight room, tennis courts, basketball courts and jogging/fitness trails.

I also see a one-and-a half-acre man-made lake with several fountains. The fountains automatically adjust their height to wind velocity. This keeps people from getting sprayed with water.

Though I show up at 4:45 PM on a Friday afternoon and Gaetano Staffa, Corporate Relations Manager, has no advance knowledge of my visit, he's very accommodating. He takes me on a tour. The main lobby, which features a three- story-high barrel vault ceiling, is impressive. Staffa says about 1,200 employees work in the place. When employees dine in the company cafeteria, they can choose to sit inside or outside by the lake. Nice.

The executive dining room is called the "Pine Room". Staffa doesn't know where the name originally came from but it was called The Pine Room in New York City and they decided not to change the name when they moved. Royal was based in New York City from 1851 to 1986. The company moved to Charlotte to cut costs.

William Buckley, CEO, has a trout mounted on his wall (which he caught) along with one real and one fake cactus. The boardroom contains a grandfather clock, a mahogany boardroom table and two brass chandeliers--all brought from the former headquarters in New York City.

The company has two corporate aircraft--a Citation 5 and a King Air.

Since Staffa has been with the company over 10 years, he has worked for Royal in both cities. I ask him about the differences between life in Charlotte and life in New York City. He has the best of both worlds, he explains. He still has his home in the Big Apple plus an apartment in Charlotte.

Family Dollar Stores

It's Monday morning and I'm raring to go. I'm off to Family Dollar Stores (1991 revenues $989 million). The company's mailing address is a post office box in Charlotte but its headquarters are about 20 miles southeast of Charlotte in the suburb of Mathews.

Headquarters looks like a white two-story office building attached to a huge warehouse/distribution center. When I enter the lobby area I immediately run up against two receptionists sitting behind a desk elevated about SIX feet above the floor. The two of them are wearing those stupid phone headsets. They look right at me and say, "can I help you?" I start to answer but it turns out they're talking to someone on the phone. Irritating for sure. These

receptionists aren't very friendly even when I finally get their attention. I wonder if the reason the desk is so high above the floor is to intimidate people and bully them into submission.

My great Monday is feeling less great by the second. One of the receptionists calls the CEO's secretary to find someone to talk with me. After a brief conversation, she turns back to me and says

there's no sign of my materials and no one is available to talk to me--the infamous run-around.

As a last ditch maneuver, I ask the receptionist to call the CEO's secretary again and mention I had a large write-up in the "Charlotte Observer" (Charlotte's local paper) over the weekend.

This seems to do the trick. This time the CEO's secretary tells the receptionist that someone will be down shortly to meet with me.

So I wait. Then, after several more minutes, the receptionist calls me over and tells me that no one will be down after all. As I'm leaving, I overhear a woman say to the receptionist, "Hey,

isn't that the guy who was in the newspaper?" (For more information: FDO)

Hendrick Management

Hendrick Management, a privately held company, owns car dealerships around the country. Rick Hendrick is the 42-year-old founder of the company. I talk to his assistant, Steve Matchett.

Matchett tells me revenues were $800 million in 1991 and about $1 billion are anticipated for 1992.

Headquarters is an unmarked three-story building about five miles southeast of downtown Charlotte. Hendrick Management owns the building and occupies most of the first floor. The building used to be a regional zone office for Chevrolet. Several blocks down the street is one of the company's dealerships.

Rick Hendrick has the company's only reserved parking spot. There's a small sign in front of the parking slot with his name on it. Matchett says they've thought about removing the sign

because of the "crazy" people out there. I check to see what Hendrick drives--a Lexus.

Hendrick's corner office is very plain except for the Charlotte Hornets basketball--Hendrick used to be part owner of the team. On one wall I spot the original artwork for the Charlotte Hornets' logo.

My tour also includes one of the conference rooms called "The War Room." Approximately 35 employees work in the offices. The company has a lot of air power. It owns two King Air aircraft and shares a Hawker-Siddley, a Lear jet and a Falcon.

