In the 1920s, John Crosland Sr. struggled to build a thriving real estate and lumber business in Charlotte, N.C., only to lose it all—as millions did—in the Great Depression. But perhaps most painful for him was losing his own house and having to depend on his mother to shelter his young family.

John Crosland Jr. was barely out of nursery school when his father suffered that setback, but he has never forgotten the hard lessons of the '30s, and the value of a home as the centerpiece of family life. Even amid remarkable growth, beginning with the founding of the John Crosland Co. in 1937 to build single-family homes to a present-day diversified real estate empire valued at more than $1.5 billion, the Croslands have always served as strong advocates of affordable housing.

At the same time, John Crosland Jr. has kept his father's values alive by aggressively supporting all manner of causes in his hometown of Charlotte: Habitat for Humanity, scholarships for children in public housing, generous donations to hospitals and colleges, community revitalization, and much more.

“Over the years, John has provided leadership, donated countless hours, and made considerable financial contributions to organizations focused on building stronger communities and families,” says Paul Leonard, a former Crosland executive who recently headed Habitat for Humanity.

TOTAL COMMITMENT: John Crosland Jr., left, seen here with Bert Green, executive director of Habitat  for Humanity–Charlotte, N.C., has spearheaded countless projects  in his hometown—from affordable housing and education to the arts  and healthcare.
TOTAL COMMITMENT: John Crosland Jr., left, seen here with Bert Green, executive director of Habitat for Humanity–Charlotte, N.C., has spearheaded countless projects in his hometown—from affordable housing and education to the arts and healthcare.

HIS GREATEST PASSION
Those who know Crosland will tell you that he never does anything halfway. It's always full steam ahead. Case in point is his love affair with Habitat for Humanity, the nation's premier “sweat equity” program to shelter low-income families.

In 1983, Crosland learned that a group of Charlotte churches wanted to do something about housing the poor, recalls Bert Green, executive director of the Charlotte affiliate of Habitat for Humanity. Crosland's reaction: Shuttle the church leaders down to Habitat's Americus, Ga., headquarters. Says Green: “John was captivated by Millard Fuller's (Habitat founder) passion, energy, and drive, and he wanted to be part of a mission that was much bigger than his own causes in Charlotte.”

As a result of that visit, Crosland founded Habitat's Charlotte affiliate and served as its chairman for six years. He personally contributed $190,000 toward the construction of six homes and inspired countless others in the city to lend their support to the organization. A highlight of those early years was Habitat's 1987 selection of Charlotte as the site of the weeklong Jimmy Carter work project. The event drew enormous press coverage, including photos of Crosland and President Carter lifting a sheet of drywall.

Since then, Habitat's Charlotte affiliate has grown to become one of the nation's strongest, housing some 700 families over the years. And the nonprofit continues to be the cause closest to Crosland's heart. “It is a ministry where you bring together for one very good purpose the affluent and the people who are struggling to keep a roof over their heads,” he says.

Not only has he continued to be a staunch supporter, but key Crosland executives have served as active board members of Habitat-Charlotte, including Todd Mans-field, who took over as Crosland's president and CEO from Crosland himself in 1999.

FORCEFUL LEADER
Mansfield notes that Crosland is “legendary” in his outspoken opposition to regulations that add to building costs and can ultimately price families out of housing. “To this day, he still writes letters to government officials,” says Mansfield.

In the same vein, recalls Mansfield, the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency was “sleepy” in its pursuit of affordable housing until Crosland became its chairman in 1977. Under his leadership, the agency issued nearly $120 million in low-income housing bonds in three years—versus just $16 million in the two years prior to his involvement. That flurry of funding generated 5,000 single-family units and 2,250 apartments for low- and moderate-income families.

Over the years, the Crosland company has been quick to master and implement government affordable-housing programs. For example, it has built and managed many low-income tax credit projects, including two new showcase Hope VI developments in Charlotte on sites that once contained dilapidated public housing. Two top Crosland executives focus full-time on affordable housing programs.

On the commercial side, too, Crosland has been the go-to guy on pivotal revitalization projects in Charlotte. When the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Development Corp. (CMDC) was formed in 1997 to establish an industrial park area in a depressed part of the city's west side, Crosland raised his hand to become its first chairman, donated $5,000 of his own money, and helped raise $7 million for the overall project. All this delighted Lawrence Toliver, the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce executive charged with finding a leader for CMDC. “I knew if we could get John, we would have the benefit of someone who would go full throttle.”

And he did, including leading the charge for city-charter changes that allowed CMDC to exercise eminent domain in the event of opposition from the tangle of 18 property owners in the deteriorating 33-acre brownfield site. “A business executive who didn't have the ongoing relationships with local and state government officials would not have succeeded,” says Toliver, who adds that the resulting Wilkinson Park Business Center is spawning other facelift projects.

PRESIDENTIAL PARTNER: A newspaper clipping from 1987 shows John Crosland (in shorts) working on a  home with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter during a weeklong Habitat for Humanity  building blitz in Charlotte, N.C.
PRESIDENTIAL PARTNER: A newspaper clipping from 1987 shows John Crosland (in shorts) working on a home with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter during a weeklong Habitat for Humanity building blitz in Charlotte, N.C.

EDUCATION BOOSTER
Those who know Charlotte aren't surprised at Crosland's success in the west side renewal. “John Crosland would easily be on everyone's list of the top 10 people who have had the greatest impact on this city,” says Claude Lilly, dean of the Belk College of Business at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Dean Lilly knows first-hand Crosland's influence and generosity, which includes endowing a new John Crosland Sr. real estate chair at Belk and spearheading the funding of a real estate center at the school for graduate courses and research. Total financial commitment: $4 million dollars.

Here, too, Crosland was no passive participant. When Lilly and Crosland met for lunch to discuss candidates for the endowed real estate chair, the dean was surprised to find that the two had arrived at the same first choice: real estate expert Steven Ott of the University of Kentucky. “As usual, John had done his homework,” recalls Lilly.

Crosland also has set up the John Crosland Jr. Foundation and the John Crosland Jr. Control Trust to funnel a portion of company profits to such causes as the Foundation for the Carolinas and Crosland's alma maters, Davidson College and Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va.

“John is a real visionary, and he has seeded and delivered facilities and programs at EHS that wouldn't be here without his energy and commitment,” says F. Robertson Hershey, headmaster of Episcopal High School. While Crosland served as a trustee and chair of the building committee, the high school built a new chapel, art center, alumni house and dorms. Crosland also has donated generously to programs at Episcopal and other schools to help students with learning disabilities. “I had to work twice as hard or maybe even four times as hard as the next person,” says Crosland in recalling his own early battles with dyslexia.

Taking into account these diverse causes, Crosland has given away more than a half million dollars annually over the last five years, with plans to increase that amount to $700,000 annually for the next five. Like his father before him, Crosland keeps much of this charity private. “He is a soft touch,” says Mansfield. “For example, there was the mother who was in danger of losing her house, and the man who needed money to start a coffee-house ministry. He helps such people all the time.”

Adds Leonard: “So much of what matters in business today is measured in dollars alone. John's life work reminds us that we can be a success in business and at the same time help people and better our communities.”

JOHN CROSLAND JR.
AGE:
78
POSITION:
Chairman, Crosland, Charlotte, N.C.
CHARITABLE WORK:
Includes Habitat for Humanity, Charlotte Housing Authority Youth Scholarships, University of North Carolina, Davidson College, Episcopal High School (Alexandria, Va.)
AWARD:
$200,000

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Charlotte, NC.