The former CEO of Caterpillar was honored as an Outstanding Alumni Award winner at the 2022 CALS Alumni Awards Ceremony on Friday, Sept. 9. Owens completed all three of his degrees at NC State, including a master’s in textile technology and a doctorate in economics.
Owens wanted to stay in-state for college, and his best subjects were math and science, so the decision to come to NC State from his hometown of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, was easy.
He decided to major in textile chemistry, as textiles was the largest industry in North Carolina at the time and one that recruited students heavily. However, he soon switched to textile technology after discovering he was colorblind.
While working towards his textile degree, Owens took micro and macroeconomics, courses that first sparked his interest in economics.
“I didn’t know anything about economics when I came to NC State, ” he said. “But I really enjoyed the courses, subject matter and the implications economics had for political policy. So I got keenly interested in it.”
This interest grew as Owens completed his undergraduate degree and started his master’s program in textile technology.
“NC State offered me an opportunity for work-study, and opportunities to get a master’s degree while essentially being employed,” he said. “So I stayed at the textiles school but concentrated as much as feasible on economics, statistics and operations research.”
He was accepted into the economics Ph.D. program and easily transitioned into working towards his doctorate. His research combined his two fields of study, textiles and economics, exploring the law at the time that prevented mergers and acquisitions in the textile industry.
“My dissertation was on the textile mill products, and whether they had monopoly profits or not,” Owens said. “It was interesting because it tied me back to the textile industry, and the southeast as well as to the textile school, and was in line with the statistics and economics degree that I was receiving.”
When Owens looks back on his time in the economics program, he remembers the professors who taught and guided him.
“People like Tom Grennes, who nominated me for this honor, and Bruce Gardner, who were young Ph.D.s from the University of Chicago. At the time the Chicago Economics Department, led by Milton Friedman, was widely considered the best in the country,” he said. “Both Tom and Bruce were terrific teachers who had an inspirational impact on me.”
A Career at Caterpillar
As Owens drew closer to completing his doctorate, he had several job offers related to his textiles and economics background but never imagined he would be a CEO one day.
“I hardly knew what a CEO was at that time,” he said. “I had an opportunity to teach at NC State in the textile school, specializing in marketing and production management control. I thought that would be a terrific lifestyle and give me a lot of flexibility.”
When the dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and head of the Economics Department approached him about interviewing with Caterpillar, Owens was reluctant to meet with the company. He was surprised to find that the job aligned with his interests.
“I was fascinated by how Caterpillar used economics,” he said. “They had a professional economics department that did econometric modeling. They were a global company, which spoke to my academic interests. And I felt like here’s a place I’d use my education.”
Shortly after that initial interview, Owens was hired as a corporate economist for Caterpillar and moved to Peoria, Illinois. From there, he was able to move up in the ranks, eventually becoming the CEO in 2004.
During his time at Caterpillar, Owens had the opportunity to live in Geneva, Switzerland for five years while serving as the chief economist for Europe, Africa and the Middle East region.
“Living in Geneva was a phenomenal experience for both me and my family,” he said. “It was a very international city. I got to form associations with the economists headquartered around Geneva and with the World Bank and U.N. people all coming and going from Geneva.”
After this experience, Owens began to think more about his journey in the corporate world. He took on several different managerial positions before becoming CEO. Being in critical decision-making roles was difficult, especially when the company encountered difficult times in the early 1980s and had to restructure to survive the global market.
“I was often thinking that I might need to find another company to work for, but I was pretty determined to try to position Caterpillar to fight another day,” he said. “And we did. We transformed our manufacturing operations and thought much more globally about our sourcing.”
Giving Back to the Pack
During Owens’ last year of CEO tenure, former Chancellor James L. Oblinger asked him if he would consider joining the Board of Trustees.
“Many good things began to happen for me at NC State, so I felt like I owed the university a lot,” Owens said. “During my 38 years at Caterpillar and moving around the world, I followed NC State sports but was pretty far removed from the university towards the end of my CEO tenure.”
When he was offered this opportunity to get reengaged with North Carolina and serve on the board, Owens gladly took it. He brought his corporate background to the board in areas like risk management and auditing for the eight years he served.
“I had the opportunity to serve as chair of the board my last couple of years as a trustee,” he said. “I can’t say enough positive things about it, but it got me reintroduced to NC State and got me thinking about creating opportunities for other young people to go there.”
Owens and his wife decided to create a need-based scholarship for students from northeastern counties. The Nellie Maude Matthews Owens Scholarship Endowment was named after his mother, who worked hard to put Owens and his brother through college.
Most recently, Owens created the James W. Owens Distinguished Chair in International Economics, held jointly between the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the Poole College of Management. The chair is also in partnership with the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a nonprofit research institution in Washington DC devoted to studying international economic policy.
“I’m a firm believer that international economics is critically important for the country, people in North Carolina, and both of our colleges,” Owens said. “It’s a joint appointment and I think it’s incredibly important that we continue to be a leader in creating a stable world order for economic trade, which elevates all boats.”
In 2021, Luca David Opromolla was hired as the Owens Distinguished Professor of International Economics. Owens looks forward to the future of the partnership between CALS and PCOM.
“I’m delighted that NC State and the Peterson Institute were able to attract Luca and get him to Raleigh, and I think he brings a strong resume of international economics to the table,” he said. “We’ve got terrific faculty in both Poole College and Ag Econ that he can interface with, and I hope we’ll be able to build that professorship out into a center that will create a strong presence in Raleigh and tie in global economic policy.”
Congratulations, Dr. Owens, and thank you for all you have done for NC State!
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