Episode 30: Mobile’s Mayor Sandy Stimpson

Transcript:

Welcome to podcast episode number 30 of the Mobile, Alabama Business Podcast with Mayor Stimpson. My name is Marcus Neto. I own Blue Fish Design Studio. We're a digital marketing and web design company located downtown. I'm the host of Mobile Alabama Business Podcast where we talk to local entrepreneurs and business owners about their businesses and how they got started. I'd like to thank you for spending time with us today. 

In today's episode I sit down with Mobile's Mayor, Sandy Stimpson. We talk about the mayor's experience working at Gulf Lumber Company and the things he learned working his way up in that business. We also talk about some of the changes he's trying to push for to make Mobile more business friendly. He gives a peek into the day of a mayor and the busy schedule he keeps, and I think this is a different look of the mayor of our fine city. I do hope you enjoy this, so let's dive right in with Mayor Stimpson.

Marcus Neto:  Welcome to the podcast, Mayor. 

Mayor Stimpson: Great to be here Marcus.

Marcus Neto:  Most folks are familiar with your role as mayor of this city, but can you go back a bit and give us some history? What was it like working at Gulf Lumber Company, and what did you learn working your way up in that business?

Mayor Stimpson: There were countless lessons learned. I can remember the first day riding with my father to work, and just how excited I was to be able to go to work with my father. That was at age 13. Then when I really resigned to run for mayor, I was truly as excited about what was going on in the company as I was that first day. The lessons learned were just countless because my father insisted that we, and I say we, that's a couple of first cousins and my brother, really learned to do all the jobs out in the mill. I mean I wore a hardhat, and blue jeans, and gloves and that kind of stuff a number of years, learning to do those jobs. One of the overriding things that comes to mind is that I found out, first off, being the son of the bosses, that's a lesson and a curse because you really have to improve yourself. They are people that are testing you, seeing what you're going to be like. Ultimately, being the son of the boss is not a benefit. I was grateful to have the opportunity as his son. 

Anyway when I think about one of the overriding lessons, it's really that inspired people will get a whole lot more done than people who are directed to do something. In working with our crews, it was always trying to be somewhat like a coach, trying to inspire them to achieve the goals and objectives we knew we had to do, because we were competing against the international paper companies, the Georgia Pacifics, the Louisiana Pacifics. We were a small guy, and so we had to do things that they weren't capable of doing. It really ultimately ended up with the crew and the line workers being able to do more and willing to do more than the competition. So a lot of great lessons.

Marcus Neto: Did technology play a role in the survival of your company? Because I know when you're competing against larger organizations like that, they oftentimes have an advantage in a certain way. As a lean kind of startup, if you will, in the lumber industry, you have to have a very focused capability. What was that like?

Mayor Stimpson: Absolutely. In my 20s, let's say that was in the 1970s, late '70s and early 1980s, when you looked around Mobile within a couple hundred miles and looked at the number of sawmills, there were a lot of sawmills. We were maybe one of the larger ones. Over a period of 15 to 20 years, they all disappeared, and one of the reason was they were not staying abreast of technology and innovation. What we were doing, we were traveling, and where we could get in the doors of our competitors to find a new technology, new ways of doing things, and we didn't want to be [serial 00:04:47] number one of any piece of equipment or any process. We wanted to find somebody that made it work. The thought was if they could make it work, we could too. 

Because of relationships, we were able to get in a lot of doors. We were also willing to take the risk to purchase that technology, but then to make it work. To make it work, that meant you had to be upgrading your crew. I mean years ago, the most advanced person in the sawmill was the guy filing saws. Then it became the electronics guy, the programmer-controller people. I mean we had to be able to adapt, but willing to take the risk. It was always measured risk, but it played a huge part.

Marcus Neto: It's interesting because most people don't think of lumber as being driven by technology, but I know better because I've just seen that industry change quite a bit. What area of the city are you currently putting a lot of effort into?

