Charlie Shelton’s real estate days started in the early 1960s when he was just 27, building starter ranch homes in and around Winston-Salem with his younger brother Ed.
Together, the pair ran a company they called Fortis, a Latin word meaning strength.
That started what became a sprawling career in the real estate and construction world, leading the brothers to Charlotte in the early 1990s. Another company they started helped transform the city with projects such as uptown’s 46-story Hearst Tower (now the Truist Center) and the 32-story Three Wells Fargo Center.
Their work didn’t stop there. Charlie Shelton’s passion for wine got them out of development and into the wine industry when they founded a vineyard in their hometown in Surry County. They also gained statewide prominence for their participation in civic, political and charitable causes.
Charlie Shelton died Saturday at age 86 at Southminster, a retirement community in Charlotte, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, according to his daughter, Mandy Houser, and son, Chip Shelton.
“Charlie was a very thorough person,” his brother Ed said. “He always tried to do the right thing. He was also pretty determined. If he set his mind on doing something, he made sure it got done.”
Legacy in Charlotte
Natives of Mount Airy, Charlie and Ed Shelton grew up the sons of a small-town barber. Charlie worked in the tobacco fields and held other part-time jobs before building homes while Ed was still in high school.
In their Fortis days, the homes were usually between 1,200 and 1,600 square feet. The most expensive one sold for $27,500, Ed Shelton recalled.
To save time, Charlie Shelton devised a system where he would get the wood framing and door and window openings pre-assembled before delivery to the job site. Their crews could typically get a house done quite efficiently, and they built hundreds a year.
In 1978, the brothers started Shelco in Winston-Salem, a general construction company that they moved to Charlotte in 1990.
You can’t go far without seeing projects the company helped build. Among others, according to Observer archives: SouthPark’s Morrocroft Village and Phillips Place, Huntersville’s Birkdale Village and University Research Park’s Wachovia (now Wells Fargo) Customer Information Center.
Between Ed and Charlie Shelton, they have served on 16 boards, from the UNC Charlotte Foundation to the local Chamber of Commerce. In addition, Charlie Shelton was finance chair of Gov. Jim Martin’s re-election campaign in 1988 and Ed Shelton served the same role for Jim Hunt in 1992.
He was good at ‘dispensing tough love’
Ed Rose was 23 years old when Charlie Shelton hired him to work at Shelco, then located in Winston-Salem. His job description: gopher, tasked with anything and everything that needed getting done.
Over the years, he rose up to assistant project manager, senior project manager, vice president and by 2000, chief executive officer, a title he still holds today. Rose was struck by Shelton’s ability to easily communicate with everyone from C-Suite executive types down to the crews working construction.
Shelton’s word was his bond, Rose said, and he inspired his employees to do their best work.
“What he was really good at was dispensing tough love,” Rose said. Not in a way that made you feel bad, but one that held the team to higher standards.
Rose said Shelton also helped create a sense of urgency around the company’s work and made sure that people stood behind their decisions. He also was a straightforward communicator. If you couldn’t understand what Charlie was saying, you probably weren’t listening.
The Shelton brothers sold Shelco to a group of executives, including Rose, in 2003. Shortly after, they started Shelton Vineyards back near where they grew up.
After that point, the brothers never told Rose and the other executives what to do or how to run the company. They did stay in touch. Each year Rose took his executive team for a dinner at the vineyard.
There was no business talk. Just sharing old stories.
Fueling the NC wine industry
Charlie Shelton also shared his love for traveling with his family. He often told his children that travel was the best form of education.
“We never went anywhere without a purpose,” Chip Shelton said.
His father fell in love with the Burgundy region in France and taking his family to other parts of Europe. They also loved to go on hunting and fishing trips.
Charlie grew up on farms in Surry County and loved to work with his hands. He always had a garden at his home and would stress to his family the importance of growing things on your own.
He turned that passion into a business with the vineyard. Their Yadkin Valley estate winery — off Interstate 77 about 85 miles north of Charlotte — attracts thousands of visitors annually and has won industry awards, according to Observer archives.
Charlie and Ed Shelton saw grape-growing and wine-making as the next big thing to generating tourism revenue and jobs as tobacco farming waned and textile employment declined.
At the time it debuted in 1999, Shelton Vineyards was the third to begin operation in the Yadkin Valley and the 12th to open statewide. The brothers built a hotel nearby and held events there.
Chip and Mandy are helping run the business now. They try their best to follow their dad’s advice: if you tell someone you’re going to do something, follow through with it.
Up until just a couple years ago, Charlie was known to help roll out cases of wine to awaiting customers. Many didn’t know he was the owner until later. That humility is another trait they want to follow, too.
“Our lives were so enriched by him and the experience he gave us throughout our lives,” Chip Shelton said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect square footage for certain Fortis homes the Shelton brothers built. Those homes were usually between 1,200 and 1,600 square feet.