Lawrence M. Gressette, Jr. (Born Feb. 2,1932)
If asked, Lawrence M. Gressette Jr. is happy to share some advice for young people considering their future. “Be dedicated, diligent and passionate about what you are trying to achieve,” he said. “You are not going to be the best unless you have a passion about what you are trying to achieve and reach for goals that at the time might seem unattainable.”
A corporate innovator, a champion for education and a compassionate community leader, Gressette has had plenty to be passionate about.
Born in St. Matthews on February 2, 1932, Gressette is the only child of the legendary Sen. Marion Gressette and Florence Howell Gressette. Sen. Gressette, known as the “Gray Fox,” was an individual of unquestioned honor and integrity — a leader with the courage to stand for his convictions.
It is those values that shaped Gressette. “My father always believed that a good name is the best asset you can have,” he said. “He also stressed that you must be responsible for what you do. I think that my parents’ emphasis on values and character had a lot to do with whatever success I’ve achieved.”
As a high school student in St. Matthews, Gressette knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. He wanted to be a lawyer. Did he see himself as chairman and chief executive officer of one of South Carolina’s largest and most successful companies?
“Absolutely not,” he said, punctuated with a chuckle. “My goal was to be a lawyer, and to be a good one.”
In pursuit of that goal, Gressette went to Clemson to study history and English literature to prepare for law school. He also played fullback for the Tigers and Coach Frank Howard. Gressette graduated with honors from Clemson and entered the University of South Carolina Law School.
Gressette’s studies at USC were interrupted by military service — he was a 1st lieutenant in the U.S. Army Infantry — but he returned to finish first in his law school class.
After law school, Gressette was recruited by several firms to join their practice. The best offer came from his hometown ... and a firm he was quite familiar with.
“I had some offers to practice law,” he said. “Then my father invited me to join his practice, where I worked for more than 20 years.”
During his early years as a lawyer, Gressette did the things you would expect a general practitioner to do. He handled domestic law work, criminal law and real estate transactions. Then, John Lumpkin Sr., who was doing some work for Carolina Pipeline, introduced him to the chairman and chief executive officer of the company. That’s how Lawrence Gressette met John Warren. It was a meeting that would change Gressette’s professional life.
Soon, Gressette was doing more and more work in utility and regulatory law. His family law firm grew, added more attorneys and established a statewide practice. During that time, the relationship between Gressette and Warren continued to grow. One of Gressette’s projects for Carolina Pipeline was the creation of a holding company. Carolina Energies Inc. made it possible for Warren’s company to go into non-regulated enterprises.
Gressette has described Warren as a mentor, so when Carolina Energies Inc. was purchased by South Carolina Electric and Gas in 1982 and Warren was named SCE&G president, it was no surprise that Warren asked Gressette to join his management staff.
Gressette said no thank you.
“John called me one day and asked me if I wanted to stop practicing law and come to Columbia to work for SCE&G. I turned him down a couple of times,” he said. “Finally he got in his car, drove to St. Matthews and persuaded me.” Gressette’s first day on the job at SCE&G was January 1, 1983.
Drawing on his experience with Carolina Pipeline, Warren felt that the business was reaching a point where a holding company would be a good structure for SCE&G. It became a project for Gressette and, a few years later, SCANA Corporation was born.
SCANA was about diversification. The newly formed company began looking into non-regulated businesses to ensure its future growth, and Gressette helped to set the company on a path that is taking it into that future. It seemed only natural when John Warren retired from SCANA in 1990 that the board of directors looked to Gressette to succeed him.
Gressette’s involvement in the corporate world also included service on the boards of Wachovia Corporation, Powertel, Liberty Corporation, Edison Electric Institute, and others.
He retired as chairman of the board and chief executive officer of SCANA in February 1997, but it hasn’t been all golf and relaxation. In fact, it is just the opposite.
Gressette is actively involved in the leadership of civic and charitable activities in his community and the state. He has served on the boards of the United Way, Columbia Chamber of Commerce, ETV Endowment of South Carolina, Central Carolina Community Foundation, and the Columbia Museum of Art. He was a member of the South Carolina Business and Industry Political Education Committee (BIPEC); Palmetto Business Forum; advisory board of the Children's Trust Fund; the steering committee of the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts; and past president of the South Carolina Orchestra Association.
Gressette’s interest in education is well known. He has often said that the quality of education in South Carolina, from kindergarten through college, is vital to the economic well-being of the state and the quality of life of its citizens.
During his tenure as head of SCANA, support for education was a hallmark commitment. The company supported scholarships, faculty chairs, homework centers, and a unique mobile literacy training center called “The Coach,” a high-tech bus that took training programs and computers to rural areas before distance-education days.
He served as chairman of the Council of College Presidents’ Blue Ribbon Committee on Higher Education, as well as a board member of the USC Business Partnership Foundation and Midlands Technical College Foundation. He was a member of the S.C. Commission on Higher Education and he served on the Governor’s Restructuring Commission.
In 1989, Gressette was named a life trustee for Clemson University, and in 1995 he became chairman of Clemson’s Board of Trustees. He has helped lead Clemson through a university-wide restructuring, two presidential searches and two capital campaigns.
Gressette received the Distinguished Service Award from Clemson University and the Tree of Life Award from the Jewish National Fund in 1992. He was named the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce’s Business Person of the Year in 1994 and was honored with the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian honor, in 1996.
In 2000, he received Clemson’s highest public tribute, the Clemson Medallion. He also has honorary degrees from the College of Charleston and USC Aiken. He was inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame in 2003.
Why is being involved in the community so important to Gressette?
“I believe we all have an obligation to be good corporate and individual citizens,” he said. “That involves a lot of things, a willingness to participate in a variety of community activities and affairs. It goes beyond the normal charitable type endeavors to doing those things that improve the quality of life.”
At SCANA, Gressette helped to set an example by being actively involved in all facets of the community. “We had employees who were scoutmasters, who served on city and county councils and who sat on various boards of directors,” he said. “They didn’t do it because of any expectation from me. They did it because of the culture of our organization.”
It’s a culture that developed over a long period of time, according to Gressette. “I was not responsible for it. My predecessors were very active in the community and I have been active. It is the culture of our corporation to participate throughout the state in the communities that we serve.”
Gressette does find some time to relax. He plays golf and reads (his favorites are history books and mysteries). He also enjoys spending time with his family — his spouse Felicia, their three children and six grand- children. “I have been blessed with a wonderful family,” he said.
As someone who personifies the advice that he offers young people, Lawrence Gressette’s life and career are marked by a passion for giving back to the community and for making a difference for South Carolinians. It is evident in his business acumen, his deep-rooted concern for education and his dedication to community service.
Gressette is still setting goals that will help South Carolina be a better place to live and work. It’s a personal philosophy that continues to pay off.
He was inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame in 2003.
© 2003 South Carolina Business Hall of Fame