Nov 29, 2023 - Business

12 most powerful leaders in Charlotte

Charlotte is, once again, in a period of leadership transition.

It’s less of an earthquake than the transition of the 1990s and 2000s, when members of “The Group” — a handful of businessmen who helped build the city we know in the late 20th century — retired and stepped away from public view. Still, this shift is notable.

Ingersoll Rand, Honeywell, Foundation For The Carolinas and Johnson C. Smith University are among the several prominent institutions to undergo a leadership change in the past couple of years.

Why it matters: Over the past quarter-century, power in Charlotte shifted from a few business leaders to many. Now, those “many” are shifting into their own retirements or final career phases.

  • So what’s next?

Driving the news: We’re back with our second annual list of Charlotte Power Players. These are people or organizations that wield influence in our community and use it for good.

  • They work in a range of industries, from hospitality to banking to media, and from across the career spectrum, from up-and-coming stars to mid-career juggernauts to legends.
  • The list is intended to show the scope of power in the city, and to show how its meaning has changed over several generations of leaders.

How we chose them: We compiled this year’s list with input from the community and our own newsroom.

  • We received dozens of paid nominations, which we grouped with our editorial staff’s nominations, pulled from their experiences reporting in our community. The winners include a few from each list.
  • Thank you to everyone who submitted. This was a challenging task, selecting just a few. But for sure, the nominations gave us a nice list of story ideas for 2024 and a head start on next year’s power players.
Tracy Dodson. Headshot courtesy of the city of Charlotte

Tracy Dodson

City of Charlotte assistant city manager and economic development director

Dodson has her hand in almost every transformational city project, from the River District in the west, to Eastland Mall to the east, and the Charlotte Transportation Center redevelopment in center city. She’s the first person to make it on both our inaugural power players list in 2022 and this one.

What we’re watching: How she navigates a deal with the Carolina Panthers for Bank of America Stadium renovations.

Fred Whitfield

Hornets Sports & Entertainment president and vice chairman

Even after the Hornets were sold over the summer, Whitfield remains a force behind HSE, He negotiated the deal to keep the team in Spectrum Center through 2045, which includes funding for arena renovations and a new practice facility. He also helped lead the push for expanded legal sports betting in North Carolina.

What we’re watching: Where the new practice facility lands and what sports betting will look like at Spectrum Center.

Cathy Bessant

Incoming president and CEO of Foundation For The Carolinas

A civic leader and one of the most prominent bankers in recent Charlotte history, Bessant assumes one of the most influential jobs in the city in January. Foundation For The Carolinas is now the fifth-largest community foundation in the country, with more than $4 billion in charitable assets, and it’s responsible for overseeing charitable donations to a range of causes, from affordable housing to education.

  • Bessant, who’s been living in Paris, will retire from Bank of America’s executive management team next month and return to Charlotte.

What we’re watching: One of the most noteworthy projects Bessant will oversee is the completion of the Carolina Theatre restoration in Uptown.

Jesse Leadbetter

Freshlist co-founder and CEO

Leadbetter’s food hub helps connect local family farms with restaurants, coffee shops and bars throughout the Carolinas, providing a linchpin in the popular “farm to table” movement locally. Freshlist also works with community organizations to provide fresh produce to food insecure households.

What we’re watching: Freshlist recently received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will help it expand its footprint in the Belmont neighborhood and its delivery fleet, ultimately expanding its reach throughout the region.

Sam Hart

Chef and owner of Counter- and Biblio

Hart became the second Charlotte chef to reach the final round of the James Beard Awards when they were nominated for best chef in the Southeast. They’re owner and chef of one of Charlotte’s best restaurants, Counter-, a tasting menu spot that is currently going through a reinvention.

What we’re watching: Hart is opening a third restaurant in The Alley in Uptown called Maneki. The food stand will serve traditional Japanese cuisine in the form of robatayaki, a traditional method of cooking over charcoal. The late-night food stall will offer an omakase experience until 1am.

Sarah Brigham

Co-founder of Sycamore Brewing

Sycamore, co-owned by Brigham and her husband, Justin, is one of Charlotte’s most successful breweries and one of its most beloved hangout spots. Sycamore opened its new 21,000-square foot taproom in South End in May. It’s right next to the Hawkins Street location where they exploded onto the local scene in 2014, but a world away in terms of ambiance and feel.

