Erskine Bowles has held a lot of titles during his public- and private-sector career: investment banker, White House chief of staff, political candidate, president of the University of North Carolina system and board member.
And at age 70, the longtime Charlotte resident is still juggling multiple roles.
He spends his time barnstorming the country promoting fiscal responsibility, sits on four corporate boards and serves as a senior adviser for a Chicago-based private equity firm. Plus, he and his wife, businesswoman Crandall Bowles, have nine grandchildren under the age of 10.
“This summer I must have built 200 sandcastles,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s an enjoyable time to be alive.”
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Amid his busy travel schedule, Bowles will be in Charlotte Tuesday to receive the Citizen of the Carolinas award at the Charlotte Chamber’s annual meeting. Past recipients have ranged from evangelist Billy Graham to banker Hugh McColl Jr. to civil rights activist Julius Chambers.
Bowles said the honor reflects the values handed down from his late parents to him and his siblings.
“My Dad always talked about adding to the community woodpile, and he instilled in each of his kids a strong belief that all of us have a responsibility to do our part to help the community and help our fellow man,” Bowles said. “He set an example of doing just that, as did my Mom.”
Ahead of the Chamber’s meeting, Bowles spoke to the Observer on a range of topics, including his campaign with former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson to reduce national deficits, his support of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, the sale of hometown retailer Belk, the ouster of UNC system president Tom Ross and the Carolina Panthers.
He wouldn’t discuss a possible merger at one of the companies where he is a director, railroad operator Norfolk Southern. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: Why have you developed such a passion for fiscal responsibility? (In 2010, Bowles co-chaired with Simpson the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. The panel crafted a plan to reduce the country’s deficits by $4 trillion over the next decade, but it hasn’t been adopted.)
A: Because I can do arithmetic. I’m really concerned that if we don’t get our elected politicians on the right and the left to put some of this ultra-partisanship aside and pull together rather than apart, then not only will we face what is clearly the most predictable economic crisis in history but also my generation will be the first generation of Americans to leave the country worse off than we found it. It’s my generation of Republicans and Democrats that created this fiscal mess and clearly has a responsibility to clean it up. I think we have to act and act now. And luckily the actions we have to take today are really changes at the margin if we take them today. But if we postpone them it just becomes much more difficult to deal with and eventually almost impossible if we don’t buck up and make some of these tough decisions.
Q: What actions would you like taken?
A: What I’m trying to do is convince people who are in elected office and people who have influence over people in elected office on the left and the right to make some of these tough decisions – whether it’s to reform the tax code to make us more globally competitive and produce more revenue, or reforming our entitlement programs to try to slow the rate of healthcare costs and make Social Security sustainably solvent. Those are the two things we have to do: We have to reform the tax code, and we have to reform the entitlement programs if we are going to have the resources to invest in things like education, infrastructure, research, the things we need to compete in what is today a clearly knowledge-based global economy. I’m really fighting for that. It’s tough, but I think we continue to make progress little by little.
Q: Do you think politicians will come around on this?
A: I don’t think anything significant will happen until after the elections in 2016. But I think we have a real chance regardless of who the next president is, to make some of these tough decisions. I’m certainly working on that.
Q: You are a board member at Belk, which is getting ready to close its sale to Sycamore Partners. Why did Belk need to be bought out instead of remaining a family-run company? (The board is being disbanded as part of the sale.)
A: I don’t think it needed to be bought out but I think it faces, like all retail companies, the challenge of either being significantly disrupted by technology or making enormous capital expenditures. I think they felt with a new partner willing to bring some additional capital to the table, they might be strengthened in that effort to provide the new technology that will enable them to continue to be a strong competitor in years to come.
Q: What do you think the change will mean for Charlotte?
A: I don’t think we’ll see much change. (CEO) Tim Belk is going to continue to run it. I think they’ll continue to be the great corporate citizen they’ve been for 128 years.
Q: As a member of investment bank Morgan Stanley’s board, what do you think of new rules designed to prevent another financial crisis at big banks?
A: Contrary to what some people in the industry say, I think the renewed requirements for additional equity capital in the large banks, the narrowing of the scope of their operations so they’re involved in less risky activities, and the reduction in leverage and some of the additional regulation is a positive. I think all of the banks have pretty well learned to adjust to that. The markets have obviously adjusted to that, realizing that when you reduce risk you have in all probability lowered return expectations.
Q: You had a fundraiser recently for Hillary Clinton. Are you playing any role in her presidential campaign and what are your expectations for the election? (During President Bill Clinton’s administration, Bowles served stints as head of the Small Business Administration and later White House chief of staff.)
A: My wife, Crandall, has known Hillary for 50 years. They were freshmen together in college. I’ve known her for well over 25 years and obviously worked with her. And I have enormous respect for her. I’ve seen what she can do in some pretty trying circumstances, so I’m proud to support her and I will do that. I don’t have any involvement in the campaign nor do I anticipate having any involvement in her campaign or in her administration should she be elected. I’m 70 years old. I’m done with partisan politics.
Q: How would a Hillary Clinton administration differ from a Bill Clinton administration?
A: I would expect Hillary to do a lot of the smart things that President Clinton did. I would also suspect she would learn from some of the mistakes we made. She’ll be her own person for sure, but everyone learns from experiences. Fortunately, for us, we have candidates on both sides that have the kind of experience you need to tackle some of the enormous problems we face today whether domestic or international. Hillary has had the kind of experience that you need in order to assume that responsibility. I think people who haven’t been there before have a hard time grasping the breadth of issues that you have to deal with every single minute of every single day.
Q: What do you think of the Board of Governors decision to remove UNC system president Tom Ross?
A: I think Tom has done and is still doing a terrific job. I think if he had stayed he could clearly have been the best president the university has had since Bill Friday. I think he is that good of a leader. At the same time, every board has the right to choose the president of their own choice. While it is something that clearly this board had the right to do, it doesn’t always mean that I think it was the right thing to do.
Q: What do you think of his replacement, former U.S. education secretary Margaret Spellings?
A: I think the choice of Margaret Spellings is a good choice. Margaret has the background somebody needs to have a chance to succeed in that job. She’s managed something very big, she has managed something in a public environment, she has dealt with a legislature, and she has dealt with the press. And she clearly has significant knowledge in the whole field of education. I’ve talked to her a couple of times. I love the university system. I think it’s our state’s most important economic asset, and I’m going to do everything I can to help Margaret to succeed, and I expect she will.
Q: You are one of the minority partners with Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson. What do you think of the team’s strong start?
A: It feels great to be Jerry Richardson’s partner. You know people have questioned the economic benefit of the Panthers to Charlotte, but, gosh, look at not just the people it brings into Charlotte but the national attention it brings to our community and the joy it brings to people in the community. I’m very excited to be a small part of the team.