Former N.C. State chancellor to lead Research Campus

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 13, 2011

By Emily Ford
KANNAPOLIS — After resigning two years ago amid a scandal over the hiring of the governor’s wife, former N.C. State University chancellor Dr. James Oblinger has been tapped for the top job at the N.C. Research Campus.
Oblinger, 65, is the new president of the David H. Murdock Research Institute, the nonprofit centerpiece of the fledgling life-sciences hub in downtown Kannapolis.
A successful fundraiser, Oblinger is expected to raise private money for the institute, which until recently had trouble paying its bills and relies on cash grants from Murdock.
Murdock, campus founder and chairman of Dole Food, “was without an ounce of hesitation convinced that Jim was the right person for this position,” said Lynne Scott Safrit, president of campus developer Castle & Cooke North Carolina.
Oblinger replaces Dr. Michael Luther, who stepped down in June and remains in business development.
When Luther resigned, Oblinger became the top candidate, Safrit said.
Murdock respects and admires the microbiologist, who helped launch the Research Campus, Safrit said.
Oblinger stepped down as N.C. State chancellor in June 2009 amid questions over the university’s hiring and promotion of the wife of former Gov. Mike Easley. He quietly joined the faculty of N.C. State’s Plants for Human Health Institute in Kannapolis, a move Safrit called “a big win for us.”
“Jim, to me, is a man of great integrity and vision and ability, and he’s going to be great in this job,” she said.
The Murdock Research Institute owns and operates the copper-topped Core Laboratory Building in Kannapolis.
Private companies and universities researching nutrition, health and agriculture pay the institute to conduct cutting-edge tests and studies in the Core Lab, one of the world’s most complete life sciences laboratories. Companies like General Mills and Monsanto also lease space in the four-story building.
The institute had trouble paying its bills last year and uses gifts from Murdock to cover operating expenses.
According to the IRS, Murdock has made cash grants of $120 million to the institute, which generated revenue of $881,000 in 2009, the most recent Form 990 available.
“Things have gotten much brighter in the last six months,” said Dr. Steven Leath, vice president for research for the University of North Carolina system, who took over day-to-day management of the institute after Luther stepped down.
Leath serves on the institute’s board of directors.
In the past six months, the institute had its two highest revenue months ever, each approaching $500,000 in fees for service, Leath said. By January 2013, “we should be in the black and self-supporting,” he said.
“Most businesses fail in the first five years, and if we could be running in the black halfway through that period, I’d feel real good about it,” Leath said.
The institute launched in 2008, when many businesses that may have partnered with the organization were retrenching, Leath said.
Things were off to a slow start.
But more companies have considered the institute and campus in the past two months than at any time since 2009, Safrit said. That year, campus leaders had five appointments when they attended the largest food ingredients show in the world.
This year, they had 18.
“The interest is back. I don’t think the economy is back, but many of our (potential) partners have had two years to function in a poor economy, which allowed them to at least better understand what they can and can’t do,” Leath said. “I think we’re really ready to move forward.”
The institute grew its staff by nearly 50 percent in the past nine months to 33 employees, including adding a third position in business development to help handle inquiries from private industry. The job posting calls for someone who can invoice, prepare quotes for lab services and update the institute’s website daily.
In addition to Oblinger’s scientific background and management and leadership skills, the Concord resident brings to the job another important trait — his ability to raise money.
Oblinger led a capital campaign at N.C. State that brought in $1.2 billion.
“Our ability to have more flexibility in the future is going to be dependent on our ability to raise money and support,” Leath said.
Oblinger compares the new role to his years as a researcher and faculty member.
“I’ve always enjoyed facilitating the work of others,” he said.
Oblinger will focus on building relationships with industry and academic partners. The campus includes branches of seven public universities, Duke University, Rowan-Cabarrus Community College and more than a dozen private companies.
“The common denominator is seeking truth through high-quality science, and you get there in any of those venues by performing consistently, efficiently and effectively over time,” Oblinger said. “Reputations take a long time to earn, and they can be lost pretty quickly.”
While meeting with institute staff Tuesday, Oblinger said he emphasized the importance “to always uphold a strict standard for high-quality science.”
“It’s that type of transparency, if you will, that I think will reap dividends over time,” he said.
Just as people think of the Mayo Clinic in connection with cancer or Scripps with marine biology, Oblinger said he wants people to think of the N.C. Research Campus in connection with health and nutrition.
“We want to be that place that just shows up in people’s minds when certain words are said,” Leath said. “Jim starts to form the vision for how we get there.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.