Where Are They Now?: The Group

Once upon a time in a very different Charlotte, there was a bunch of powerful men who became known as The Group. Some called them the Titans or the White Guys, for obvious reasons. It included iconic characters like John Belk, Ed Crutchfield, Bill Lee, Hugh McColl Jr., and Rolfe Neill.

The Group, left to right: Bill Lee, Ed Crutchfield, Rolfe Neill, John Belk, Hugh McColl Jr. / The Gang of Five: Joel Carter, Tom Bush, Hoyle Martin, George Higgins, Bill James.

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More than twenty years ago, they'd get together every now and then, sometimes for lunch and the Lance snack food plant on South Boulevard (long-retired Lance boss A.F. "Pete" Sloan was part of The Group). They'd talk about what to do about some hot issue unfolding at the time, or, as member John Crosland recalls, "We would meet and … discuss what was going on in Charlotte."

But you can't address Where Are They Now? until you address Exactly What Did They Do Then? And on that last one, there's little consensus other than what Crosland remembers: they met. They talked. They returned to their civic thrones.

The Group's gone, of course. Department store magnate (and former mayor) John Belk and Duke Power head Bill Lee died. First Union's Ed Crutchfield, a cancer survivor, retired from the bank and spends a lot of time in Florida, though he's an operating partner in a private equity firm in Charlotte. Crosland, eight-one, chairman emeritus of the real estate development company his father founded, still lives in Charlotte.

Friends say his health isn't great. Former Charlotte Observer publisher Rolfe Neill serves on a few boards but admits much of his retirement is happily spent "reading, reading, reading." Former Bank of America head Hugh McColl Jr. has an investment bank called McColl Partners, founded McColl Center for the Visual Art on North Tryon Street, owns the gallery McColl Fine Art on East Boulevard, and his private equity firm is a major investor in Bojangles'.

Neill, seventy-seven, says The Group's influence was "highly overrated" by reporters who kept the story going because they loved the notion that these big shots could decide what's best for Charlotte over a meat-and-three. The real poop? Neill says they met a couple of times a year on an on-call basis to informally discuss a particular issue. He offered this example: there were rumblings about Sears possibly wanting out of Chicago; what could they do to lure it Charlotte? They didn't get into endorsing political candidates, Neill says. They did what power brokers everywhere do (Boston's bigwigs met in a bank and were known as the Vault): "The people who had power through their institutions were always getting together."

Carla DuPuy, former chairperson of the county commission, says she doubts The Group could exist in the Charlotte of 2010. The city's too big and too diverse, she says. Many of its most influential business leaders don't even live here, which means they don't go to church or cocktail parties in Myers Park or talk business over their children's soccer games at the Y.

That said, the occasional consultant and grandmother of four still sometimes longs for the good old days. "It sure was a lot easier in the old days," DuPuy says, "when you knew who you could count on."

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