I ask Matchett why the company chose Charlotte for its base. The answer is simple--Hendrick lives here.

Nucor Corp.

I'm not expecting to find anything fancy at steel manufacturer

Nucor Corporation (1991 revenues $1.5 billion). All the articles I've read about the company mention the company's small, lean administrative staff.

Sure enough, the company occupies part of the first floor of a four-story office building located 10 miles south of downtown Charlotte. The building is called the Arnold Palmer Building. Arnold Palmer (the golfer) also has a big Cadillac dealership in Charlotte. SouthPark, the city's upscale shopping mall, is a block away from Nucor's offices.

Kenneth Iverson tells me he's been the company's CEO for 30 years. In that time he's seen Nucor go from $20 million in revenues to $1.5 billion.

Twenty-two employees now work in this location and no one gets a reserved parking spot. The total number of employees is about 5,600 in all the company's locations.

The company has operations in many out-of-the-way places: Norfolk, Nebraska; Hickman, Arkansas; Plymouth, Utah; Waterloo, Indiana; Fort Payne, Alabama; Florence, South Carolina to name a few. Seems it could easily justify having corporate aircraft but it doesn't.

Iverson's corner office contains a large Japanese mural from the 1800's and a photograph (taken by Iverson, himself) of his pet black swan named Jessica. Iverson gives me a copy of the company's latest annual report. It has an unusual front and back cover. For the past six years, Nucor has puts every employee's name on its annual report's covers. With over 5,600 employees you can imagine how tiny the print is. (For more information: NUE)

Coca Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated

About a block away from Nucor in a five-story building is Coca-Cola Bottling Company Consolidated (1991 revenues $465 million). The place is easy to find because there's a big Coca-Cola sign on the building.

I check the building directory when I walk in and find out there are other tenants in the place. The receptionist on the first floor connects me to someone in public relations. That person

proceeds to inform me that all the "top people" are out of the office and "no one else has time for you." Well. I guess that's what you call the "real thing."

I do find out from the receptionist that the company occupies about 90% of the building.

On my first trek around the U.S. I visited Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta and received a horrible reception. It's the only company I've ever visited that required me to sign a release

form stating I agreed not to quote anyone I had talked to without clearance from them. A gag order of sorts. (For more information: COKE)

And now on to Salisbury...

Food Lion

Salisbury (population 22,000) is about 50 miles south of Greensboro and 35 miles north of Charlotte. About two miles from downtown Salisbury is the six story, company-owned headquarters of Food Lion (1991 revenues $6.4 billion). Originally built with two stories, four floors were added in 1988.

The lobby/reception area contains 10 leather chairs, a picture of Ralph Ketner (co-founder) on the wall and two receptionists manning the phones.

I meet with Mike Mozingo, Corporate Communications Manager and Brad Cartner, Assistant Corporate Communications Manager. My request to see the boardroom and the CEO's office is denied because Tom Smith, CEO, is in a meeting.

About 700 employees work in the place, which has no cafeteria. There's a distribution center on the headquarter's site which brings the total square footage to 1.2 million square feet.

Rowan County Airport is two miles away and the company has two

planes; a Beech Jet 400 and an Aero Commander. The company has named all its conference rooms after states where they do business. (For more information see: FDLNA)

On the road in and around Greensboro, North Carolina:

LADD Furniture

About 15 miles southwest of Greensboro is the town of High Point (population 65,000)--the Furniture Capital of the World. Twice a year High Point hosts the largest furniture trade show in

the world, called the International Home Furnishings Market.

Did you know over half of all American bedroom and dining room sets are made in North Carolina? This explains why downtown High Point has enormous 10-story, fortress-type buildings that cover entire city blocks. They house the over eight million square feet of furniture showroom space in High Point.