Mayor Stimpson: Marcus, the better question would be maybe is there any area that you're not focusing on? Again it goes back to my opportunity to work at the Gulf Lumber Company, was that you have to be able to multitask. You have to have numerous things going on at all times. When we think about the challenges facing the city, the first thing is from a public safety standpoint, that's an ongoing ... You can never drop your guard. You can never stop that process of trying to improve. We're fortunate to have Jim Barber, and Rich Landolt, and Billy Pappas that are leading that effort, but we're engaged with them every day on trying to make sure that we're improving in that area. 

If you don't have your fiscal house in order, you really cannot do the things to move the city forward, so the opportunity to stay abreast of that with Paul Wesch and the employees in the finance department is just critical. If you think about it geographically, and not just processes the things that we're doing, we're doing stuff ... will be doing stuff certainly in this year in every geographical area of the city. If you break it down by City Council districts, this is the first time that you will see the amount of money that we'll be spending fixing infrastructure. That's a huge area of focus. 

The other things is the Tyler Technology, the new computer systems. That touches every city employee and ultimately will touch every citizen in the city of Mobile. These are things that are underway. Even though you start that initiative, it takes follow up on an ongoing basis. Our staff meeting, we meet twice a week at the senior level, the executive director level. We meet at 8:00 on Mondays and we meet at 8:00 on Thursdays, and we have all these balls in the air all the time. Then you have opportunity to make sure that you treat presidential candidates in the proper way showing up. We'll have another presidential candidate here this week. Whereas it's not a specific area of focus, it is an opportunity to shine and show that we're willing and able to play on the world stage.

Marcus Neto: That's interesting. Because I was at the Trump event and I've seen that there have been numerous people coming here, what do you think is drawing them to Mobile?

Mayor Stimpson: I would like to think that they recognize that Mobile's really a city on the move. That's there's a lot of opportunity. In running for office, I recognize that Airbus was going to change the perception of Mobile. It was like why did Airbus choose Mobile? What's going on there? When that is put in somebody's mind, all sudden their mind's a little more open to looking at the city. What we're trying to do is capitalize on every opportunity. When somebody says what's going on or can we come to the city ... In the Trump situation, in four days we were able to host an event for 30,000 people. That's unheard of. That shows that we can and do have the organization in place to do those kinds of things. Then if you think about what happened at TenSixtyFive. The city [crosstalk 00:09:21].

Marcus Neto: That was only a couple of weeks from start to finish, and it was amazing to watch.

Mayor Stimpson: All we did as a city was we just coordinated the effort and let the private sector do what they do best, and that's make things happen. We wanted to make sure that the city was not an impediment. This goes back to your question about areas of focus, and one of the areas of focus is we want to make sure the city is not an impediment to the growth of businesses and the enjoyment of families.

Marcus Neto: Well, I mentioned to you all, off audio, because we're not on camera, but off audio, that you were instrumental in our decision to move down on Dauphin Street. I know of several other business owners, that have been on the Eastern Shore looking at property on the Eastern Shore, have made decisions to move down here as well. I think the perception of Mobile has definitely changed over the last couple of years. It's exciting for me, as somebody who does business all over the country, to have that perception change too. Because when we were talking to clients in California or New York City or whatever, in the past there has been a perception of, "Oh my gosh, it's Alabama." Now there's a pride that's coming out of Mobile that we're not just resting on our laurels, that we're not just, I don't know, sitting out in the back dock shooting alligators that are swimming by or something like that, whatever the hokey stereotype could be, but that there are a lot of really cool things that are going on here.

Mayor Stimpson: One way to say that is it's one person at a time. Every time you capture somebody's heart, one of the ... They said on Good Morning America that Mobile is my favorite place in the world.  

Marcus Neto: That doesn't hurt.

