Pillar Awards: Duo’s drive reflects Triangle’s relentless growth

Tim Smith, half of the duo that has built Cary-based Preston Development Co. into one of the most influential real estate development companies in the Triangle and eastern North Carolina, likes to joke that he has been “married” to his business partner, Julian “Bubba” Rawl, for about as long as Rawl has been married to his wife, Barbara.

The newly wed Rawls were on their honeymoon in Europe when Smith tracked the couple down – in pre-cell phone-era 1983 – to ask about a piece of land he wanted to buy from Rawl for a new auto dealership coming to Cary.

Smith and Rawl never ended up building that dealership, but the pair have since collaborated on so many real estate deals, business ventures and misadventures that they can just about finish each other’s sentences.

“I guess we’ve spent about half our entire life together now,” Rawl laughs.

Ticking through a list of early commercial and residential development projects they can remember, there’s the MacGregor West neighborhood and nearby Cary Auto Mall, Preston and nearly all of its neighborhoods, office and retail centers in Cary, Magnolia Woods, Wakefield, Wessex and Weston Estates. There’s also Landfall, The Arboretum, Camden Forest, Shiloh Crossing, Wade, Southlakes and Knightdale Station. To date, Preston Development’s staff of about 10 people is managing properties and investments entwined in 21 limited liability corporations.

“I can’t remember them all,” Smith says. “You’ll have to get Vanessa to help you put together that list,” referring to their longtime assistant and now executive vice president of the company, Vanessa Jenkins, who’s been by their side pretty much since starting the company in 1991.

And, of course, there’s Chatham Park, the nearly 8,000-acre assemblage of land near Pittsboro in Chatham County that Smith and Rawl have been acquiring in pieces since 2006. An approved development plan for Chatham Park includes land for 22,000 new housing units, or enough room for about 60,000 new residents, as well as nearly 2,000 acres of parks and open spaces and 22 million square feet of commercial buildings. Pittsboro has a current population of about 3,800 people.

Construction of Chatham Park’s first buildings, a medical office building and a hospice house managed by UNC Health Care, broke ground in 2015, and additional plans are underway for several small office buildings, a retail center, hotel, apartment building and a Thales Academy. Rawl says construction of the first housing development will begin in late summer 2017.

“We want to change the landscape in Chatham County and do the live-work-play model, which isn’t really implemented anywhere in this region,” Rawl says. He says the rivers, lake and natural setting provide “a unique situation that nobody else has got. … We really like being part of Pittsboro and the village-y feel there for what we feel is the right combination.”

“There’s a lot of pent-up demand in Pittsboro that a lot of people didn’t realize,” Smith adds. “We’re seeking to create a sense of place – something that’s never been done before.”

Smith, 67, grew up in Salisbury and moved to Raleigh to study civil engineering at N.C. State University before starting his own engineering firm in Cary. His father was Wilson Smith, a founder of the Food Town grocery store chain that would later become Food Lion.

Rawl, 64, studied business at East Carolina University, following his father Ed Rawl’s footsteps, a prominent Greenville businessman who was also the first president of the Pirate Club. Bubba Rawl owned a sportswear business that he sold to Nike in 1981 before starting to make investments in real estate and opening the Jellybeans roller skating rinks in Cary and Raleigh.

The duo are also ownership partners with Rick Hendrick in the Toyota of Wilmington and Jeff Gordon Chevrolet auto dealerships in Wilmington, as well as the Southport Marina in Southport and numerous other businesses and investments between the Triangle and the North Carolina coast.

Much of it, though, likely wouldn’t have happened without a fortuitous encounter in 1979. Another N.C. State alum, SAS co-founder Jim Goodnight, had approached Smith about buying a two-acre office lot next to Smith’s engineering firm at the intersection of I-40 and Harrison Avenue for a new office building, which Smith sold to him for $50,000, according to county records.

“He eventually bought two more acres, and two more and eventually bought us out,” Smith said, foreshadowing the more than 1,000 acres that Goodnight and SAS would eventually buy for the SAS headquarters campus in Cary with close to 5,600 employees.

“I eventually sold my engineering company, and over the years we just kept in touch with each other,” Smith says. When the land that would become Prestonwood Country Club came available, Smith approached Goodnight about partnering in the purchase. “I thought it would be a good asset for his employees, and it was good for the town of Cary and citizens of Cary to have a strong person behind the area’s premier country club,” he says. Smith says after they were successful in their sales at Preston, Goodnight backed Smith and Rawl in many of their other real estate projects. “We’re very thankful for his involvement with us,” he says. “We would not be where we are today without Jim Goodnight.”

About the only hard, fast rule Smith and Rawl say they put on each other for projects to pursue is that the property be within a 30-minute ride of their home or office in Cary. Of course, that rule was bent a bit when they started buying into properties in Wilmington, New Bern, Southport and Beaufort, but even those could be justified when they had homes and boats they were keeping at the coast.

“Normally our projects last about three years,” Smith says. “I think with Chatham Park, it’ll be about 40 years. Hopefully we’ll still be here.”

Amanda Hoyle Staff Writer Triangle Business Journal