LADD Furniture occupies the third floor and two other floors in an eight-story building in downtown High Point. LADD is the fourth largest residential furniture maker in the country (behind Masco, Interco and La-Z-Boy). Revenues in 1991 were $429 million.

John Ong, Director: Corporate Communications, tells me the company's name is an acronym of the three original furniture companies--Lea, American Drew and Daystrom.

About 110 employees work on the three floors. Walking into the office of Don Hunziker, Chairman Emeritus, Ong helps me turn over several of the chairs so I can see if they are LADD's own brands. Yep, they are.

I also check Hunziker's office plants to see if they're real or fake. They're real. Ong says Hunziker calls fake plants, "permanent botanicals". I ask Ong why the company lost $12 million last year. He said when times get tough, people put off buying new furniture. (For more information see: LADF)

Thomas Built Buses

About two miles from downtown High Point and next to the railroad tracks is the two-story, company-owned headquarters of privately-held Thomas Built Buses. In the early 1900's, the company made streetcars including the one used in the movie of Tennessee Williams' play "Streetcar Named Desire." That's why the company is located next to the railroad tracks.

Headquarters spreads over 174 acres. Thomas builds school buses. The company is #2 in the industry behind Blue Bird Co. Thomas Built also makes those shuttle buses used by hotels and car

rental firms at airports.

Debra Gray is the receptionist in the small lobby area and she asks me a zillion questions: Where do you sleep? Do you have a girlfriend? Why are you doing this? Do you get lonely? What do you do when it rains? How many miles a day do you ride? What's your favorite state? Do you get scared? Jeez, she'd make a great interrogator or a great reporter. (Just in case you too have

wondered--when it rains, I get wet.)

I find the following magazines on the coffee table: "Glamour", "McCalls", "US" and "Guideposts."

Ron Moore, Manager of Support Services, tells me more than 950 employees work in the company's complex of buildings. Moore won't say what the company's revenues are but when I tell him companies have to have at least $300 million in revenues to make my list he does acknowledge his company qualifies for inclusion on the list.

John Thomas, Jr., CEO, isn't in but I check out his office. He spends his time in a windowless, cheap-looking, wood-paneled office in the middle of the second floor. I discover that the 65-year-old Thomas is an avid duck hunter. He has a collection of duck postage stamps on his wall. Next to each stamp (I count 23 in all), is a framed and signed sketch of the stamp by the artist. Thomas also

has a New York Mets baseball cap on his desk.

Thomas's secretary tells me Thomas was recently named National Commissioner of the Boy Scouts. I'm a former Boy Scout--I'm impressed.

A fable about newspaper vending machines...

One of my favorite sayings is: what goes around comes around.

Here's a classic example: I'm avid reader of newspapers and I have this routine. Every

morning I try to find newspaper vending machines and pick up the "Wall Street Journal", "USA Today", "The New York Times" (if available) and the local newspaper. Now over the years these

stupid vending machines have swallowed my money countless times, either without giving up a paper or giving me yesterday's paper.

So, here in North Carolina, my morning starts out miraculously when I put my three quarters into a "Wall Street Journal" vending machine. First of all I receive my newspaper and it's the correct edition. BUT, here's the miracle--$1.75 in quarters comes tumbling out of the coin return slot.

Now elated as I am I don't lose touch with reality. If I tally the score over the last few years, the newspaper vending machines are still many dollars ahead even after today's bonus. But I get a

smug feeling of justice, all the same, since I prevail, for today at least.

Happy end of story? Not quite. I plan to be on the road all day so I strap the newspapers on my bike's rear saddlebags and figure I'll read them this evening when I get back to my hotel. I

arrive at my destination about 5 p.m. still feeling triumphant about my free newspapers. I go into the hotel lobby to check-in. When I return to the parking lot to unload my bike for the night, I discover someone has stolen my newspapers. Aaaghhh!

It costs me 75 cents for another "Wall Street Journal", 50 cents for "USA Today" and 50 cents for the "Greensboro News-Record" bringing my replacement total to $1.75. Life isn't fair.

