Dole chairman pledges $50 million to Carolina research

May. 08, 2013 @ 08:16 PM

The chairman of Dole Food Company Inc. on Wednesday pledged $50 million to support ongoing operations of a research institute at a collaborative campus in Kannapolis that he founded to help bring back an area affected by the closure of a textile mill.

David Murdock, 90, spoke at the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club to announce funding for the David H. Murdock Research Institute, a nonprofit contract laboratory at the North Carolina Research Campus. Research at the campus is focused on studies for improving health, agriculture and food to prevent or fight disease.

“I do have quite a few doctorate degrees, but they’re all honorary,” Murdock said, adding that he has an eighth-grade education and started work when he was 14. He said he built a big company and it started growing bigger.

Murdock’s net worth was $2.4 billion in March, according to Forbes. Dole, a producer, marketer and distributor of fruit and vegetables, reported revenues of $1.05 billion in the first quarter that ended in March and a net loss of $65 million.

“So I find that associating with the kind of brains at the head table, and the kinds of brains in the audience, kinda makes up for my lack of brains, because I can always lean on them, and they have all the knowledge that I don’t have,” Murdock said. “And so I agglomerate all of us together for the good of mankind.”

Murdock has invested more than $131 million since 2007 in the David H. Murdock Research Institute, according to a news release. He’s invested, in total, more than $600 million in the campus.

There are 16 partners involved in the campus, including companies such as Monsanto as well as universities such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Work for a Duke University project into use of genetics to personalize treatments is backed by $35 million from a gift from Murdock, and is conducted at the lab.

The press conference on Wednesday included UNC system President Tom Ross and Dr. Victor Dzau, Duke University’s chancellor of health affairs.

Ross said the funding comes at a significant time, helping the campus to compete for research dollars from the federal government and private enterprise.

Dr. Robert Califf, vice chancellor for clinician and translation research at the Duke University Medical Center, described research funding challenges including cuts to the National Institutes of Health through the sequester, the automatic federal budget cuts that were approved as a tool to get congressional leaders to act on deficit reduction.

The sequester included $85 billion in cuts to fiscal year 2013 federal spending, starting March 1, half of that to defense programs.

Califf said that the economic downturn slowed progress on the campus, but didn’t stop it.

“This is really going to give us leverage compared to the competition,” he said of Murdock’s pledge.

The annual funding allocation for the campus through the UNC system has not reached its expected target, said Steven Lommel, David H. Murdock Research Institute interim president and the assistant vice chancellor for research at N.C. State University.

Although state funding hasn’t increased according to plan, he said, funding was not cut.

“It was a terrible economic crisis … even in those tough times they were showing support for the campus,” he said.

Murdock said the economic downturn did slow him down, but it didn’t “stop my love for North Carolina, and particularly my love for scientific research.”

“Every time they say ‘I want some money’ in some other state,’ I sort of shrink back and say, ‘we only have money for North Carolina,’” he said.

Murdock said he’s owned a home in North Carolina, and bought land nearby for the Kannapolis campus to do something to help the state following what he described as the dissolution of the state’s textile industry.

“There was a large piece of ground not too far from my home, and I thought, ‘What could I do with that property that might be good?’” he said.

The campus is located on the site of what was previously a Pillowtex Corp. textile mill, which closed in 2003. The property and mill was at one time part of the Cannon Mills Co., which was sold to a company owned by Murdock in 1982, according to the website.

It was subsequently sold by that company as well.

“That was the beginning of what has been going on for some period of time,” he said.

Murdock said he wants to see some research results from the campus. He said he believes that people can avoid most diseases with knowledge of what and how to eat. He said he eats fruit, vegetables and seafood.

“I have felt the results were too slow in coming, so I’m pushing, pushing,” he said. “Let’s make some major discoveries.”