Lynne Scott Safrit: Murdock’s right hand

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Emily Ford
Salisbury Post
KANNAPOLIS ó In the basement of textile giant Cannon Mills, inside a small, windowless office in the sprawling Plant 1 complex, a young blond woman did her job and did it well.
She had worked her way up to personnel supervisor after serving three summers as a mill hand to help pay for college. She’d helped out in the spinning room, painted bathrooms, run errands, even cleaned spittoons.
Both her parents, Norman and Mary Scott, worked in the mill, and she enjoyed being near them and eating lunch together.
But Lynne Scott wanted more.
Then, in 1982, multimillionaire David H. Murdock bought Cannon Mills for $414 million.
Whether guided by a sense of destiny or the naivete that emboldens a 23-year-old, Scott did something that would change her life and the future of Kannapolis, her beloved mill village.
She knocked on Murdock’s door.
“No one just knocked on my door,” Murdock said recently, remembering his surprise. “She waited until my secretary was at lunch.”
Scott asked Murdock for one minute of his time.
“That one minute turned into 20 minutes,” he said.
Scott told Murdock she was smart and talented. She said she wanted to do something important and could do anything a man could do.
“She convinced me that I should try her out,” he said.
Twenty-six years later, Lynne Scott Safrit remains one of Murdock’s longest serving employees, entrusted with his largest and most expensive project to date.
The mill is gone, taking 4,300 jobs and the town’s identity with it.
In its place rises a fascinating, complicated new endeavor called the N.C. Research Campus, Murdock’s $1.5 billion effort to revolutionize human health and nutrition and leave a meaningful legacy.
Insiders believe that within a decade, the Research Campus ó a sprawling life sciences center that covers 350 acres and will include high-tech laboratories, corporate headquarters, luxury homes and branches of at least seven universities ó will become the global epicenter for biotechnology.
They believe the campus will create more than 30,000 jobs, ushering in an economic renaissance for Kannapolis and the entire region.
They believe the campus might even change the world.
And they believe it couldn’t happen without Safrit.
“She’s critical to the Research Campus,” Kannapolis City Manager Mike Legg said. “She’s critical to seeing it through.”
‘Beyond dedicated’
Dr. Andrew Conrad received 1,907 e-mails from Safrit in the past year.
That doesn’t count the ones he deleted.
“She is beyond dedicated,” said Conrad, the lead scientist at the N.C. Research Campus and co-founder of the National Genetics Institute in California. “It’s a passion of hers to rescue this town. It’s profound, and it’s inspiring.”
As president of Castle & Cooke North Carolina and Atlantic American Properties, Safrit serves as Murdock’s project manager, spokesperson and advocate for the Research Campus.
A savvy businesswoman known for her hard drive, command of details and long hours, Safrit surprises many with her easy laugh and gracious manner.
People are naturally drawn to her, Legg said.
“She just charms the hell out of us,” Conrad said. “Her will is always exacted, but it never seems like we are getting bossed around.
“There can be tons of egos in the room, and somehow she manages to make us feel like we are all getting what we want.”
Safrit leads by instinct. She succeeds in a global economy but still comes across as a small-town girl.
This surprises outsiders who have arrived in Kannapolis.
“It would be easy to assume that Lynne was a glorified real estate agent, when actually you are in the presence of real intelligence and unusual instinctual wisdom,” said Victoria Christian, chief operating officer for Duke University’s longterm medical study named for Murdock. “She is spectacularly focused.”
Safrit lives by the golden rule and says she never stops representing the campus, even at the grocery store.
And she expects the same from everyone who works for her.
“It’s a good kind of pressure,” she said. “It helps you focus and understand just how critical and important what we’re doing here is.”
Starting early
Triage begins at Safrit’s Kannapolis home each morning around 6:30 when she checks her e-mail and phone messages.
It doesn’t stop until midnight when she goes to bed.
