Raleigh, N.C. — A recent campaign ad by Republican U.S. Senate candidate Thom Tillis was supposed to be a quick biographical sketch, but it has raised questions from our viewers about him.
"I came up in the real world," Tillis says in the spot. "I've been a paper boy, a short order cook, a warehouse clerk and eventually a partner at IBM."
It's this last job title that brought up questions.
"I understand from some IBMers that there are no 'partners' in the company. What gives?" wrote Don Boyce of Raleigh.
Tillis defends college credentials For many, the term "partner" conjures images of a law partner who has an ownership stake and a say in the direction of the company. Others who work for IBM and wrote to WRAL News said they weren't aware of the technology giant having an analogous position.
"It feels like Mr. Tillis is exaggerating his experience," wrote one of those IBMers, asking that we fact-check this point in Tillis' resume.
Still more of these questions may have arisen because there is a category of individuals who are called IBM Business Partners and appear to be sales professionals. It would be a bit of razzle-dazzle for a candidate to call himself "a partner at IBM" if that were his background.
However, Tillis is making a different, and more accurate, claim.
On his own website, Tillis writes that he "rose to the position of Partner in the national business consulting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers and advised North Carolina’s largest bank and other major national corporations."Tillis' website doesn't mention IBM, but Charlotte Magazine's 2013 profile says, "Tillis landed at IBM in 2002, when PricewaterhouseCoopers, as it was called by then, sold its management consulting arm to the computer giant."
IBM completed its acquisition of PwC Consulting on Oct. 2, 2002. The deal, according to a company news release, created "a new global business unit, IBM Business Consulting Services, comprising more than 30,000 IBM and 30,000 transferring PwC Consulting professionals."
At the time, the Wall Street Journal reported, "Although PwC gave walking papers to 200 of the 1,200 consulting partners that made up the top echelon of the personnel in the deal, IBM said all of the remaining 1,000 or so are joining IBM." That piece went on to talk about steps IBM had taken to ensure it would keep executives with PwC once the transition was complete. "PwC Consulting partners also will keep that cherished title within IBM, which had no such designation," the newspaper reported at the time.
"Thom worked hard in the private sector and became a partner at PwC, a title he retained with IBM Global Business Services during their acquisition in 2002," said Daniel Keylin, a spokesman for the Tillis campaign.
The number of PwC partners who made the transition has been reported differently in different outlets, ranging from the 1,000 suggested by the Wall Street Journal to 500 in some bio pieces on Tillis.
"There were at least several hundred PwC partners who made the transition to IBM," Keylin said.
Tillis stepped down from his position in late 2009 after Republicans won a majority in the state House and he was poised to become House speaker in January 2010.
FROM IBM: WRAL News contacted IBM to try and confirm Tillis' former title and standing with the company. A spokeswoman was able to confirm that there were people who held the title "partner" within the company, but she could not immediately say if Tillis had been one of them. She referred questions to IBM's human resources department, which hadn't responded for a week to a request for confirmation. (This post will be updated if and when we hear from the firm.)
It is worth noting that a quick check of the resume-sharing and job-focused social networking site LinkedIn shows many who work or worked for what is now IBM Global Business Services use the title "partner."
MORE ON PARTNERS: At the end of his time at PwC, Tillis was a "partner" in the sense most folks would recognize. He was a high-level executive with a stake in the company.
IBM is not the sort of company organized in the same way that an accounting firm might be, so the title "partner" is somewhat at odds with what many people recognize as the company's culture.
"You would have expected it (Tillis' title) to be more like a vice president or a director," said Hillary Sale, a law professor and corporate governance expert with Washington University in St. Louis.
Sale said that it's true that the traditional definition of "partner" is someone who has an equity stake in a company, which doesn't seem to be the case with Tillis. However, he may have carried a title that had more cache than meaning into the new company.
"Even if it's technically true, the question I would have is if it is really that important to call yourself a partner," Sale said.
It's understandable that viewers are confused about the title. If Tillis had switched to a more generic "executive at IBM" or stuck to partner at PwC, most people wouldn't have batted an eye.
"From a campaign perspective, if I were his staff person, I would say this is raising a lot of questions for nothing," she said.
THE CALL: The title may raise questions and be confusing for voters, but it appears to be one to which Tillis can legitimately lay claim. Baring some unforeseen bit of information coming from the company, this bit of Tillis' resume gets a green light on our fact-checking scale.