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Shelby Success Stories: Simpsonville native takes tobacco down a new road

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Walt Carpenter didn’t grow up on a tobacco farm, but he has helped set the future of the tobacco business.

By Lisa King

At first glance, Walt Carpenter, who will retire later this year after 25 years with R.J. Reynolds, may not seem to fit the profile for a tobacco company executive.

Although he grew up in Shelby County, he wasn’t one of the many of his day who lived on a tobacco farm or belonged to the Future Farmers of America.

"I didn't grow up on a farm, but I grew up around them, and so many of my friends were farm kids that I felt comfortable around tobacco," he said, adding that he spent many happy hours as boy playing basketball in his friend's hayloft.

"Growing up, I had a lot of friends that worked in that area, and as a business and marketing person, it's fascinating."

Carpenter, 60, who stills refers to Simpsonville as home even though he has lived all over the United States and even in England, is senior vice president of strategy and marketing for R.J. Reynolds, and he has used that fascination to lead his company in new directions as the cigarette industry has declined.

"Strategy and planning sounds kind of vague, but the department I've run for years here  concentrates basically on business analytics. We do market research, analysis and forecasting, and that information gets fed to the management group that uses it for decision-making," he said.

Some of those decisions have included how to cope as more and more people have stopped smoking and fewer young people are taking up the habit, a trend that has led the company to turn to other tobacco products as the numbers of smokers continues to decrease, Carpenter said.

"The number of cigarettes sold in the U.S. today is less than half what was sold in 1981," he said. "So the company has been looking to go in different directions. We bought a company called American Snuff, which is a growing category, and we are also looking at other tobacco products that are essentially substitutable for cigarettes. We are always trying to figure out ways we can continue to grow the company given the fact that our main line of business is declining."

 

The early years

For the first decade or so after gradating from Indiana University in 1974 – he returned in 1979 to complete an MBA – armed with a marketing degree and what he called a ton of youthful enthusiasm, Carpenter landed positions with a variety of companies around the country, including L'eggs in Winston-Salem, N.C., Heublein, an alcoholic beverage distributor, in Hartford, Conn., and Frito-Lay in Dallas, before finally coming to rest in 1988 with Brown & Williamson Tobacco in Louisville, where he was group product director.

He was promoted to divisional vice president of value brands in 1994 and appointed divisional vice president of strategy and planning in 1996.

Brown & Williamson merged with R.J. Reynolds in 2004 to create a parent company, Reynolds American, with R.J. Reynolds remaining a subsidiary. So it was back to Winston-Salem for Carpenter, who headed up a marketing team for R.J. Reynolds as vice president of strategy and planning. He was promoted in 2006 to senior vice president of strategy and planning and in 2007 assumed his current position.

He said he considers the high point of his career being selected in 2000 to head up a marketing team in Brown & Williamson's home base in London – although his wife, Monica, and their two daughters, Lauren and Allison, remained in Louisville while the girls attended Sacred Heart Academy. He made many transatlantic weekend getaways.

"Brown and Williamson was owned by British American Tobacco, and I lived in London from late 2000 to early 2003, doing much the same thing I had done with the company in Louisville, just on a global scale," he said.

"The tobacco industry has always been fascinating to me because it's an historically important product that is tied up not only with U.S. history, but with history as well," he said. "It's big, it's important, it's interesting, and it's controversial. What more could you ask for?"

 

An exciting year ahead

As Carpenter has learned, one should careful what one asks for, because now, he's got it – an entire year full of new challenges as he prepares to shift from the business arena to a whirlwind of family activities that would make anyone's head swim.

His daughter Lauren is expecting his first grandchild, and her younger sister, Allison, is preparing to graduate from Georgetown University in May and planning to be married June 1, and his retirement is coming up in just a few months.

The Carpenters spent this past weekend in Chicago with Lauren, who went into premature labor and who, he said, will have to remain hospitalized until she is at least 34 weeks along.

Carpenter admitted to bragging rights concerning both his daughters, both of whom graduated from Duke University and both of whom obtained MBAs, Lauren from Vanderbilt and Allison from Georgetown. Both girls, who are three years apart in age, were named Miss Sacred Heart Academy in Louisville.

And both are married to, or will marry, attorneys: Lauren is married to Jim Irving, and Allison is engaged to Josh Oyster.

Carpenter said he is looking forward to moving back to Louisville after he retires to be near his father, James Carpenter, who lives at Amber Oaks in Shelbyville.

"Mom [Sally] passed away a few years ago, and since I'm an only kid – although we have dear friends from Simpsonville Baptist Church who help look after him – there's really no one else in the family to take care of him," he said. “So I’m looking forward to being able to spend more time with him.”

Carpenter chuckled when talking about another great love of his that he is looking forward to indulging more after he retires, a love about which he has been a bit fickle over the years.

"College basketball has always been a great love of mine," he said. "I grew up a Kentucky fan. I mean, everybody was in Shelby County in those days, but once I went to IU, I changed my allegiance, and then when the kids when to Duke, I picked up a rooting interest there.

“It got a little sticky at times, but the good thing about it was, rooting for all those teams, I sure had my share of wins over the years."

 

Remember:

Walt Carpenter

 

Full name:Walton T. Carpenter

Job Title:Senior Vice President of Strategy and Marketing at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

Education:Shelby County High School (1970); Indiana University, degree in political science (1974) and Master of Business Administration Indiana University (1979).

Hometown:Simpsonville.

Now Lives:Winston-Salem N.C.

Age:60.

Family:Wife, Monica, daughters Lauren Irving and Allison