As much power as she has on paper, Safrit wields even more in person.
“She is fundamentally important,” said N.C. Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, who helped convince Murdock to buy back the abandoned textile mill in 2004. “She understands the pieces. She’s the one who puts the pieces together.”
Safrit has become an amateur scientist, gleaning knowledge from the world-renowned researchers she has helped attract to Kannapolis since Murdock launched the campus three years ago.
Words like “metabolomics” and “nutrigenomics,” the modern sciences that researchers will employ at the campus, are part of her daily vocabulary.
She has become a fixture at the N.C. General Assembly, working to secure the state’s pledge of $29 million a year to the universities on the Research Campus.
She travels regularly to New York and California.
Despite the pressure, people who know her say she never loses her temper.
“People underestimate how important she is,” Conrad said.
Making a choice
Murdock angered many in 1986 when he sold Cannon Mills to Fieldcrest, a year after he won a bitter battle with the union. He kept all related real estate holdings, including most of downtown Kannapolis and Pity Sake Lodge, his 15,000-square-foot home in Landis.
He asked Safrit if she wanted to stay in textiles or go into real estate with him.
She went with Murdock.
It proved to be a wise choice. While Fieldcrest sold the mill to Pillowtex, which eventually went bankrupt, Murdock became a billionaire four times over.
Through the years, Safrit brokered billions of dollars in real estate deals. She managed a portfolio of Murdock’s retail and residential properties throughout the United States.
All without a business degree.
“But I had a really good teacher,” Safrit said. “A lot of what I’ve learned, I learned from Mr. Murdock.”
Days after the disastrous Pillowtex closing in 2003, the largest layoff in state history, Sen. Hartsell called Safrit for help.
“It troubled me greatly,” said Hartsell, who had worked in the mill himself. “It was the community’s identity. To see it sitting there, idle … it loomed over everything.”
Safrit suggested Hartsell call Murdock, who by then owned Dole Food Co. and international real estate developer Castle & Cooke, about re-acquiring the mill. She encouraged her boss to return to North Carolina.
Safrit accompanied Murdock to an auction in New York City in 2004, where he bid $6.4 million for the old mill.
“We won,” Murdock told her. “Now what do we do with it?”
The idea woman
On Jan. 18, 2005, Murdock and Safrit sat down in front of the fireplace at Pity Sake Lodge. She had a pen and pad. They came up with 30 possibilities for the acquisition, including biotechnology and a business incubator.
The seed for the N.C. Research Campus was planted.
Safrit insists that the campus was Murdock’s brainchild, including the groundbreaking partnerships with the University of North Carolina system and Duke University.
But others say she’s just as responsible for the concepts.
“During the period of time we’ve worked together, she has gone from letting my ideas lead her to her ideas leading me,” Murdock wrote last year when Safrit was inducted into the Catawba College Business Hall of Fame. “Many of the ideas which I get credited for are Lynne’s ideas.”
The campus, which should open this summer, hasn’t avoided controversy.
Safrit and Murdock angered some when they sought $168 million in public bonds for infrastructure improvements at the campus. Critics call it a public subsidy, while Safrit insists that new property taxes generated by the campus will pay for the improvements.
Murdock, and by association Safrit, upset people by tearing down the mill. Some claim they have dishonored the past.
Safrit said the Research Campus will invoke the work ethic and pride instilled at Cannon Mills by providing Kannapolis children a new opportunity to make a good living in their hometown.
Soon, their heroes will be people in lab coats not football uniforms, she said.
If textiles are the city’s past, Safrit is determined to make biotechnology its future. But the campus also will include a special place to display artifacts and memorabilia from the days when Kannapolis was a world leader of another kind.
“It’s always important to remember where you came from,” said Safrit, who never forgot that she came from a basement office in Cannon Mills Plant 1. “To deny that textiles are our heritage would be wrong.”
Contact Emily Ford at eford@salisburypost. com or 704-797-4624.