March 29, 2009 -- For 30 years Gloria Jean Craven was an employee of Pillowtex, the nation's third-largest home textile manufacturer. When the plant abruptly filed for bankruptcy protection and closed its doors in 2003, she and more than 8,000 workers lost their jobs, plunging the blue-collar community of Kannapolis, N.C., into a state of economic flux that lingers nearly six years later.
"I used to think I was middle class. But now we are living at the poverty level," the 56-year-old mother of two said in a speech at the Democratic National Convention last summer.
One billionaire is hoping to help revive Craven's community and create thousands of jobs along the way. Three years ago, David Murdock, who made a fortune in Dole produce and Hawaiian real estate, broke ground on a new $1.5 billion (total investment) biotechnology research center on the old Pillowtex mill site.
The North Carolina Research Campus is partnering with Rowan Cabarrus Community College's R3 Center, a training ground for local displaced and underemployed workers. This August, the college will introduce two associate degree programs in biotechnology, aimed at targeting the needs of NCRC. Right now the campus is advertising for lab assistants, researchers and plant managers at David H. Murdock Research Institute and NCRC-affiliated state universities. Analysts project NCRC will create 30,000 direct and indirect new jobs by 2027.
Over the years, billionaires like Murdock have been responsible for creating thousands of jobs. They started some of the country's biggest employers, including companies like Wal-Mart, Microsoft and Dell, to name a few. In 2002, Home Depot--founded by billionaires Bernard Marcus and Arthur Blank--partnered with the U.S. Department of Labor to hire 40,000 associates a year. In 2006, Microsoft added 10,081 worldwide hires, the most in its history.
This year, these businesses, like the moguls who founded them, are feeling the economic pinch: In January, Microsoft announced an 18-month plan to eliminate 5,000 jobs across its research and development, marketing, sales, finance, legal, human resources and information technology departments. Home Depot slashed 7,000 positions. While the Walton family's Wal-Mart just announced it was giving a reported $2 billion to its hourly employees, the nation's largest retailer said in February that it was laying off 700 employees at its Bentonville, Ark., headquarters and another 1,200 Canadian employees.
Bucking the layoff trend are a handful of billionaire businesses ranging from Google to trendy fashion retailer Hennes & Mauritz that are hanging up "Help Wanted" signs even in this dismal economy.
Just around the corner from Murdock's biotech center in Kannapolis, in Cary, N.C., is SAS, the world's largest privately owned software company, run by billionaires John Sall and James Goodnight. The company enjoyed record sales of $2.3 billion last year and increased its number of employees by 3.5%. It is now looking to fill a few dozen slots at its U.S. headquarters; the jobs will focus on R&D and sales for new ventures in Latin America and Malaysia.
Dallas tycoon H. Ross Perot's eponymous Perot Systems is also adding jobs. "Perot Systems continues to pursue our global growth strategy of expanding in every geography, which currently includes 25 countries," says Chief Executive Peter Altabef.
It is opening a new Chennai, India, facility expected to generate 1,000 jobs by year's end and is also looking to add staff in Romania. Back in the U.S., construction is under way for a 150,000 square foot facility in Lincoln, Neb., that will create an additional 150 positions.
The recession's blight on the automotive industry has frugal drivers eschewing new cars and opting instead to tinker with what they've got. That bodes well for American billionaire Edward Lampert and possibly for some unemployed auto workers; the stock of auto parts chain AutoZone, in which Lampert has a large stake, is up 45% in the last 12 months and its second-quarter 2009 profit rose 9%, thrashing Wall Street's expectations. During the first quarter of 2009, AutoZone opened 20 new U.S. stores (and closed just one) and eight in Mexico. The company says that hiring and retraining employees is a major focus of 2009.
The economic downturn has actually helped boost several billionaire businesses and spurred them to add jobs. The discount-shopping sector, for instance, is red hot right now as savvy "recessionistas" hunt for all sorts of bargains.
German billionaire Karl Albrecht's discount supermarket chain, Aldi, is planning 80 new stores in 29 U.S. states, including its first in New York City. It is holding a series of recruiting events for district managers and trainees this month in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia. H&M, headed by Swedish billionaire Stefan Persson, is opening 225 stores this year, a plan that will reportedly create 7,000 new jobs.
So if you are unemployed, consider trying to get a job working for one of these billionaire-owned businesses. It almost certainly won't make you as rich as the founders but perhaps the post will offer a bit more job security than a lot of companies out there.