Smedes York, chairman of York Properties, Inc. and McDonald York Building Company, has been named the 2015 Person of the Year by the Poole College of Management at North Carolina State University.
Poole College established the award in 2008 to recognize individuals for their leadership and service to their professions, their communities, Poole College and the university as a whole.
York was one of NC State’s legacy students: his father and grandfather are alumni (1903 and 1933, respectively). “I grew up with NC State, wanted to go to NC State and have been devoted to NC State,” he said.
Attending NC State on a basketball scholarship, York played four years with the Wolfpack, earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the College of Engineering in 1963 and achieved the rank of second lieutenant in the NC State ROTC.
Those experiences, plus membership in Kappa Alpha fraternity and other student organizations gave him a foundation for developing his personal leadership style.
York’s ongoing commitment to his alma mater is reflected in his years of service, including membership on NC State’s Board of Trustees and the Dean’s Advisory Board at Poole College. He also has served as president of the NC State Alumni Association, is a member of the Watauga Club and chaired the 2010 search committee for NC State’s new athletic director.
Professionally, York has continued the development legacy established by his grandfather, C.V. York, whose construction company broke ground on the first five buildings of what is now East Carolina University and also built many of Raleigh’s landmarks, including Memorial Auditorium and the Sir Walter Hotel in downtown Raleigh, the first portion of NC State’s Bell Tower and several classroom buildings.
His father, J.W. “Willie” York, developed Cameron Village in 1949, then the first shopping center in the Southeast; York Properties continues to manage it. J.W. York also was instrumental in expanding the Raleigh-Durham International Airport, was chairman of the State Board of Conservation and Development, and, as a member of the Raleigh Board of Education in 1960, made a motion to desegregate the school system.
Smedes York acknowledges that his father “opened a few doors me, but I had to walk through them.” That included both following in his family’s legacy as well as pursuing his own personal goals.
One of those goals was to earn a master of business administration, which he did in 1968 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He then joined his father in the family development and construction business and two years later began serving in various leadership roles with the Urban Land Institute, where his father had also been active. He served on several ULI advisory services panels, including one for New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and one for the New York City’s Twin Towers area related to the September 11, 2001 attack.
Among other goals: to first serve on the Raleigh City Council, which he did from 1977 to 1979, and then to serve as mayor of Raleigh, which he did for two terms, from 1979 to 1983.
In a conversation with Poole College communication, Smedes York discussed his “pragmatic” take on leadership in business and civic roles.
- For me, it’s always the same approach: the leader needs to know what he’s leading, why he’s leading and where he’s leading.
- The idea that you’re the leader is just being part of the team.
- You’re not alone; it’s an inclusive process.
- It’s one thing to have a philosophy, but to be able to make something happen is very important, so you have to give and take a little bit.
- Build consensus; if that’s not possible, as happens in political situations, then secure a majority.
Building consensus means you include other people’s ideas, not just your own.
He also cites a suggestion made by management author Ken Blanchard, “to ‘catch a person doing something right instead of catching a person doing something wrong.’ That’s very comfortable to me; the key is to encourage people, to build them up.”
York speaks more about his personal leadership style in the memoir, “Growing Up with Raleigh: Smedes York Memoirs and Reflections of a Native Son, with John Sharpe,” written with historian John Lawrence Sharpe and published in 2014.