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December 1, 2015

Virginia Tech names dorm for Fauquier native and wife

That medical experience changed my life. So, when the door opened, I went flying through the door before I changed my mind.
— “J” Pearson on events that led to the founding of Carry-On Trailer Corp.
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Virginia Tech’s new, $45-million residence hall has a strong connection to a class project three decades ago at Cedar Lee Junior High School in Bealeton.

The university Nov. 20 dedicated Pearson Hall, a Corps of Cadets dorm named for James “J.” and Renae Pearson.

> Video at bottom of story.

A 1983 Fauquier High School graduate, Mr. Pearson founded, built and sold Carry-On Trailer Corp., a manufacturer with seven factories in six states and 1,000 employees. By the time he sold the company in 2010, Carry-On had built 1.3 million trailers, with Lowe’s and Tractor Supply as its top retailers.

In a sense, the company can trace its genesis to Mr. Pearson’s final year at Cedar Lee.

“I was learning to weld in my eighth-grade ag class,” the 50-year-old Fauquier native recalled in a telephone interview from his home in Georgia.

With help from classmates, Mr. Pearson built a 24-foot, gooseneck trailer to use on the family farm. The students also built a log-splitter.

Working on the farm with his father “Flash,” Mr. Pearson wanted a career in agriculture, but he leaned toward equipment, not cattle.

When it came time for college, he focused solely on Virginia Tech, where his mother Bernice had taken him and other 4-H’ers to participate in conferences for almost a decade.

At orientation on the Blacksburg campus, the incoming freshman liked what he heard from Lt. Gen. Howard M. Lane, the Corps of Cadets commandant.

“Just the way he talked,” Mr. Pearson recalled. “In 1983, there was a recession going on. Dad felt it (the military) was an opportunity for another job and that the corps would be good discipline for me . . . .

“I was kinda big-headed.”

The corps required focus and provided an ROTC scholarship. Mr. Pearson graduated in four years, with an officer’s commission and a bachelor’s degree in agricultural and applied economics. He had enlisted in the Army National Guard as a 19-year-old and, in his senior year, met freshman Cadet Renae Collier from Fintstone, Md. They dated throughout her years at Tech and married 25 years ago.

After his graduation, Mr. Pearson worked as general manager of Wayland Ford Tractor in Warrenton and completed his nine-year commitment with the 29th Infantry guard unit in Christiansburg.

He got recruited to join a trailer hitch equipment manufacturer in Ohio, broadening his experience and building a network of contacts in the industry.

That led to an opportunity with a wiring harness manufacturer in Georgia.

In September 1995, he learned from his old boss in Ohio that a trailer manufacturer couldn’t meet demand from Central Tractor, a regional retailer. His friend asked if Mr. Pearson could “find me a trailer guy,” a company to fill the order.

The Fauquier native decided to take a risk and start his own company.

But, that might not have happened without a frightening experience that helped refine his focus.

“In July ’95, I had a medical event, kind of like a stroke,” Mr. Pearson recalled. “I was in the hospital for seven days . . . .

“That medical experience changed my life. So, when the door opened, I went flying through the door before I changed my mind.”

He and his wife had much to consider, especially the coming birth of their daughter, the first of two children.

Bernice and “Flash” Pearson also agreed to “bet the farm,” their son said.

He found a vacant warehouse to rent at Hague in Northumberland County, near his parents’ Northern Neck getaway. Mr. Pearson hired a crew and set out to manufacture 35 trailers for Central Tractor, headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa.

He kept his full-time job in Georgia and came to the Northern Neck every weekend to oversee the operation. His parents “kept an eye” on the fledgling factory during the week.

Renae Pearson “was 100-percent supportive,” balancing the company books, literally “sleeping on the checkbook,” among other responsibilities, her husband said.

Carry-On Trailer delivered its first order in February 1996 and went on to build 712 trailers in its first year.

Mr. Pearson said he happened to hit the market at a perfect time. As SUVs and pickup trucks got fancier, owners bought trailers to spare their vehicles some of the dirty work. Meanwhile, home centers and big-box retailers exploded.

Central Tractor went bankrupt in 2002, but Tractor Supply grew dominant. In 2005, Mr. Pearson landed a game-changing deal to provide trailers for Lowe’s. That year, his company built more trailers than any other company in the nation — a distinction it has maintained.

Carry-On added plants — another on the Northern Neck in Montross, along with factories in Georgia, Texas, Iowa and Oregon — to meet demand, including that from customers in Canada.

Warrenton resident Harvey Pearson, the retired circuit court clerk, over cocktails one evening asked his entrepreneurial nephew how he landed the deal with Lowe’s.

At the end of a rambling story, an unexpected Virginia Tech connection helped his cause, the younger Pearson explained.

“ ‘J,’ you’ve got to give back to Virginia Tech,” Harvey Pearson (Class of 1950) told his nephew.

Two weeks later, Virginia Tech Senior Regional Director of Major Gifts Bob Bailey visited the businessman in Georgia, launching a consistent pattern of donations from Mr. and Mrs. Pearson.

In late 2010, they sold Carry-On Trailer Corp. to the Texas-based Southlake Equity Group. Mr. Pearson remained involved and three years later formed his own private-equity firm, which has invested in marine products manufacturing, including fuel tanks and consoles for boats.

In 2013, former Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger approached the Pearsons about a naming opportunity for the first of two new Corps of Cadets residence halls. Follow-up conversations the next year sealed their commitment.

Although university officials and the Pearsons decline to discuss the total of their gifts, Virginia Tech inducted them into the President’s Circle, whose members have donated at least $1 million.

Students moved into the five-story, 101,422-square-foot Pearson Hall in early November.

Although he and his wife met in the building — one of Virginia Tech’s oldest structures — that used to stand on the same spot, Mr. Pearson appreciates the modern conveniences.

He not so fondly recalls running “fans in January” to offset the old building’s steam heat, which rendered thermostats useless.

Built with the familiar “Hokie stone,” Pearson Hall represents the first half of a $92-million investment Virginia Tech will make for dormitories to house its 1,000-member Corps of Cadets, founded in 1872, when the university started.

Mr. and Mrs. Pearson describe themselves as small-town natives who’ve benefited from opportunities that Virginia Tech helped provide and who have an obligation to give back.

And, an eighth-grade welding project led to bigger things.

Mr. Pearson still has that tandem-axle flatbed, which hauled Carry-On’s one-millionth trailer from the assembly line.

> Video: Click below to watch the Pearson Hall dedication ceremony. “J” Pearson’s remarks begin just before the 16-minute mark.

Pearson Hall dedication - Virginia Tech from VirginiaTech on Vimeo.

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