Ben Sutton: Local Winston-Salem Difference Makers

In addition to celebrating Winston-Salem residents that have moved on to do significant things outside of the Twin Cities, this blog will also celebrate local people who make a difference currently in Winston-Salem. 

“In large part, I think that how Wake Forest goes, Winston-Salem goes,” states Ben C. Sutton, Jr., the founder of what is now IMG College.

Ben Sutton grew up in Murfreesboro, NC, a small town of under 3,000 people, in the rural Northeast corner of the state. Sutton moved to Winston-Salem in the 1980’s to attend Wake Forest and he has been here ever since. In 1992, he founded ISP Sports, which at the time was a $700,000 company.  25 years later, the company is a nearly billion dollar concern and the largest college sports marketing company in America! Sutton’s work over the past 30 years has helped Winston-Salem grow in many ways. 

ben sutton

Following his undergraduate studies at WFU, Sutton became a “Double Deacon,” graduating from the School of Law. After graduation, he worked in the athletic department as the Associate Athletic Director before starting ISP in ’92.

ISP started with just three employees in 1992, merged into sports marketing giant IMG in 2010.  In 2014, the company was sold to Silver Lake Capital Partners and WME for $2.4 billion.  At the time, IMG College was the largest enterprise in the company with nearly 1,100 employees and four national market-leading companies. Even after the company was sold, the corporate headquarters remained in Winston-Salem, where about 200 full- and part-time employees work. Sutton stayed on as Chairman and President for a year after the sale, and remained airman emeritus until recently.

“It has been a wild ride,” said Sutton. “I had big dreams, but this one definitely exceeded even my wildest imagination.”

The Sutton’s children are both Wake Foresters, his oldest having also achieved Double Deacon status (undergrad and Masters in business) and the youngest still in college there. “They love it, and they are both walking advertisements for the uniqueness and specialness of Wake Forest,” said Sutton. 

Sutton is a trustee at Wake, and also for the U.S. Olympic Committee, Ronald Reagan Presidential and National Football foundations. The Sutton family has invested nearly $40 million philanthropically in the Winston-Salem community. Recently, it was announced that he will be inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in May.
Read his answers below to questions about Winston-Salem:

Winston-Salem Questions:

Why is Winston so special?
When you consider the combination of elite academic opportunities, having an ACC team in town, the arts offerings and history, Winston-Salem starts from a good place.  Add to that three Fortune 1,000 company headquarters in a town this size, and you layer on more strength.  Having said that, sometimes Winston-Salem succeeds in spite of itself!  We missed generations of leadership development because of the economic dependence on a very small cadre of leaders from just two or three large companies.  Still, there have been some magnificent entrepreneurial success stories here like IMG, Inmar, Wilco, Krispy Kreme…not to mention those large companies that call us home like BB&T, HanesBrands and Reynolds American. As a long-time resident, it’s been fun to watch the leadership develop inside–folks like Kelly King, Don Flow, Stan Kelly, David Neill, Susan Cameron, Rich Noll, Nathan Hatch and others–augmented by a real influx of talent from outside who have spearheaded lots of change.  You have to call it like it is…growth in this town in terms of real economic opportunity has been greater the last ten years than the previous 50 years combined. I am pretty bullish on our future. 

What do you think about the future of Winston?
The opportunities in front of us are dynamic. We had 100 years of a small group of leaders from Wachovia, Reynolds and Hanes making most every significant decision about the future of our city.  That leadership circle has dramatically grown and changed the entire dynamic. Everybody wants to invest in the same and right things–higher quality education, better jobs and improved infrastructure. 

Why did you decide to move ISP Downtown?
The heart and soul of any city is its downtown. I have traveled to virtually every city in America in the Top 100.  WITHOUT exception, cities that do not offer a vibrant work, play and life dynamic in their downtown, struggle mightily.  Winston-Salem has seen the biggest downtown transformation of any city in North Carolina and it’s been fun to be a part of that. For us, it has been a terrific recruitment tool in attracting young, creative class workers to our city. 

What neighborhoods have you lived in here?
I have lived near Wake Forest, downtown, Sherwood Forest, Buena Vista. 

What are some of your favorite restaurants of all-time here?
I worked at Simo’s Grill near Wake for five years in college and law school…miss that place!  Had the coldest beer in town! Now I enjoy Noble’s, Meridian, Sweet Potatoes, Mission Pizza, a few others. 

What are some of the most memorable sporting events you have been to?
I have seen some great games. I remember when Wake was down 38-20 in football to Auburn at the half and then came back and won 42-38. Also, when we came back on Andrew Luck and Stanford to win just a few years ago.  And that Military Bowl this year was pretty awesome!  Couple of ACC championships, including one over the school in Chapel Hill in the Tim Duncan/Randolph Childress days were fun, too! I have attended every World Series that the Boston Red Sox have won since 2004, and a couple of the closing games. The atmosphere at the college football playoffs is also great. 

Where is your favorite place to go on the North Carolina Coast and in the mountains?
I grew up going to Nags Head and Currituck (before Hollywood moved in!). But have had a home at Grandfather Mountain for a while and it’s still my favorite place to go in NC. 

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