From 1982 until 1986, Murdock owned Cannon Mills, a sheet and towel manufacturer in western North Carolina. When he bought the company, he also acquired downtown Kannapolis, a quaint row of shops and restaurants; about 2,200 rental houses; and Pity's Sake, a sprawling lodge on the outskirts of town. He owned several mansions by then — as well as 98 percent of the Hawaiian island Lanai. When he sold the textile business, he held on to Kannapolis' shops and rental housing, as well as Pity's Sake.
In 2003 the mill's owner declared the company unable to compete with overseas manufacturers and closed. In the largest layoff in North Carolina history, 4,340 people in Kannapolis lost their jobs overnight. With no industry to replace textile manufacturing, the downtown quickly became a ghost town. "There was absolutely no hope," recalls Ryan Dayvault, a Kannapolis native whose great-great-grandfather owned the farmland upon which the textile mills were built.
Unless someone could revive the mill property, Murdock's investments in Kannapolis would be close to worthless, and his lodge, Pity's Sake, would be marooned in a sea of economic despair. That lodge held precious memories — not only of Gabriele, but of their eldest son, Eugene, who had died at age 23 in a pool accident in the late 1980s. Pity's Sake had been the family's favorite place to celebrate holidays. "North Carolina was where you could have Thanksgiving and feel like it was Thanksgiving," Murdock remembers.
So when the bankrupt company's main mill complex came up for auction, Murdock wanted it. He put together a preliminary bid in the spring of 2004 and began working to iron out the details. Then, in October, Murdock's middle son, David Jr., died in a car accident at age 36. Murdock was shattered, but his plans were already in motion, and in December 2004 he won the main mill property with a bid of $6.375 million. (His youngest son, Justin, 39, works as a director of Dole and CEO of NovaRx, a pharmaceutical company in which father and son together have invested at least $35 million.)
Murdock has little to say about his personal tragedies, acknowledging only the duration of his crippling grief. "When my wife died, I couldn't work for a year," he says. "First son, another year. Second son, another year."
For the tycoon, redeveloping the mill site became more than a way to shore up his real estate interests. In his latest sorrow, it became a reason to live, according to Lynne Scott Safrit, president of North American commercial operations for Castle & Cooke, Murdock's real estate holdings company. "I think this project gave him motivation to get back up on the horse again," says Safrit, a Kannapolis native who began working for Murdock in the 1980s. "Losing his family has given him an inner drive to do something for other people."
But exactly what Murdock should do with the land was a mystery. During many late nights at Pity's Sake, he and Safrit tossed around ideas. A hospital? Senior housing? A country club? None of it seemed quite right. Finally, they asked, "What is North Carolina good at?"
The answer was clear: science. With its renowned Research Triangle Park — 150 miles east of Kannapolis — and a collection of esteemed universities throughout the state, North Carolina is the third-largest life sciences center in the country, after Massachusetts and California. Murdock's vision quickly fell into place. He would create lab space for researchers from the state's major universities, connect those researchers to scientists from the agriculture industry who could turn their discoveries into products, and provide affordable health care to locals. The campus's purpose: to discover plants' life-giving powers and deliver them to people.
Six hundred million dollars later, that vision is a reality. Opened in 2008, the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC) spans 350 acres, with more than a million square feet of labs and offices housed in 11 Georgian-style buildings on curving brick walkways. More than 15 academic institutions, companies and health care outlets maintain a presence there, making it one of the most diverse research sites in the world.