Jefferson-Pilot Corp.

It's easy to spot the headquarters building of Jefferson-Pilot Corporation, an insurance holding company, because the company- owned, 20-story building is the tallest in downtown Greensboro. Built in 1990, it contains 385,000 square feet of space. Connected

to it is the 232,000 square-foot Jefferson Standard building. Jefferson-Pilot (1991 revenues $1.2 billion) is the result of a merger a few years ago between Jefferson Standard and Pilot.

The building reminds me of several state capitols I've visited. The entrance takes you under a beautiful five-story rotunda. Arnold Culbreth, Jr., Vice President: Advertising & Creative

Services, tells me about 1,200 employees work in the two buildings. The 19th and 20th floors are leased out to the "City Club"--a private dining facility for the movers and shakers of the local

business community.

I find out the current CEO, Roger Soles, will retire in March. Turns out the new CEO is already aboard. Culbreth won't show me Soles' office and the boardroom because right now is an "awkward" time--whatever that means.

I ask Culbreth if there's anything unusual about the building. He tells me the 10th floor has no men's room. Why? Because the 10th is where claim forms are processed. Since the overwhelming majority of employees on that floor are female, the company decided it made more sense to put additional women's restrooms on the 10th floor and have the few men on 10 seek out another floor.

The company has one corporate aircraft: a Beech King Air. (For more information see: JP)

Cone Mills

With revenues in 1991 of over $700 million, Cone Mills is the world's largest maker of denim. Cone went private in 1984 via a LBO to avert a hostile takeover.

Headquarters is in a residential area about a mile from downtown Greensboro. The three-story brick building was built sometime in the 1940's and looks middle-aged. Headquarters is

located on the site of the company's first Greensboro textile plant build 100 years ago.

I meet with Frank Fary, Jr., Manager: Public Relations, across the street from headquarters in the Annex Building (which used to be a company-built YMCA.)

About 500 employees work in three buildings (there's also a technical/research building) and there's no cafeteria. J. Patrick Danahy, CEO, and Dewey Trogdon, Chairmen, aren't in but I check out their plainly-furnished, second-floor offices. Looking out the windows of their side by side offices I get a dazzling view of the parking lot.

One of the books on the coffee table in Danahy's office is "Oh!, The Places You'll Go" by that well-known business management guru Dr. Seuss. It's not the first time I've seen Dr. Seuss in a

CEO's office. Tom Page, CEO of San Diego Gas & Electric, has quite a few of the good doctor's books in his office.

Guilford Mills

Boy, it sure is a waste of time visiting Guilford Mills, the world's largest producer of warp knit fabrics (1991 revenues $529 million).

Corporate offices are about five miles from downtown Greensboro in a 1960's-looking red brick building. A mill/plant is connected to the place. The two receptionists are indifferent and

tell me everyone is out to lunch. Including the company's decorator, I'm forced to conclude while I wait in the lobby. There are several of these large couches with pillows. The pillows are off-white and have these brown circle patterns on them. These brown circles look like soda and coffee stains; the entire effect is remarkably unappealing. In addition I spot several large dirt spots on the carpeting. Altogether less than pleasing to the eye.

After one-and-a-half hours waiting, the receptionists update their story and tell me all the executives (including the CEO's secretary) are attending an all-day meeting at a nearby hotel. Did

they forget? Did they not know? Are they mushrooms? You decide. (For more information see: GFD)


About two miles from the airport and six miles from downtown Greensboro is the one-story headquarters of Unifi. In 1991 Unifi acquired privately-held Macfield. As a result the company is one of the world's largest (if not the largest) texturizers and dyers of polyester and nylon filament fibers. It had revenues last year of $1 billion.

As a consumer you don't deal with Unifi. Its products are used in draperies, tents, automotive fabrics, ladies sheer hosiery, swim wear and home upholstery.

