First of two parts
WILMINGTON – After the N.C. General Assembly adjourned the last day of September, Rep. Rick Catlin, a two-term Republican state legislator and co-chairman of the House Environment Committee, headed home to take care of business.
Catlin, 61, is a businessman but his legislative voting record on environmental issues hasn’t won him much favor in his political party. His return to Wilmington was welcomed yet bittersweet following the tedious, eight-month-long legislative session that continued the GOP’s dismantling of environmental controls under the guise of making the state more business-friendly.
Catlin was ready to be back home with wife, Janice, and their two dogs – rescues and members of the family that bring a household contentment only dog lovers can understand. He was also eager to focus his attention on his environmental engineering firm, CATLIN Engineers and Scientists.
Business had taken a palpable blow last year when Catlin’s CEO died unexpectedly. Catlin lost his right-hand man, the engineer he had mentored and groomed to run his company. Most heart wrenching, he lost a dear friend.
It was a tragedy that would, at least for the time being, change Catlin’s political course. He announced soon after that he wouldn’t seek re-election next year. He intends to serve in the budget-adjustment session next spring but his proponents wonder who, if any candidate, will take a stand on environmental matters.
Catlin, a Republican, has been one of the few environmental defenders in his party. The N.C. League of Conservation Voters, in their annual legislative scorecard, gave Catlin a 20 for his pro-environmental voting record this session. That’s not an especially high score except when put in the context of other Republicans in the state house. Most received zeros or scored in the single digits.
A Working Man
It’s quiet within the walls of CATLIN Engineers and Scientists on a mild, early November morning, another in a series of unseasonably warm fall days. The two-story building is tucked among a row of businesses and industries along Old Dairy Road off Wilmington’s busy Market Street.
Catlin rounds the corner into the main entrance waiting area, and we greet with a hardy handshake.
The sleeves to Catlin’s blue, button-up dress shirt are neatly rolled above his wrists, as if a metaphor that he’s been elbow-deep in work all morning.
He walks into his spacious, corner office on the first floor and points to a series of short stacks of CDs against a wall. They’re for the old compact disc player he decided to dust off and hook up this particular morning.
“We’ve been dancing around all morning,” he said, taking a seat behind his desk cattycorner between two large windows welcoming in crisp sunlight.
It feels like a Friday, but it’s Thursday. Catlin is staring down the barrel of another upcoming busy workweek. He flashes a smile behind thin-rimmed glasses and props his elbows on his desk.
“I’ve got 30 hours of meetings next week,” he said. “That’s just Tuesday.”
He’s recently back from a trip to Frankfurt, Germany, where he visited his daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. The trip was a mixture of vacation and, he admits, some business, prompting me to ask how he decompresses.
“I haven’t done that yet,” he said. “I wake up working. I don’t know how to really take a complete vacation.”
Catlin is the founder of a business celebrating its 30th anniversary.
An opportunity to work for an engineering firm in Wilmington lured him from Florida, wife and baby in tow, in 1979. Six years later, he opened CATLIN Engineers and Scientists.
First in East Germany
Ever a businessman, Catlin sought opportunities to expand. In 1992, he joined the first environmental trade commission in east Germany at the invitation of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Three years later he opened Catlin EnviroTechnik GmbH in Leipzig, Germany. It was the first American business to open in East Germany.
He took German-speaking lessons at the Berlitz Language School in Raleigh. His desire to offer a similar opportunity to business professionals prompted him to open a Berlitz franchise in Charleston, S.C. He sold it following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Two of the 19 hijackers obtained student visas to attend Berlitz schools in the United States. After the attack, the federal government barred Berlitz franchises from admitting non-immigrant students, according to Catlin.
Selling the franchise eased some of Catlin’s workload and gave him more time to devote to his environmental engineering firm. Through the years, he’s seen similar firms start up, all to eventually be sold off or fold.
“To the best of my knowledge we are the oldest environmental remediation firm in the world,” he said.
He sold his office in Germany to a friend and fellow engineer. His offices in Wilmington, Raleigh and Atlanta, Ga., account for 35 employees and business is growing.
“It’s been very busy,” he said. “I may start some more business offices.”
This optimism is in the face of a man grieving the unexpected death of his CEO and friend, Jeff Becken.
Becken was a young engineer when he came to work for Catlin about 15 years ago. Catlin took Becken under his wing and trained him to be company CEO, a title Becken held the last few years of his life.
He was 42, athletic and married with a son in elementary school when he died on Nov. 19, 2014, two weeks after Catlin was re-elected for a second term.
“He was a dear friend and it was very, very sad,” Catlin said.
Earlier this month, Catlin announced he would not run for a third term.
“I am not ruling out being a public servant again, but I have, in fairness to my employees, got to do this now,” he said. “I do have a lot of loyalty to my employees. My employees are my family. I owe them the responsibility of taking my job back.”
Evolution of a Hydrologist
Within weeks after Catlin won his first term in 2012 representing District 20, which includes parts of New Hanover County, he was selected as the House Republican freshman leader.
Catlin has been a public servant for more than two decades, serving on various boards all the while running businesses and seeking out new ones seemingly around every corner.
He has chaired the Wilmington-New Hanover County Ports, Waterways and Beach Commission; served as a commissioner on the North Carolina Commission of Public Heath and the N.C. Leaking Underground Storage Tank Commission; is the founding director and past president of the N.C. Beach, Inlet and Waterway Association; and chairman of the N.C. Water Resource Congress. He was elected in 2010 to the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.
At a young age, Catlin commanded an unflinching work ethic. He grew up poor in Atlanta, Ga.
Sometime between the eighth and ninth grades, Catlin’s family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He picked up a paper route delivering the Miami Herald. The job paid for his clothes and other essentials. He managed to set aside enough cash to buy a motorcycle, a ride that came in handy on his newspaper route.
He lived a meager life, but dreamed big. He wanted to become an astronaut. But, as typical in the evolution boyhood pursuits, Catlin turned a different direction in college.
He worked in a factory at night and a shoe store during the day around his class schedule at Georgia State University. He was taking geology courses, but a professor’s request steered Catlin to eventually apply for a job drafting for an engineering company.
Within two weeks, Catlin, 20 at the time, and Janice, 18, married and moved to Tampa, Fla. He could not afford out-of-state tuition. It would be a year before Catlin returned to college. He worked as an engineer while studying geology at the University of South Florida, where he earned his B.A.
Catlin would not orbit earth in a rocket. Instead, he would seek out ways to take care of it.