  • The new spot — with a taproom, cafe, beer garden and Airstream food truck — has become a hub for beer lovers and remote workers, and a happening nightlife spot that’s packed every weekend.

What we’re watching: Sycamore’s expanded footprint beyond the Charlotte region, particularly Charleston and Wilmington.

Cornell Jones

Founder of Mad Miles Run Club

Jones made running cool in Charlotte. Mad Miles turned a personal love for running into a movement that the community also finds fun. One man running a mile a day quickly turned into hundreds of people running a couple of miles a week, regardless the weather. His organization has created scholarship opportunities, and it’s collaborated with other local businesses and events.

What we’re watching: The run club’s expansion. Mad Miles has grown so much that they’ve had to add another run day to the schedule. They’ve also started to host additional events outside of exercising to bring the community together.

Cory Wilkins

Local social media influencer

Known for his food reviews and popular restaurant guide, Wilkins is arguably Charlotte’s version of “Keith Lee.” Wilkins often uncovers restaurants that immediately see long lines the following day. Plus, he has used his platform to rally his audience to support businesses that are considering closing. Wilkins also helps organize Eat Black Charlotte to highlight local Black-owned businesses.

What we’re watching: Wilkins has already started covering small businesses outside Charlotte. He recently changed his social media handle from “dailyspecialclt” to “thadailyspecial,” suggesting it’s possible he’ll further expand his platform across the state.

Adam Rhew

President and executive director of SouthPark Community Partners

A former TV reporter and magazine editor, Rhew leads a new organization that aims to promote SouthPark. In just a short period, SouthPark Community Partners has helped prove that the neighborhood — long known more for its suburban vibe and upscale mall — can be a vibrant, walkable, hip place to live.

The work is similar to that of Rhew’s former employer, the well-established Charlotte Center City Partners — though that group focuses on Uptown and South End.

What we’re watching: How else Rhew’s team makes SouthPark an after-work destination following the early success of SouthPark after Five.

Amie Cennamo

Owner of Bitty & Beau’s Charlotte

Cennamo is the driving force behind the popular South End coffee shop Bitty and Beau’s, which employs 25 people with disabilities. The Charlotte franchise has been a trailblazer this year, winning a Charlotte magazine BOB Award for the best coffee shop and securing first place for coffee shops in The Observer’s Charlotte’s Best 2023.

What we’re watching: Amie’s continued work in inclusive workspaces and developmental disabilities awareness, including a new role she’s taking on that’s to be announced soon, her nominee tells Axios.

David Ravin

President and CEO of Northwood Ravin LLC

In a fast-growing city full of new apartments, Ravin’s firm is one of the biggest apartment developers. Northwood Ravin, which manages 3.53 million square feet of commercial property, is an affiliate of Northwood Investors, the firm that bought the Ballantyne Corporate Park for $1.2 billion in 2017.

What we’re watching: The ESPN documentary on Charlotte football that almost didn’t happen — until Ravin came in to fund it. Just plain cool.

All-Time Power Player: Hugh McColl

Nobody’s done more to shape modern Charlotte than McColl. The Bennettsville, S.C. native spent 42 years at the institution that became Bank of America. He retired as chairman and CEO in 2001, having grown the company from $12 billion in assets in 1983 to $642 billion.

  • Along the way he built Charlotte, too. He shot life into our city’s arts and culture scene, helping create and sustain several organizations, including the symphony.
  • This was as much a business decision as a personal one: 1. He knew that top banking executives from New York would only move to Charlotte and work for him if the city offered experiences. 2. He also knew that his wife of 64 years now, Jane, loved the ballet.
  • He still sets the standard for discourse and priorities in the city. In recent years he’s devoted most of his time to helping Black business owners find capital to grow.

What we’re watching: McColl joined the UNC Charlotte board of trustees this year, at 88 years old. His goal is to help the university build a technology education and research hub in Uptown.

All headshots are courtesy of our 2023 Axios Charlotte Power Players winners.


Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Charlotte.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Charlotte stories

No stories could be found


Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Charlotte.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more