Headquarters was built in 1971 and was renovated last year. William Kretzer (CEO) meets with me in his windowless office. Kretzer tells me the company leases the building and about 150

employees work in the place. Nobody gets reserved parking spots, he adds, and none of the executives have offices with windows.

The company flies three corporate aircraft: a Falcon 50, a King Air 200 and a King Air 300.

I notice two very unusual pictures on the wall behind Kretzer's desk. One is a framed picture of a derelict sprawled out in a gutter. Kretzer explains that a good friend gave it to him on

his 40th birthday. Kretzer plans to give it to his son on his 40th birthday; then Kretzer's son must give it to the friend's son on his 40th.

I forgot to mention--Kretzer is a very tall man. He must be between 6"5' and 6"7'. The other picture I notice is a funny picture of him with his college basketball buddies standing in a

circle on a basketball floor. The guys are smiling and are all looking at the camera. So what's funny? They're all wearing jock straps--only jock straps. (For more information see: UFI)

Glen Raven Mills

About 20 miles east of Greensboro is the quiet little town of Glen Raven--population under 500. The town is home to privately- held Glen Raven Mills--the company who invented panty hose.

The company-owned, four-story headquarters, recently completed in 1991, is connected to the former headquarters building. The older building is a circular brick structure built in 1960 and

called, appropriately enough, the Round Building.

I meet with Edmund Gant, Jr. (he's in his mid-20's), Public and Employee Relations Coordinator. He's the son of Edmund Gant, Chairman, and great-grandson of J.Q. Gant--the company's founder. Gant, Jr.'s uncle is the president (Allen Gant).

About 100 employees work in the place and in the big company plant next to headquarters. In the lobby/reception area is a portrait of J.Q. Gant, who founded the company in 1880. On a wall near the executive offices is a collection of paintings and drawings of ravens; ravens are part of the company's logo.

Allen Gant's corner office has a view of the railroad tracks. It also has an eclectic collection of stuff including three pictures of eagles, six wooden ducks, two mounted fish, a two-foot

tall black raven made of wood, a computer and a basketball from the 1982 University North Carolina team--NCAA champs. The basketball is signed by all the players, including Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins.

Edmund Gant's, Chairman, corner office has the same view-- railroad tracks--as his brother. Edmund's office collection includes an international currency collection on one wall, a wood

carving of a pelican and a stork, and a picture painted by his wife.

The last stop on my tour is the room that houses company memorabilia. My favorite item there is a spiffy-looking roll-top desk used by the founder.


I arrive in Rocky Mount (population 40,000) about 12 noon after riding 50 miles from Raleigh. It's 85 degrees outside with 90% humidity. My riding shorts and shirt are soaking wet. Now normally, on a hot muggy day, I change clothes several times a day so I look as presentable as possible when visiting a company. Unfortunately, however, today I'm low on clean clothes so I can't change before I visit the headquarters of Hardee's.

Hardee's has over 4,000 restaurants in 40 states and 10 countries, making it the third largest fast-food hamburger chain in the world. Hardee's (revenues over $4 billion) is a subsidiary of

Imasco Limited, a Canadian conglomerate. I wanted to visit Hardee's because I've already visited most of the other big hamburger chains (McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's).

So, I wait, damply, in the reception area of Hardee's six- story, black-glassed headquarters building, located about a mile and a half from downtown Rocky Mount. Maurice Bridges, Director of Public Affairs, meets me in the lobby. He tells me there's a senior staff meeting going on in the boardroom and invites me to join them. Yeah, great. I sure am dressed for the occasion.

It gets better. Up we go to the sixth floor. The meeting has broken up for a short lunch break but I meet Bob Autry, CEO, and he invites me to sit down in HIS leather chair at the head of the

boardroom table and have lunch while he goes and makes a few calls. I'm sure I'll leave a damp ring on the leather.

Autry's secretary brings me a lunch tray containing a new chicken sourdough sandwich the company is testing, plus a barbecue pork sandwich, Cole slaw, a fudge brownie and one of Hardee's

salads. What else can I do--I sit down and eat.

