How did a first-generation college student at the Pamplin College of Business in the 1970s end up making history 35 years later as the first woman to be rector of Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors?

For Deborah Petrine (MGT ’78), president and chief executive officer of Commonwealth Care of Roanoke Inc. (CCR), the answer includes a thirst for knowledge, a penchant for hard work, unfailing dedication, and savvy business acumen.

Under a HokieBird’s wing

The journey started in high school, where Petrine worked in the business office and was encouraged by teachers and family to set sights on college. “I wanted an education but knew I would be paying my way through,” she said.

Petrine attended a local community college for a year while working at a local heavy equipment dealership. She then applied to Virginia Tech, only a half hour away. “I would get a good education, and I could afford the cost of tuition and living on campus if I continued to work,” she said.

Her boss (a Hokie) at the dealership, Pete Plunkett, influenced her choosing Pamplin. “He took me under his wing and introduced me to the many different aspects of running a company. I loved it.”

While women were a minority at what later became the Pamplin College of Business, it was Petrine’s professional attire, rather than gender, that set her apart. “My professor called me aside after class to say he knew by what I wore to class that I had a job, and it was important that I share my experiences and opinions with other students,” she said.

“He warned me that if I did not speak up, he would call on me,” Petrine continued. “So, I started speaking up, and speaking up has not really been a problem since.”

Typist to CEO

Initially an accounting major, Petrine gravitated over time toward management, because she liked dealing with people and solving problems.

Although she held a number of jobs during her three years at Pamplin, the last was at Heritage Hall Health Care and Rehabilitation Center in Blacksburg. “I remember driving out route 460 to the interview and thinking there was no way I could ever work in a nursing facility.” But, after being recruited for a one-day typing project, she sensed the potential of an industry she has since embraced for a lifetime career.

Starting as a typist, she moved on to many other jobs at Heritage Hall. When she left 20 years later, Petrine held the title of chief operating officer, and Heritage Hall had grown from one to 18 facilities that included six assisted living centers, a home health company, and a pharmacy.

Prepared for entrepreneurship

In 2001, Petrine founded CCR, which currently operates 12 long-term care facilities in Virginia. “My Pamplin education and personal experience were invaluable when I started my own company; I had to do everything myself.”

With more than 1,600 employees now, Petrine is like the professor who pressed her to speak up. “While organizational structure is important — and someone ultimately has to make a decision — I believe that people on the front lines know a lot, so I try to get their input when there is a problem to solve. I think in terms of ‘team,’ rather than ‘I.’”

In 2005, Petrine received the Virginia Health Care Association’s James G. Dutton Award for lifetime achievement in the long-term-care field. In 2010, she added a new responsibility to her already full schedule at CCR — serving as president of Longleaf Senior Living LLC, in North Carolina.

Using professional experience to give back

Giving back to the university is top priority for Petrine, who has been on the advisory board for the management department at Pamplin and is currently a cabinet member on the Pamplin Advisory Council. She has also served on the advisory board for the Virginia Tech Center for Gerontology and on the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine board, among a number of appointments.

“My Pamplin education and personal experience were invaluable when I started my own company; I had to do everything myself,” said Petrine. Now, her team includes David Tucker, president of CCR. (Photo by Natalie Waters)
“My Pamplin education and personal experience were invaluable when I started my own company; I had to do everything myself,” said Petrine. Now, her team includes David Tucker, president of CCR. (Photo by Natalie Waters)

Petrine received the Pamplin Distinguished Alumni Award in 2011, the same year she was tapped by the governor for the Board of Visitors. In 2013, she was put on the presidential search committee. “It was an exciting time — our decision would be shaping the future of the university — and I was very honored to be a part of it, especially as an alumna,” she said.

She felt doubly honored when elected rector in 2014: “it is one thing to be appointed by the governor, but it is quite another to be trusted by your peers to lead them.”

As for her pioneering role on the board, she said: “I honestly didn’t give a lot of thought to the female aspect, but I know that many women were excited, and I so appreciate that.”

Petrine said that her business expertise has been a definite asset, leading her to serve on and later chair the board’s finance and audit committee. She has also been heavily involved in discussions on the Virginia Tech Carilion Biomedical Research Expansion and human resources issues.

“The health-care industry, similar to a state university, is very regulated with systems, guidelines, best practices, and certifications. I understand this and find it is less a source of frustration for me than for some others,” she said.

Petrine currently serves as vice rector. Her board term expires in June 2019.

She plans to continue her involvement with Pamplin well into the future.

“While other appointments may not be as high profile as the Board of Visitors, they are very rewarding,” Petrine said. “You learn so much — and, the more you learn, the more engaged you want to be.”

–Barbara Micale