Above, a mural tracing the history of the Nello Teer construction company adorns the conference room in Robb Teer's office
Durham's Big Builder
His work as a developer can be seen all over
Research Triangle Park in buildings occupied by IBM, Glaxo and Biogen.
Robb Teer’s civic leadership also can be seen across the Triangle
in airport terminals, the state’s first modern toll road and—now—with the USO.
By Steve Tuttle '09
obert D. Teer Jr. ’67 knows how it feels to be in uniform at strange airports far from home. For 28 years he served in the Army Reserve, commuting on weekends the last six years from Durham to the Health Services Command base in San Antonio, Texas. Weekdays he went about his day job developing real estate in Research Triangle Park. So he took personal pride in christening the new USO Travel Center inside Raleigh-Durham International Airport, which opened last year inside RDU’s huge new Terminal 2. He has attended or presided at many ribbon cuttings over the years—for huge office buildings, a fine arts center, even a toll road—but this one was special.
“These young soldiers are a great group of kids and the USO is there for them on these intermediate stops,” Teer says from across the conference room table in his Durham office. “They don’t have a lot of money. This gives them a comfortable place to watch TV, work on the Internet, eat, change clothes.”
Teer threw his support behind the USO after retiring from the Reserve in 1994 as a lieutenant colonel. He became a director of the USO of North Carolina and chair of the organization’s RDU Council. He helped raise $700,000 for the new USO center at RDU, which came soon after the opening of the new USO Travel Center at the Fayetteville Regional Airport. The USO of N.C., which is mostly led by volunteers and receives no government funds, now operates four centers in the state plus a mobile unit.
In one recent month, he notes, the RDU center served more than 2,500 soldiers, their families and retirees, plus another 2,000 at ceremonies for troops either returning home or shipping out.
His smile fades as his thoughts turn to another USO initiative. “We also do something that’s been well received. Last month we provided assistance for six families for the repatriation of their loved ones’ remains. We do this for any service member, whether they died from hostile action or maybe an illness. What we do is we have an honor guard escort the casket when it arrives at the hangar, offload it, with the family there, then load it on a hearse. Then the Guardian Angels escort the family home.”
When he’s not volunteering with the USO, he spends time serving on several other boards and civic organizations in Durham and across the Triangle. He’s a longtime board member and former chair of the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority, and led it through construction of the airport’s new $570 million Terminal 2. He’s the secretary-treasurer of the N.C. Turnpike Authority, which unclogged a major bottleneck when it opened a 3.5-mile section of the Triangle Expressway last December, creating the state’s first modern toll road. He’s vice chair of the UNC-TV Board of Trustees and provided major funding for production of the recent two-hour documentary North Carolina’s World War II Experience.
“What I call my nonpaying jobs keep me busy, which is a good thing,” he laughs. “I’m at an age, a place in my career where that’s a thing that I’m glad I have time to do.”
There are some things Robb Teer always knew would happen in his life. Mainly, he knew he would continue in the family construction business founded by his grandfather, the legendary Nello L. Teer Sr., who built the Pan American Highway in Central America, hydroelectric dams in South America, the international airport in Malawi, East Africa, and several U.S. military bases. His father, Dillard Teer, and uncle, Nello Teer Jr., expanded the business into commercial real estate development. Among many others, they built the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina headquarters building, which looks as futuristic today as when it opened in 1973.
He also knew it was expected that he would follow their example of public service. He did that literally when his father stepped down after serving for 31 years on the Raleigh airport commission.
He also knew he would marry his high school sweetheart, Susan Tatum Teer ’67. “Susan and I graduated from Durham High School in June 1963 and went off to college to East Carolina. My first year I stayed in Jones Hall and she stayed in Umstead. We got married in August of 1964. We had a used office trailer on a job site that one of our superintendents had used, so Daddy moved it to Greenville (for the young couple to live in) and set it up on Fifth Street in the old T.C. Williams trailer court, right across from the Highway Patrol station.
“We both had jobs. I worked in the Student Store down in the basement of Wright as a stock clerk and Susan worked over in the soda shop, which was on the other side of campus in the basement of the dining hall. We paid a lot of attention to our grades and got a lot out of the college experience.” He received the Fieldcrest Achievement Award, presented annually in the School of Business to the senior with the highest grade-point average.
He joined the Army Reserve and was attached to a hospital unit based in Durham. He also went to work in the Nello L. Teer Co. administrative office. Over the next 13 years he worked his way up to assistant vice president and treasurer. When the family sold the construction business in 1980, he formed his own real estate development company, Teer Associates. That launched a building spree that saw him construct more than 3.7 million square feet of offices in RTP and Durham, including four IBM buildings, the Glaxo headquarters building and five manufacturing facilities for Biogen Idec, a major biotechnology company.
Prominent Durham architect John Atkins says you can look around RTP and see Teer’s fingerprints everywhere. “His tenacity and leadership helped recruit Glaxo and Biogen. His vision and foresight are tangibly evident in the park today.” Among his more visible creations in RTP are the Glaxo headquarters building and the Radisson Governors Inn just off I-40.
On his 41st birthday, his family honored him by making a gift of $333,000 to East Carolina to endow the Robert Dillard Teer Jr. Distinguished Professorship of Business, the university’s first endowed chair. His younger sister, Lyda Mihalyi ’76 of Durham, an Alumni Association Distinguished Service Award winner in 1990 who later served on the ECU Board of Trustees, says, “I think he’s done a good job of carrying on the Teer name in the community. He is not one to want the accolades or want his name out there for people to rah-rah about. He got that from our dad and from our grandfather.”
Uniting the Triangle
No one knew how Triangle drivers would react when the Triangle Expressway opened in January. Some thought commuters would shun it, but Robb Teer thought differently, and he’s been proven correct. “We had 106,000 passenger cars use the expressway in January and the projection was much less than that. We designed it to be as easy to use as we could. There are no tollbooths. You can buy a transponder that mounts on the windshield. And if you travel to the Northeast or Southeast the same transponder works on the toll roads there.” Commuters have purchased about 14,000 transponders since October 2011, he says.
Terry Yeargan ’79 of Willow Spring, an executive with DPR Construction Inc., says Teer is “that rare leader who is decisive and is accustomed to cutting right through a complex situation and getting to the heart of making decisions.” Yeargan serves with Teer on the RDU Airport Authority and succeeded him as chair. “I really schooled under him,” Yeargan adds.
Teer counters that he’s more interested in building his community than in erecting buildings. “If you don’t have the roads, if you don’t have the airport, the office space, then none of (the desired public amenities) would be possible because no one would move here.”
To him, public television is an important public asset. In 2009, he and Susan were honored with UNC-TV’s Producers Circle Award. The Durham Performing Arts Center is another public amenity improving the region’s quality of life. On opening night four years ago, Teer and his sister, Lyda, and their three siblings shared a special moment when, as a result of a $1.2 million gift they made to equip the new city-owned facility, the stage was named in honor of their parents, Mildred and Dillard Teer. Making the evening even more special was that both parents were in attendance.