Now, picture this scene: The boardroom table has about a dozen seats plus the perimeter of the room are about 30 chairs for staff. People are walking in and out and except for the CEO, his secretary and the Public Affairs guy, no one knows who I am. I love watching the puzzled looks on peoples faces when they see me, wearing a sweaty T-shirt and shorts, sitting in the CEO's chair at the head of the boardroom table.

When Autry returns, he calls the meeting to order, introduces me, and lets me have a floor for a few minutes. The boardroom has a crystal ball on a nearby table so I start by talking about the

crystal balls I've seen at three other companies. Then I tell my captive audience about my visit to the boardroom at Best Products in Richmond, Virginia. Best had a beautiful boardroom table. Little

lights were embedded throughout the table. When the overhead lights were turned off then the embedded table lights lit up a crystal ball in middle of the table. Sadly, it seems the crystal ball

didn't help Best Products because they filed for bankruptcy.

About 500 employees work in the headquarters building and an adjacent plant/distribution center. There's no cafeteria, which surprises me. The nearest Hardee's is about half a mile away.

Hardee, the founder, started the company in Rocky Mount. The company has one plane, an eight seat Hawker-Siddley and uses the Rocky Mount-Wilson Airport, located about eight miles away.

Though I spend only about five minutes talking with Autry, I'm very impressed by him and not just because he gives me 20 free coupons for Hardee's Big Deluxes.

Boddie-Noell Enterprises

Down the road about two miles from Hardee's I find the three- story corporate offices of Boddie-Noell Enterprises, the largest privately-owned franchise company of Hardee's restaurants. Boddie-Noell operates over 330 restaurants in seven states, plus it develops shopping centers and builds residential housing.

I meet Bill Boddie, President, in his well-appointed, third- floor corner office. He tells me the company-owned, 45,000 square- foot building was built in 1982 and about 200 employees work in the place.

The five senior executives have reserved parking spots. Or they can use the company's King Air 200 plane and Bell helicopter. Both Boddie and his father (Ben Boddie is CEO) have beautiful

wood floors in their offices. The wood is Heart pine and over 150 years old. When the family painstakingly rebuilt an old plantation home this wood was left over.

Walking into his father's office, Boddie jokes about my habit of making notes on everything. He says, "how do I know you're not the front man for a burglary ring?" Undeterred, I note his father has three dog figurines (he hunts), two wooden duck carvings, three real plants and a picture of Brodie fishing in a 1987 issue of National Geographic.

I ask Boddie "how's business?" He answers, "steady". He would only confirm the company has over $300 million in revenues.

Wilson, North Carolina--World's Largest Tobacco Market

What's Wilson, North Carolina's (population 35,000) claim to fame? It's home to the world's largest tobacco market. From July to November the tobacco market is underway. There are many football- sized warehouses around town filled with tobacco. It's unbelievable. The smell of curing tobacco hangs in the air all over town. It reminds me of my visit to Hershey Corporation in Hershey, PA where the intoxicating smell of chocolate follows you everywhere.

Standard Commercial Corp.

Standard Commercial Corporation (1991 revenues: $1.2 billion) is one of the world's largest leaf tobacco dealers. Standard plays middleman. It buys tobacco from farmers and

sells it to tobacco manufacturers such as R. J. Reynolds and American Tobacco Company. Standard Commercial is also in the wool business, playing middleman between sheep farmers and

manufacturers. In fact, over $300 million of the company's $1.2 billion in revenues come from wool.

It's no surprise to find the company's two-story, company- owned headquarters building a block away from a tobacco warehouse. Built in 1965, headquarters is located about three miles from

downtown. It's situated on an 42-acre site with a 100,000 square-foot warehouse and processing plant--18 acres under one roof--next door.

