Editor’s note: This story was co-authored by Jean Davis, Go Global NC Board Chair (2017 – 2021), Rachel Page, Deputy Director, Go Global NC and Chief Operating Officer, NC Coalition for Global Competitiveness; and Tom White, Vice-Chair, NC Coalition for Global Competitiveness.
RALEIGH – Last week North Carolina lost a genuine titan in the passing of James T. Fain III, the longest serving (2001-2009) NC Secretary of Commerce in Tar Heel history. Throughout his distinguished tenure as North Carolina’s top industry recruiter, Jim led by example, a quintessential role model who cared deeply and passionately about all of North Carolina, whose guiding philosophy was indeed One North Carolina.
After leaving his bucolic hometown of Hendersonville to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees at UNC-Chapel Hill, his beloved alma mater, Jim launched a stellar career in banking with First Union/Wachovia, where he rose through the ranks to attain multiple senior leadership positions. In these critical decision-making posts Jim demonstrated not only superior financial acumen but also a tremendous affection for community service and philanthropic causes, pursuits that stood him in good stead when he made the decision to move to NC Commerce, initially under the leadership of Governor James B. Hunt Jr. and then Governor Mike Easley as North Carolina’s Secretary of Commerce.
There were immense challenges at the time Jim assumed his NC Commerce leadership role— the country was recovering from the shock of 9/11 and soon thereafter immersion in the war in Iraq, global international tensions were reflected domestically as legacy commodity manufacturing suffered catastrophic job losses, and the challenge of attracting new and expanding industry became even more formidable. But Jim Fain always loved a challenge, so what he did was roll up his sleeves, motivate his charges and day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year outwork other states and hence produce countless new and expanding industry victories throughout North Carolina, while deploying workforce development support service mechanisms to help those who lost their jobs with skills training initiatives and related community development interventions. And he crafted an innovative, competitive incentive policy that to this day continues to be deployed to great effect by his successors in economic development.
Jim Fain’s NC Commerce Department was wide and deep with amazing talent, and Jim carefully cultivated an esprit de corps that was reflected in his mantra of “good start, right direction, more to do. . .” where all were encouraged to deliberate and debate strategy and tactics, but once consensus was achieved, the battle was joined in an all for one, one for all modus operandi.
Over the past decade Jim put his heart and soul into scaling the NC Coalition for Global Competitiveness under the aegis of Go Global NC, firmly convinced that the North Carolina brand was strong and vibrant and deserved, actually needed, to be disseminated to promote cross cultural understanding, attract foreign direct investment, and generate expanded export opportunities for NC businesses and products. He always knew in his heart that NC could and should be the state to lead the nation in global competitiveness, and when he stepped down as NC Coalition Chairman he personally recruited NC Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and NC Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Steve Troxler respectively to co-chair this critically important entity under the tireless guiding stewardship of COO Rachel Page. When the UNC-CH Global Research Institute sought commentary on its operation in an official center review, the quote below on GRI’s substantive relevance was forthcoming from Secretary Fain, to paraphrase “to make North Carolina all that it can be, and all that it should be.”
From our classrooms to our board rooms, Jim saw the importance and necessity of working across political lines to create an intentional plan to make North Carolinians more competitive in the global arena – from kindergarten to retirement. He spearheaded a first of its kind effort – uniting education, business, government and local leaders to guide North Carolina to a brighter future, finding local solutions to global challenges, as Jim would say “to optimize” North Carolina and share it with the world.
Jim leaves behind “the network” created and curated from his various roles – as Secretary, executive director, board member, neighbor, mentor, friend – and together we will carry the torch. As so many of us in the network can attest – once you start working for Jim, you never stop, and we won’t. We promise to persevere in that indomitable spirit that he imbued in all of us each and every day. We will miss you very much Secretary Fain.