Thom Tillis Is the Strategist
In a dozen years, Tillis went from IT pro and volunteer youth sports coach to the state’s Speaker of the House. Now, after leading the Republican Party to an unapologetic romp in this year’s legislative session, he’s after an even bigger prize
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From an early age, Tillis hustled. His father, Thomas Raymond “Ray” Tillis, was a boat draftsman whose work took him from Jacksonville, Fla., where his first son was born on Aug. 30, 1960, to jobs around the country. His mother, Margie, was a stay-at-home mother in the traditional mold. (Tillis has three older sisters and two younger brothers.)
One of his dad’s jobs was in Westwego, La., on the west side of the Mississippi River and just upriver from New Orleans. It’s home to Avondale Shipyard, which was one of the nation’s largest and most active shipbuilding companies. It was there that young Tillis began looking for creative ways to earn money. One of his neighbors was an elderly woman who said she needed her cat walked. So Tillis did it in exchange for cash or, if that was short, biscuits. “Who walks cats?” his sisters and brothers asked him. “Anybody who wants to make some money,” he replied.
The Tillis kids had to make the most of short stays in temporary homes. The family, Tillis says, moved 20 times by his 17th birthday, shuttling a few times between Westwego and Jacksonville as available work dictated. He never attended the same elementary school two years in a row. His first real stability came in his teen years, when the family settled in the Nashville area. Tillis was student body president in his senior year at Antioch High School, and when he graduated in 1978, his classmates had voted him most likely to succeed.
The itinerant childhood wasn’t ideal, Tillis says, but it did teach him how to adapt to unfamiliar territory. “In my case, it was really a great experience, because it put me in a situation where, year to year, I had a new set of friends, new set of teachers, new set of priorities, new community,” he says. “And frankly, it probably laid the groundwork for me to have a successful career in consulting, because that’s how consulting works. You have a new job every nine months to a year. And when you come here, it’s the same thing. In the legislature, every day, it’s something new.”
After his high school graduation, Tillis chose not to go to college, taking a job instead at a Nashville-area records warehouse. Just 17, he hated it. So he fed his growing interest in technology with courses at local technical schools. In 1981, he moved to Chattanooga to work as a records management specialist for an insurance company, where he took classes at a local community college while helping his boss with a massive and tedious task: indexing and cataloguing thousands of records into a mainframe computer, a cumbersome project for the early 1980s. But he excelled at the task.
His work on that and other jobs for the insurance company led to a project development job in Boston with the now-defunct computer company Wang, which transferred him back to Chattanooga, then Atlanta. In 1990, PriceWaterhouse, the international accounting and consulting firm, recruited Tillis. He spent the next 12 years in a variety of systems and operational management roles while living in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.
He made partner in 1996, the same year he finally earned a bachelor’s degree in technology management from the University of Maryland. By then, one of his major clients was Charlotte-based NationsBank, which in 1998 absorbed San Francisco’s BankAmerica to form Bank of America. That was also the year Tillis decided he’d moved enough. He, his wife, Susan, and their two children settled in Cornelius.
Systems implementation and management is exacting, often tedious, work. But it provided Tillis with ideal training for some of his most important later accomplishments, such as effectively managing the often-unruly 120-member N.C. House and helping guide Republican legislative campaigns throughout the state.
“I’ve been in the room with him on business things, and he’s very, very smart,” says Dave Gilroy, a financial consultant and friend who took Tillis’s seat on the Cornelius town board when Tillis stepped down to run for N.C. House. “When you’re trying to work with banks at a senior level, and when you’re doing that on behalf of IBM, you’ve got to be pretty smart.”
Tillis landed at IBM in 2002, when PricewaterhouseCoopers, as it was called by then, sold its management consulting arm to the computer giant. Even after his election as the representative of North Carolina’s 98th House district, Tillis stayed with IBM—until April 26, 2009, when, on the verge of earning a half-million per year, he left to concentrate on a new project.
It was a more public but less lucrative opportunity to put his organizational and leadership skills to use: The N.C. House Republican Caucus needed someone who could lead the party’s attempts to recapture the House for the GOP.
Under “Interests” on Tillis’s LinkedIn page, the last item reads, “Mountain biking, hiking, anything that gets the adrenaline up.” Those things led him into politics.
In 2002, Tillis—a Cornelius resident for only four years—approached town officials about building a beginner’s mountain biking path on undeveloped land off Jetton Road. He thought the project stood a better chance if he had a direct say in it. So he joined the town Parks and Recreation board.
The trail got built, and the experience whetted Tillis’s taste for public office. The next year, he was one of 10 candidates running for five seats on the town Board of Commissioners. The bike trail exposure paid off; Tillis tied for second place with incumbent Jim Bensman. To break the tie, a voter literally pulled Bensman’s name out of a hat. Bensman, as the official second-place winner, won a four-year term on the board. Tillis had to settle for a two-year term.
It turned out to be a momentous draw. Tillis said later that he would have been inclined to serve out the four-year term if he’d won it. The abbreviated term left him room to pursue something else.
N.C. House District 98 is Mecklenburg County’s northernmost, encompassing Davidson, Cornelius, and most of Huntersville, along with the affluent waterfront homes on the southern and southeastern shores of Lake Norman. In a county that leans Democratic, it’s solidly Republican. In 2006, the incumbent was Republican John Rhodes, a Cornelius real estate broker and prickly social conservative known for obstructionist tactics in a majority-Democratic General Assembly. Tillis’s race against him illustrates his businesslike approach to politics—and why he’s able to attract broader support than some of his more hard-right colleagues in the General Assembly.
At a business meeting in 2005, Tillis approached Paul Shumaker, a longtime political consultant for conservative candidates in North Carolina, including U.S. Sen. Richard Burr. Tillis told Shumaker he wanted to talk about a run for state House. The two met a week later at a Cracker Barrel in Statesville to discuss strategy. Shumaker was impressed with Tillis’s immediate grasp of a campaign’s logistical necessities; the political novice spent little time discussing issues.
“He talked about rate of return, burn rate, cash flow, all of that. He’s very process-oriented. Actually, Richard Burr’s a lot like that,” Shumaker says. “There’s a fundamental process to this, and 75 percent of the people who get into politics do not understand the process.”
The Republican primary was May 2, 2006. Tillis trounced the two-term representative, Rhodes, 1,805 votes to 1,061. That won the seat. There was no Democratic challenger in the November general election. Tillis hasn’t had a challenger since.
“Rhodes was clearly a guy who was out of touch with his district,” Shumaker says. “At first, he was attacking Thom for not being a native North Carolinian. Well, our polling showed that over 50 percent of people in that district were from out of state. We just said, ‘Keep saying it.’ Thom Tillis is more reflective of North Carolina today than John Rhodes was. We had a guy who ran on business criteria and solving problems instead of just obstructing the majority.”
The race was a watershed for both candidates. Shumaker stayed in touch with Tillis and now is advising the speaker in his U.S. Senate campaign.
Rhodes declined to comment for this story, other than to say, “I don’t participate in anything political anymore.”