Mayor Stimpson: You couldn't buy that so to speak. When people start talking positively, when the citizens start talking positive about the city and the great things going on, it's infectious. Then people start listening in other places. We had an opportunity to be in Montgomery, trying to work on a couple of things for the city within assistance from the state, the governor was just very complimentary of all the great things happening in Mobile. It's because more people are becoming engaged and more people are realizing that now is a window of opportunity to get in and do some things, that here before that opportunity wasn't there. 1702 is an example.

Marcus Neto: We were talking about that earlier. I just think it's really exciting what Dean and some of the others that are involved in that have brought together. It was just really an exciting opportunity to take part in that. It'll be interesting to see what Dean has going for that in the next session. Looking forward, what would you want to see for Mobile in the year 2020, if you we're to wave your magic wand?

Mayor Stimpson: In casting the vision for Mobile, to create "One Mobile" to become the safest, most business and family friendly city in America, by 2020, I'm going to be real interested in seeing where we are. I would hope that it would pick up momentum as each year goes by, and to think of from a visual standpoint that you look across our city and you see neighborhoods that have been blighted for a number of years, been in decline, and starting to see in-filled homes, starting to see the school system do better, starting to see our public housing better, because all those things will have to occur for us to fulfill that vision. I'm hopeful that we will have made a mark by then.

Marcus Neto: We're certainly heading in the right direction. Imagine you're speaking to the next generation of entrepreneurs or business owners, if you could impart one bit of wisdom to them, what would it be?

Mayor Stimpson: First off, I think Mobile is a great place for entrepreneurship. There are other cities that have had their incubators and do stuff to give them a leg up. We're just a few yards from being able to say that we have things teed up so that Mobile would be the place to do it. There have been a lot of success stories in Mobile even without the incubators and the things that universities can do to help, or the city can help to do. But my encouragement is to do it here in Mobile. 

The other thing that when I think of entrepreneurship and what a struggle it is and how you're looking at that 10,000-foot mountain, trying to take your idea or your concept and bring it to fruition so that it can be financially lucrative, so much has to do with relationships. I mean along the pathway, there's so many 'go, no go' decisions, but who you team up with and who you are and getting people to buy into you, because they've got to buy in to the individual as much as the concept or the product. I think it's very important that they keep in mind that they can have the greatest idea but if they don't build the relationships, then they're probably going to have a tough time being successful.

Marcus Neto: I'm a big watcher in Gary Vaynerchuk. He does a bunch of YouTube videos, and he answers questions. He kind of a social media guy. The thing I found interesting about him, because he's seen some success, and he does a lot of investing in startups and stuff like that, and he always says that he invests first in the individual. Because if you don't believe that that person can pull it off, then there's no sense in giving the money for the idea. In our world at least, our ideas are oftentimes viewed as cheap, because unless there's some unique unicorn of an idea, it's really just boils down all to execution, and that comes down to the individual.

Mayor Stimpson: In that regard though, Marcus, the entrepreneur has to realize that he does not have every skill set necessary. He's got to make sure that he guards against his pride of protecting his idea, whatever, and be able to engage people. The guy may be a great marketing genius but if he doesn't have the financial support, if he doesn't have the financial backing, not just when I say support, I mean the investor, but you've also got to be able to make sure that you're fiscally responsible with an investor's dollars. There's so many pieces that make it work.

Marcus Neto: You mentioned entrepreneurs staying here in Mobile and making this their home. What resources does the city offer that a business owner might want to investigate?

Mayor Stimpson: From that perspective, the Chamber of Commerce really is the leading edge of trying to help someone starting a business in Mobile. We have restructured part of city government from a business development standpoint, trying to make sure if you come to get a business license and the process of your interaction with government, it hasn't always been easy. We're not where we need to be yet, but we're working on it so that you show up at City Hall and you're trying to get a business license, we want to make it a pleasurable experience.

Marcus Neto: We actually found that to be quite simple.

Mayor Stimpson: Some people do not though.

Marcus Neto: Maybe it's the industry that we're in is a little bit different than others.

Mayor Stimpson: Some people find it very difficult. We want to make sure it is simple. I'm glad you had a good experience. That's great to know.

