John Skvarla, a Pinehurst resident who served as secretary of both the North Carolina Department of Commerce and the state agency formerly known as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, died of cancer on Tuesday. He was 73.
An accomplished attorney and businessman before his career in state government, Skvarla was tabbed in 2015 to serve as commerce secretary by then-Gov. Pat McCrory, who called him a “mentor.”
“He had an open line to me at any time because I took his advice,” McCrory said in a phone interview with The Pilot. “When John Skvarla said a change needed to be made, you listened because he was always right.”
“He was an incredibly innovative and natural and intelligent leader who always tried to solve problems, and even solve problems to which he gave up his own power of responsibility to others,” McCrory said. “And very few people do that.”
While overseeing DENR — now known as the Department of Environmental Quality — Skvarla “transferred whole divisions from his departments to other departments,” McCrory said, allowing those other departments to take control of popular assets like the North Carolina Zoo and multiple state parks.
“He said, ‘This makes no sense to me being in my department; let's move it over to Cultural Resources,’” McCrory said. “I’ve never met anyone like that. Most people tried to gain power. He would do what was best for the state and for the taxpayers and the operations.”
The ex-governor recalled a separate instance following a request from his IT secretary, who had hoped to find a venue where small businesses specializing in technology for governments could exhibit and sell their products. According to McCrory, Skvarla voluntarily offered up the first floor of the DENR building in downtown Raleigh.
“It was the only good building in Raleigh,” McCrory said. “He gave up that prime-time space to help entrepreneurs and vendors sell their goods to state government. He gave up prime space for another department to help entrepreneurs. No one does that.”
McCrory said Skvarla later excelled as commerce secretary because he was a “great salesman for the state.”
“If there was a problem with a potential company that we were recruiting to North Carolina, he dove in,” McCrory said. “Whether it was regulations or just minor problems, he would call the customer directly or go visit them — no matter the size of the company. He was a problem solver, and the customers knew that immediately.”
Skvarla’s dedication to the office, McCrory said, yielded “thousands and thousands of jobs” for the state.
“He laid down a foundation of customer service, which I think resulted in North Carolina now being ranked No. 1 in economic development,” McCrory said. “It was his work that did it. I know everyone's spiking the ball now — everyone who's currently in office — about North Carolina being No. 1. It was John Skvarla that set the table.”
Last year, Site Selection magazine ranked North Carolina as the nation’s leading state for economic development. North Carolina also ranked No. 1 in CNBC’s recent list of America’s Top States for Business.
Pinehurst councilwoman Lydia Boesch said Skvarla was “one of those all-around great guys.”
“In every circumstance where I had dealings with him, he was thoughtful, considerate, appreciative and polite,” said Boesch, who estimates that she first met Skvarla about 15 years ago. “He always did his homework.”
Skvarla, she added, was “very down-to-earth.”
“You would never know when dealing with him that he was so accomplished,” she said. “There are very few of those kinds of people who are so accomplished but also so down-to-earth, and he was one of them.”
After receiving his law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1973, Skvarla founded a Raleigh law firm specializing in tax law. He went on to become a successful business executive, serving as chief operating officer for an all-cargo airline company and CEO of an environmental mitigation firm.
Before being drafted into McCrory’s cabinet, Skvarla was part of a trio of investors that bought the Country Club of Whispering Pines in 2004. He was also known locally for his work with the Pinehurst Historic Preservation Commission, which he chaired for several years.
With fellow Pinehurst resident Walter Bull, Skvarla launched an organization called the Alliance for Bonded Term Limits in 2009. The group sought to keep congressional candidates from overstaying their welcome in Washington by having them pledge to donate a sizable performance bond to charity after spending a certain number of years in office.
McCrory said Skvarla “loved Pinehurst.”
“He and (his wife) Liz are just great ambassadors of North Carolina and Pinehurst, and he was a great gentleman on the golf course,” he said. “He was one of the few people who had the traits of both being a fighter and a gentleman. I've never seen anyone who can be both a gentleman and a fighter at the same time, and he exhibited the gentleman aspects on the golf course. He was a great athlete and a great golfer.”
Speaking during Wednesday's news conference announcing the return of the World Golf Hall of Fame to Pinehurst, State Rep. Jamie Boles recounted how Skvarla was one of the first people to draw his attention to the prospect of the U.S. Golf Association building its second headquarters in the village.
Boles said Skvarla called in 2019 to set up a meeting with him and State Sen. Tom McInnis, whose district includes Moore County, to discuss a potential economic development project.
“Skvarla said, ‘How ‘bout you and Tom meet me at my house on Linden Road?’ And of course, when Mr. Skvarla says ‘meet me,’ you don’t say ‘I’m tied up.’"
Boles remembered it as a cold, rainy winter day when he and McInnis showed up at Skvarla's stately home, but they were warmed when they heard the news about the USGA wanting to expand its footprint in Pinehurst.
"Mr. Skvarla said, ‘I think we have a great opportunity before us. What do you guys think?’ And it was a no-brainer,” Boles said. “We both pinched ourselves and said, 'We’ve got to pursue this.'"
Writing in an email to The Pilot on Wednesday, Pinehurst Mayor John Strickland said both the village and state had “lost a leader and entrepreneur” with Skvarla’s passing.
“John was always thinking ahead of the curve, and ready to take action when he felt it was needed,” Strickland said. “My thoughts and prayers are with his family as they experience this loss.”