BELLS, Tenn. — On the campaign trail and in television ads, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Haslam boasts of his role in creating 11,000 jobs as an executive with family-owned Pilot Corp.
Yet a count by The Associated Press shows that nearly half that many jobs were added to the Knoxville-based company’s payroll through mergers and acquisitions of other truck stop chains.
“The point is, you have a Tennessee company that started at this size and grew to that size, and that’s a good thing,” Haslam said in an interview. “And however Tennessee companies grow, we want to be helpful in doing that.
“So I don’t think it’s misleading at all.”
According to Haslam campaign literature, the company founded by his father has grown from about 800 employees when he joined Pilot in 1980 to more than 14,000 today.
The 11,000 new jobs figure includes about 4,000 existing positions that were added through a 2001 joint venture with Marathon that re-branded 110 Speedway and Super America stores as Pilot Travel Centers. Another 1,400 were added when Pilot acquired 60 truck stops from Tulsa, Okla.-based Williams Co. in 2003.
In 2008, Pilot bought out Marathon’s 50 percent stake for $700 million and sold a 47.5 percent interest to private equity firm CVC Capital Partners. The Williams deal cost $190 million.
Haslam served as president of Pilot until 2003, the same year he was elected mayor of Knoxville. He said the Williams’ financial struggles could have endangered those jobs if Pilot hadn’t bought the truck stops.
“Williams had some serious challenges facing them,” Haslam said.
About 100 jobs at Williams’ Nashville headquarters for its truck stop business were eliminated in the deal.
Haslam’s opponents for the Republican nomination have targeted his refusal to disclose his earnings from the $16 billion per year company and the potential conflict of interest from his ongoing part-ownership of Pilot.
Haslam’s campaign has said releasing his Pilot earnings would reveal personal information about the income of family members not running for office, and proprietary information about the closely held company.
Haslam, who has been the dominant fundraiser so far, said he was aware that Pilot would become an issue in the campaign and that he was ready to defend his experience in the company.
“At the end of the day, I’m proud of Pilot,” he said. “And I challenge anyone who’s running for governor to say they don’t want Pilot to be in their state.”
Haslam’s opponents say their criticism of Haslam isn’t the same as targeting Pilot.
“I’m not going to criticize the company — I’m for entrepreneurship, I’m for growing business,” said state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville, one of three rivals for the GOP nomination. “But when you do political ads, and they’re misleading to say the least, that’s a whole different subject.”
U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp’s campaign called on Haslam to give an annual account of exactly which jobs he referred to in the ad.
“Apparently Mayor Haslam has taken credit for something he simply didn’t do and should be held accountable,” Wamp spokesman Sam Edelen said.
Bonny Kinney, spokeswoman for Memphis prosecutor Bill Gibbons called the Haslam ad “at best misleading.”
Haslam has also rejected questions about whether the jobs number is misleading because only a fraction of the 11,000 positioned referenced in the ad were created in Tennessee.
“Tell me how that’s misleading? Nobody ever said it was Tennessee jobs,” Haslam told reporters during a visit to the Capitol last month. “The point is I’ve been involved in an enterprise jobs and understand how that happens in business.”
Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen can’t run again because of term limits. The primary election is on Aug. 5.
Kevin Jones of The Trucker staff can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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