Marcus Neto: Yeah, absolutely. We've had Bill on, and I love what he's done with the Chamber, the emphasis that they're putting on, not just getting the Airbuses and their supporting role or their supporting [casts 00:17:53] in, but also they really do believe in small businesses. It's been very cool to get to know him and the rest of the Chamber staff. They do a phenomenal job. Is there an area of business or service offerings that you see that is missing here in Mobile?

Mayor Stimpson: I'll be excited to see what's going to happen on St. Louis Street. I believe that's where we'll have a business innovation center stood up that, one, is really first class. I think when that's done that we will have crossed a major hurdle in us trying to grow the city and encourage entrepreneurs and growth of business.

Marcus Neto: You're speaking of the incubator idea that's coming in out of that?

Mayor Stimpson: Yes.

Marcus Neto: I'm excited to see how that happens too. Because there's a movement in the tech industry that it's not just about moving to San Francisco or Silicon Valley, but a lot entrepreneurs in that space are staying in their own cities. There's a synergy that happens when you get those kinds of people together in one place, and it'll be very interesting to see what happens there. Are there any books that you've read or that you've found helpful? Anything you find yourself referring back to or that you've given as a gift multiple times?

Mayor Stimpson: Actually I brought a couple of them. One of them is I love Andy Andrews. "The Traveler's Gift" is his most well known book. Every policeman and fireman that graduate from the Police Academy or the Fire Academy, I give them a copy of that along with "The Case for Character."

Marcus Neto: Very cool.

Mayor Stimpson: "The Case for Character" was written by former Supreme Court Chief Justice Drayton Nabers. Those are the two books I give on a regular basis. Another one that was meaningful to me in the past was a book called "Finishing Strong" by Steve Farrar. It's an excellent book. I give it out occasionally. These two really make you focus on yourself and make sure that you handle yourself and understand how important character is, because at the end of the day as you climb that ladder of success, typically it's character issues that impede someone from achieving the ultimate goals that they would like to achieve. The higher you go up that ladder, the more important character is, because when they kick the legs out from under that ladder, it's a long way to fall.

Marcus Neto: There's certainly many temptations as you're going down that path, whether it'd be monetary or whatever. No, it's really interesting. I've heard of the Andy Andrews, but I've not seen "The Case for Character," so I'll be adding that to my ...

Mayor Stimpson: I'll leave it with you.

Marcus Neto: Oh, well, thank you very much. I appreciate that. What do you like to do in your free time? Do have any hobbies?

Mayor Stimpson: I enjoy being in the woods. I grew up hunting and fishing. This past weekend I had an opportunity to be in the woods. Anyway, I love that. I enjoy the camaraderie of hunting and fishing. I have an opportunity to take my grandchildren now. It used to be taking my children. I've grown up doing that, and that's probably the place where I can relax the most, and so I enjoy doing that.

Marcus Neto: That's neat. I have a number of friends that enjoy the hunting. I don't have an issues with it. I just didn't grow up with a father that went hunting, and so I've always been struck by it. It's really about the relationships and also just about being out in God's beauty, the wonderfulness that is the landscape here with the forests and stuff like that. I think there's just something about getting back to that and away from all this technology that we're always surrounded by, so that's kind of cool. 

Mayor Stimpson: When you're away from the city and you look up in the sky and you look at stars, because of the darkness, you'll see 10 times as many stars that you see, and you just think, my gosh, this is amazing. When I think of being with my grandchildren, the lessons that you can teach them from patience, from respect to so many different things that can be taught while you're in the woods.

Marcus Neto: It's wonderful. This is going to be a loaded question, but give us a look at an average day. I know that's kind of a joke because you don't have any day that's set, but give us a glimpse. What does that look like for you? Do you wake up at the same time? What does the mayor like to have for breakfast? Do you read the paper? Do you drink coffee? I mean those kinds of things.