The lobby/reception area has three signs that say: "Smoking is welcomed." I tell Barbara, the receptionist, that when I visited Universal Leaf Tobacco Company in Richmond, Virginia, the sign on the receptionist's desk read: "Thank you for smoking." Barbara says Standard used to have those signs too but it confused people. They thought it said "Thank you for NOT smoking." She also tells me, while lighting a cigarette, that she designed the current signs.

A. Winniett Peters, Director and Chairman of the Board, comes down to the reception area to meet me and then takes me into a nearby conference room. Standing guard outside this room is a six-foot tall cigar store Indian. Peters tells me it's over 150 years old. A by now familiar sign on the conference table reads "Smoking is welcomed."

About 250 employees work in the complex year round, but during tobacco season that number jumps to 650. I ask Peters if I can see J. Alec Murray's office (he's the CEO). Turns out he's based in London and doesn't have an office here. Peters does take me upstairs and introduces me to Marvin Coghill, President and COO (who's smoking a cigarette.)

I talk to Peters about the future of tobacco. He tells me the potential for sales growth in China and Russia is enormous since the tobacco currently sold there is low quality. (For more information see: STW)

BB&T Financial Corp.

Right smack in downtown Wilson sit two massive seven-story glass buildings. Although connected, separately each is 121,000 square foot. The first, which houses the executive offices, was built in 1971 and the other in 1985. I've visited over 100 banks by now and I have to award BB&T Financial, with over $6 billion in assets, the honors for biggest bank headquartered in smallest town.

When I told A.W Peters at Commercial Standard that I planned to visit BB&T Financial Corporation (1991 revenues $510 million) after my meeting with him, he told me I probably wouldn't meet John Allison, IV, BB&T's CEO, because he just returned from a directors' meeting in Pinehurst. How did Peters know that, I wanted to know. Turns out Peters is on BB&T's Board of Directors and he was at the same meeting.

I meet with Russell Thompson, Jr., Senior Vice President, in his small spartan office. Thompson has been with the bank 39 years. He is a very personable guy but he has this annoying habit of

saying "yes sir" to everything I say. Thompson says 880 employees work in the two buildings and there's no cafeteria. EVERYONE gets a reserved parking spot and the boardroom on the sixth floor is shaped like a horseshoe. BB&T stands for Branch Banking & Trust and there was a Mr. Branch who founded the company. The company has one plane--a King Air.

After this rundown, Thompson takes me up to the 7th floor to see the CEO's office. Allison has his door closed, however, which signals I'm out of luck. (For more information see: BBTF)

A Conversation with an Ex-Tobacco Farmer

Riding along a country road about 30 miles from Wilson, I spot two old guys by the side of the road sitting on stools, who look like they might be tying tobacco. When I was in Wilson I picked up

a brochure on an upcoming tobacco festival. I noticed some of the festivities included tobacco tying, tobacco spitting, tobacco worm squirm race, amateur auctioneer contest and tobacco arrangements. Now I've never seen tobacco tied so I stop to see if this is what these guys are doing.

Nope. Bill Harper, 77 years old, and his friend are not tying tobacco, not even close. They're picking peanuts off of bushels they have just harvested. I don't know about you but I never knew

peanuts grew on bushels beneath the ground. So I spend an interesting half hour talking with Harper; who knows what else I might learn!

I also take pictures of Harper's 70-year old tobacco curing barn. He graciously lets me sample the five varieties of grapes he's growing and proudly points out his pecan trees, blueberry bushes, home-grown potatoes and Vidalia onions.

According to Harper, who strikes me as an authority, the best ham in the world is by Smithfield because its pigs are fed peanuts. Harper tells me he used to be a tobacco farmer but these days he

leases out his 150 tobacco acres to his nephew.

"Do you or did you ever smoke", I ask him. "Nope" he replies. "Why not", I ask. "Too much poison," Harper says. "Before you plant tobacco you have to spray the ground with pesticides and then spray it another four or five times while it's growing." Too much poison, indeed.