Born to Lead

Elise Peters Carey has blazed her own trail—and is poised to take over as CEO of her family’s considerable business holdings

by Carolyn M. Brown

Growing up, Elise Peters Carey observed her parents in their business endeavors when she would accompany them to work. She has a distinct memory as a 10-year-old of being at a branch of the Bank of North Carolina, where her father, Dr. Lenny Peters, was a founding member. Someone asked her, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” She emphatically answered, “I want to be a businesswoman!” even though she did not exactly know what that meant. Beyond watching her father build businesses (and her mother manage properties), “the other thing that was very formative for me as a child was a desire to excel and to push myself,” she recalls.

Today, Peters Carey, 33, oversees Peters Holdings’ diverse portfolio of subsidiaries operating within commercial real estate, health care, and financial services. Peters Carey is the president of Peters Development LLC, the company’s primary real estate development and investment arm, which has completed over $100 million worth of real estate transactions mostly in North Carolina’s Piedmont Triad region (including the three major cities of Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point). In addition, she serves as president of Bethany Medical Center, a large independent provider of medical services in the Triad, which was founded in 1987 by her father, who serves as its CEO as well as CEO of Peters Holdings.

Since Peters Carey joined the company in 2017, Bethany Medical Center has grown, increasing the quantity of its providers from 30 to 48 and expanding the number of locations from three to seven, with plans for at least two more sites. “Within Bethany Medical Center, our focus has always been mission driven,” she says. “We are open seven days a week. We accept all forms of insurance. We have later hours. That accessibility has really spoken to the community.”

Assuming the position of president at Bethany Medical Center has been a large undertaking. “Through that role I help manage our seven locations, our providers, and 300 employees providing primary care, urgent care, and specialty care to thousands of patients,” she says. “That could be anything from looking at a new location to bringing on new providers and staff to reviewing our current processes.”

The other businesses operated by Peters Holdings are Peters Medical Research and Kerala Capital Partners, a real estate private equity firm. Peters Medical Research, a group of health professionals, provides a way for drug companies and individuals with certain medical conditions to test new products coming into the pharmaceutical industry.

“We’ve also seen a need within the lab space for a local, minority-owned, independent reference lab. With the additional needs for fast service and low cost, we’ve been able to provide that,” Peters Carey says, further noting “our independent clinical laboratory, LJP Lab, has also grown significantly.”

Under her leadership, Peters Development has increased its real estate portfolio, including the acquisition and renovation of an area shopping center that was rebranded as Peters Plaza. Tenants of the 36,296-square-foot retail space range from an orthodontics practice to a dry cleaners and a bakery to a cellphone store. Peters Carey strategized with her father and managed the internal team in evaluating, purchasing, and operationalizing the new properties.

Peters Holdings is truly a family affair. Peters Carey’s sister Nicole Peters works in Bethany Medical Center’s IT operations. Two other siblings—Shirin and Anthony Peters—are not involved in any of the businesses but serve on the board of directors of the Lenny Peters Foundation. Peters Carey, who is married with two young children, is also a director at the family namesake nonprofit, which sponsors three orphanages in Kerala, India, with about 240 children under care. She was a founder of the foundation’s most recent orphanage, the Lenny Peters Home for Girls. Peters Carey also sits on the board of Carolina State Bank and is vice chair of the Blue Ridge Bankshares Board.

As the Peters family positions their companies for the next 30 years, Peters Carey is on track to assume the CEO role. Dr. Peters says he admires the sort of strength that his daughter has brought to the company, noting that he goes to Peters Carey for negotiations because “millennials like her don’t get intimated by another CEO in the room or powerful people sitting across the table.”

Outside of using technology to apply solutions to problems, what differentiates millennials, according to Peters Carey, is how they approach their careers with a desire to find a deeper purpose in what they are doing. “They’re very willing to work hard, but they want it to mean something,” she says. Being able to directly impact businesses was the reason for her return to her family’s business empire.

After graduating from high school, Peters Carey was interested in broadening her horizons and pushing herself out of her comfort zone. She landed at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 2007 with a BS in economics. She began her career consulting for New York financial institutions on market data, treasury services, and capital management. She then moved over to the client side when she joined Capital One in the business strategy department, where she helped the bank identify ways to optimize its capital structure. Her crowning achievement was creating a new valuation model for joint ventures that improved financial forecasting.

Peters Carey returned to Wharton and earned an MBA in 2015, then accepted a strategic financial job with American Express in New York City. Much of her focus was on analysis and communications, particularly with the investor relations community, helping to convey the bank’s financial performance.

