It was while building his career in the mid-’90s that Howie was first introduced to kayaking. His employer, NationsBank (now Bank of America), had signed on to sponsor three Olympic teams for the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, and Howie was assigned to work with the USA Canoe and Kayak Team, which was then based at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City, N.C. Over the next few years, as he got to know the athletes, coaches and others involved in the sport, he became a whitewater kayaking fanatic.
Like any good enthusiast, he was soon trying to get others hooked on the sport. He made converts of family and friends, and helped start a whitewater kids club aimed at teaching children important life skills through exposure to the outdoors. A child at heart, Howie can relate to kids who struggle to stay focused on one thing for long periods. He estimates that in his more than three decades in banking and finance, he’s changed jobs an average of every two years. It’s the classic startup mindset: Build something great and move on so you can build something else great.
“I get bored really quickly,” he says. “That’s kind of one of the ways these other creative ideas and startups I’ve done have come around. I might get bored at work – I’m still doing the job – but I’m thinking about other things, too.”
Along the way, he’s run bank divisions, marketed banks and overseen multiple bank mergers – the latter being notoriously difficult projects that require a strong leader who can manage people and unite stakeholders around a common purpose. Overseeing mergers forced him to develop skills outside his comfort zone.
“A merger has a million things that can go wrong – technology, personnel, real estate. Being able to develop those timelines and those critical paths of what has to happen and when was a really good exercise for me because I don’t think that way,” he says. “I am more creative thinking not necessarily operations thinking. But somehow the square peg got pushed into the round hole.”
The Big Idea | In April 2000, Howie was attending the U.S. Olympic Trials for whitewater events on the Ocoee River in Tennessee. During a conversation with the team’s athletes and staff, talk turned to the whitewater kayaking venue for the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney. The paddlers would be competing for medals at Penrith Whitewater Stadium, which features a circular, artificial river.
Whitewater competitions have historically been held on point-to-point courses along natural rivers, meaning spectators only see the action when it passes their vantage point. The Sydney venue was designed so whitewater events could be watched in their entirety, just like track and field. It was game-changing for the sport.
Howie listened intently. He could hardly believe what he was hearing. His mind raced. A manmade river could be built anywhere, he thought. It could be a centerpiece for a community, a place for hardcore athletes, weekend warriors and children and families alike to partake in fun and healthy activities. He could no longer contain his enthusiasm.
“I finally blurted out, ‘We ought to have this in the U.S., and we ought to have this in Charlotte,’” he recalls.
Everyone laughed. They said it would cost too much, that the idea would never get enough buy-in or draw enough visitors to sustain itself. Later that night, undeterred, he drew his vision on a cocktail napkin. Why not?
One person who didn’t laugh at Howie’s crazy idea was his friend Chet Rabon, a Charlotte attorney, who began researching the artificial river in Sydney and tracking down the company that built it.
No doubt, it would cost millions; they’d need financing, land and partners. But, yes, Howie and Rabon believed, this was a viable idea. Adopting a startup mentality, they drew up a business plan and began tapping their professional networks. Soon, Howie had others believing in the idea.
Charlotte Whitewater Park Inc. was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in early 2001 with the goal of creating an outdoor lifestyle hub for city dwellers. They established a board of directors and board of advisors, loading them with influential, well-known people from the Charlotte area. Howie was named chairman of the board of directors and began pitching his idea to anyone who would listen. By the end of that summer, the organization had assembled an impressive team of supporters and partners representing both the private and public sectors as well as nonprofits.
Things were happening, and the venture was gaining momentum. And then planes crashed into the World Trade Center. For a while after 9/11, no one wanted to talk about the project. Later that year, Howie got the ball rolling again with the hiring of the center’s first executive director, Jeff Wise, who remains in that role today.
While many of the pieces were starting to come together, a crucial one – where to build the park – had not yet been decided. One day Howie got an excited call from Wise, telling him they needed to meet right away at a large, mostly vacant property outside the city that had 27 acres of waterfront along the Catawba River. Howie, still working full-time at Bank of America, showed up in a coat and tie. He and Wise surveyed the expansive surroundings, imagining the possibilities. It was more land than they had been looking for, but the larger parcel would enable them to offer more activities besides whitewater rafting and kayaking.
The real boon was that the property was owned by the Mecklenburg County park system. A large public partner would bring additional benefits to the project, such as qualification for grants, and it would keep the park in the public domain. They soon inked a long-term lease deal with the county. But, acquiring more land and adding more activities and features tripled the center’s initial price tag of $12 million. With the addition of ziplines, ropes courses, climbing walls and other activities, the total cost eventually ballooned to $36 million. From a drawing on a cocktail napkin to a $36 million gamble. Why not?
Pitch Perfect | Howie’s role in creating the Whitewater Center, which by any measure was an audacious startup, brought him some notoriety in the entrepreneurial world, and he began fielding requests for advice from would-be entrepreneurs. A few years ago, he was having lunch at the center with a friend, when they began discussing why so many startups struggle to attract funding.
“Because they don’t have a way to practice their pitch before the events, and they’re not doing very well,” Howie had said. “So, investors are not investing in them. They need a practice session.”
Howie got an idea: What if he could create an event where entrepreneurs could practice their pitches, get feedback from seasoned business pros and even get a free video recording of their performance. Why not?
Howie and some partners launched Pitch Breakfast in Charlotte in 2013. Every month, the nonprofit gives four companies five minutes each to pitch their business plans. They get 10 minutes of feedback from a panel of rock-star volunteer entrepreneurs. The breakfast became so popular that Howie, who is a board member of the College of Charleston Foundation, expanded it to Charleston, where among the entrepreneurs pitching ideas are students from the College’s Interdisciplinary Center for Applied Technology, better known as ICAT.
He gets animated when he talks about the exciting business plans he’s heard at Pitch Breakfast, especially those from the ICAT students. The sessions are exhilarating, Howie says, because you never know when the next big
idea will emerge.
There’s another dreamer out there with a pitch that’s even crazier than building a playground for outdoor enthusiasts, complete with a manmade whitewater river. Why not?