BY JOHN M. JONES JR.
As president of PepsiCo Inc., former Greenevillian John Compton and his family live in Purchase, N.Y., a small community north of New York City where the giant corporation has its headquarters.
But despite three decades of moving from state-to-state as he took on increasing responsibility with PepsiCo, Compton has clearly never lost his strong sense of connection with East Tennessee, and with the University of Tennessee.
So it was that, only about four weeks ago, he came to be driving one of his daughters to Knoxville to begin her freshman year at UT.
Just as they crossed the Virginia/Tennessee state line at Bristol on Interstate 81, he said in a telephone interview Wednesday, his cell phone rang.
On the other end was Jimmy Haslam, of Knoxville, CEO of the Pilot Fying J company and a longtime acquaintance.
That unexpected cell phone call marked the beginning of the unexpected and unforeseeable process that would lead Compton to leave the presidency of one of the world's largest publicly-traded corporations to take on the leadership of one of the nation's largest privately-held companies -- and return to an East Tennessee address.
It's something he's looking forward to. "We're eager to be back [in East Tennessee]," he said Wednesday.
Compton spoke with The Greeneville Sun only a day after Pilot announced his appointment to the key leadership role with the company, which is the largest operator of travel centers and truck stops in North America.
Pilot and its recently acquired Maxum Energy Company have annual sales in excess of $30 billion, employ more than 25,000 people and conduct business in 44 states and six Canadian provinces, according to a company news release.
The company was established in 1958 by Jim Haslam, who has for decades been a prominent business and civic leader in Knoxville and the state.
His son, Jimmy Haslam, has been CEO of the company since 1994. He will now become chairman, and his father will become founder and chairman emeritus.
Jimmy Haslam is the brother of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who is also a former Pilot executive.
'A VERY TOUGH DECISION'
"It was a very tough decision [to leave the PepsiCo presidency], as you may imagine," Compton said Wednesday.
"I have spent my life here at PepsiCo. I've been here 30 years, and I've always committed myself that I would never leave PepsiCo for another publicly-traded corporation.
"But when an opportunity came to be back home, to be back in an area that my family loves, and to work with a privately-held company owned by a family for which I have so much respect, I couldn't turn it down.
"We're eager to be back."
Compton noted that he particularly respects the values by which the Haslam family has operated Pilot over the years.
He said that he would probably assume his duties as Pilot Flying J Chief Executive Officer by mid-to-late October, but that his family will be moving to the Knoxville area later, at the end of the year.
His elder daughter, Kendall, is a freshman at the University of Tennessee, but a younger daughter, Caroline, is a junior in high school, and a son, Jack, is in the 7th grade.
He and his wife, Cindy, plan to let the two younger children complete the semester at their current schools in New York State, then enter new schools in Knoxville in January.
MANY TIES TO TENNESSEE
A Greeneville High School graduate and a 1983 graduate of the University of Tennessee, Compton indicated that he expects to feel very much at home when he moves to the Knoxville area.
His parents, Norman and Martha Compton, former widely-known residents of Greeneville, have lived in the Knoxville area for the last few years, he said, and the family of a late sister lives in Cookeville.
He himself has been very involved in various roles with the University of Tennessee, including serving on the UT Business School Dean's Advisory Board for the last 12 years.
In addition, he is a member of the board of directors of Memphis-based First Horizon Corporation, parent corporation of First Tennessee Bank.
He also said that he expects to be able to spend more time in visits with friends in Greeneville once he and his family move back to East Tennessee.
Already, he said, the family always spends the Fourth of July holiday with friends on Watts Bar Lake, not far from Knoxville.
Particularly close Greeneville friends are Brandon and Paige Hull and their family.
Compton said that his wife, a native of Texas, also loves East Tennessee and is looking forward to the move.
"This is coming home for both of us," he said.