She had forged her path in New York, totally independent of the family business. But something was missing. “I enjoyed that role, [but] I found that I wasn’t very fulfilled,” Peters Carey says. “I felt like I had no purpose.” Once her father began to talk to his children about creating a succession plan, she came to the realization there were a lot more opportunities to build upon a range of businesses that had grown over 30 years with a solid foundation in the community and where she could use her business management skill set to make a real impact. With a newfound purpose, she returned to the place where it all began.

Peters Carey, who is Indian American, says that her ethnic background hasn’t directly influenced her leadership style but indirectly, as it is part of her identity. She grew up watching and learning how her father operated in a historically white male society—which is a challenge for any woman to navigate. Dr. Peters left Kerala, India, and completed his training as a physician in London and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and at Wake Forest University before establishing a medical practice and settling in High Point, North Carolina, to raise a family. He entered the financial services arena in the early 1990s during the savings and loan crisis, forming the Bank of North Carolina and chairing its loan committee.

Comparatively speaking, Peters Carey is a bit more data-centric and focused on the operational details, whereas her father is a big picture visionary who operates with instinct in how he deals with people and opportunities. She notes that this mix of leadership styles works well—in effect, between the two they have all the bases covered. “I think in any organization you need to look at your strengths and weaknesses, and try to optimize that [knowledge],” she says.

Peters Carey’s Ivy League education and corporate training were critical in sharpening her strategic and critical thinking skills. “The difference between a corporate culture and a founder-driven entrepreneurial culture is the pace of decision-making,” she explains. “In some of my past roles, being good at your job was about being able to reach out to many different departments and get buy-in for your idea to move it forward. Here, you need to provide a larger vision and get buy-in from your team to achieve those goals.”

Succession planning is a key component of C-suite replacement, and the Peters family has taken a structured approach in preparing Peters Carey to assume the CEO role. This included hiring a New York succession management firm and a group of lawyers and accountants to implement short-term and long-term procedures. They also interviewed other family-owned enterprises where the founder handed over the reins to a son or daughter.
The succession plan calls for Dr. Peters to transition Peters Carey over a period of time. He’s already begun to shift certain responsibilities. To train her, for two years he took a step back from the banking world after the acquisition of the Bank of North Carolina by Pinnacle Financial Partners, based in Nashville, for $2 billion in 2017. He has provided tutelage to his daughter on the inner workings of the organization and has served as a guide.

Peters Carey says she has learned a great deal from her father and tries to soak up all the knowledge she can from him. For example, she employed an out-of-the-ordinary tactic her first year at the company: she put her desk in her father’s office—right next to his. She listened to his phone conversations, watched the people who came to see him, and sat in on his meetings. She now has her own separate office.

Peters Carey is passionate about women’s leadership development. Although not every woman seeking to move into the C-suite will be able to put a desk in the boss’s office, she can position herself for leadership positions through mentoring, development, and stretch assignments, she says.

No matter your current seat in the company, “be proactive,” she says. “Do a self-assessment of your skill set and fill in any gaps. Discuss this with your boss, with the people in the company you respect. Make sure that you’re an avid communicator and create opportunities to be seen and to be heard, because your male colleagues will be doing that. You don’t have to be pushy or elbow others, but look for opportunities to give your opinion or take on a project that you think would give you the most visibility.”

Peters Carey acknowledges that in order for more women to be promoted into the C-suite, senior management has to be more intentional about putting women in positions of leadership. They also need to be more mindful of unconscious biases, especially against women of color. But it’s about more than overcoming gender or ethnic biases in the workplace. One thing that women cannot afford to do is take a back seat in managing their careers, Peters Carey contends. As women, she says, we cannot wait for that tap on the shoulder to say, “you’re promoted” or “I’d like you to take on this stretch assignment.”

Peters Carey says that more often than not, women underestimate their abilities and their performance. A 2014 report by HP found that men are ready and willing to apply for a job if they meet only 60 percent of the qualifications, while women consider applying only if they meet 100 percent of the requirements, as cited in The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know. “The advice that I give myself, and other women,” Peters Carey says, “is to push yourself when you may not feel comfortable or you may not have every single thing to prepare you for a new position. You have to trust that you’ll learn as you go.”

One of the biggest challenges she sees women face is speaking up and speaking out. “Girls more than boys are taught to be polite—to wait for their turn to speak. And I think that leads to us [as women] not being heard,” Peters Carey says. “Men have no issue with raising their voice, not in a rude way, but as a way to be heard. Don’t wait your turn, hoping people will give you opportunities. Go out and make those bold asks.” DW
Carolyn M. Brown is an award-winning journalist, author, and playwright. She is the coauthor of Climb: Taking Every Step with Conviction, Courage, and Calculated Risk to Achieve a Thriving Career and a Successful Life (Open Lens, 2018).

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