Mayor Stimpson: It'd be interesting to ask me that question and then ask my wife, okay? From my perspective, well, not my perspective, my alarm goes off, although I wake up before it goes off, around 4:15 every morning.

Marcus Neto: Wow.

Mayor Stimpson: So I start my day 4:15. Usually it's some quiet time, reading the Bible and praying. Then a lot of mornings I'll fix my own breakfast. Whereas I would really like to have grits and eggs and bacon, a lot of times I opt for the cereal or oatmeal or something that's more healthy than grits and eggs and bacon. Then somewhere between 6:30 and 7:15, security will come to the house and pick me up. We typically either go straight to the office, or we go to an event. The rest of the day, really it's almost nonstop, either in meetings with city employees, visiting departments or visiting parks or rec centers, meeting with dignitaries that may come into the city, meeting with civic groups trying to encourage them or find out what their situation is. Then there'll be ... sometimes, I would call it a business lunch. Sometimes it's not a business lunch. I'll eat with some of the staff. Then late in the afternoon, this time of year, it's nonstop fundraisers or different groups having their annual meetings or their events. Typically I'll get home somewhere around 7:00, but there are some nights I don't get home till 9:00. At my age I prefer to be home at least by 6:00 or 7:00. Then I'd like to think I go to bed at about 9:00, but that doesn't always happen either.

Marcus Neto: You say at your age, but even I like being home before 7:00, so I can wind down. I would imagine after being amongst people all day long, you just need some time to decompress as well.

Mayor Stimpson: The other thing too is that I am married to the most wonderful lady in the whole wide world, the most understanding, but truly I need to be home a couple of nights a week, and so I try to make sure that I do not go out every night. That's just not fair. It's not the right thing to do.

Marcus Neto: Completely understand. If somebody wanted to get involved in making Mobile awesome, what would you suggest?

Mayor Stimpson: Well, to me to really transform the city, it's about volunteerism and doing things to improve the community. When I think of your age group, I'm so impressed by with Fuse Project, 1702. But there are other things that citizens can do, whether it's supporting the Salvation Army or supporting the Distinguished Young Women, just be engaged in the activities in the community and support them. When I think about the GulfQuest Museum and the opportunities that are there for our citizens to go look at ... I've started asking people if they've been to GulfQuest. A lot of them say, "Well, no, I'm going to go." Well, I say, "Well, there's no better time than right now because if you go there you can go ice skating also."

Marcus Neto: That's cool.

Mayor Stimpson: Supporting and helping promote the things that we're doing in the city is hugely important. City government cannot do everything. It's going to be created by the energy and the enthusiasm of our citizens. The Delta Bike Project, I think they have a Gears and Beers or ...

Marcus Neto: I saw that this past weekend.

Mayor Stimpson: There were 300 people riding bicycles. They were excited. They're really going to be excited when we have more bike lanes for them to ride. To join one of those organizations ... instead of just sitting on the sideline and saying, "Well, I wish there was something to do. There's plenty to do. You just have to be willing to take the first step and engage. 

Marcus Neto: The move down here actually gave me an opportunity to get much more involved, because I started meeting various people. Grant pulled me in to order a [Fuse 00:27:26]. We had our gala this past weekend. 1702, with all the meetings that we've had at Red or White and all the things that they've got going on, so it's really interesting to see all the organizations that you can become a member of. Even just talking to other nonprofits that are in the area with Casey Callaway and Mobile Baykeeper and stuff like that. There's so many opportunities to get involved. I'd just echo your sentiment of if you don't have a sense of pride and involvement in the city, then you may be the key that's missing. I'm speaking just in general to the audience that may be listening. They may be the key that's missing to helping make a bigger impact.

Mayor Stimpson: Absolutely.

Marcus Neto: I'd just encourage them.

Mayor Stimpson: You may be the only person or the very person that someone needs to listen to to convince them to move to Mobile and to join in the great things that are happening. Your comment earlier about somebody told you about investing in the person instead of the idea. When corporations come to Mobile, they are buying into our city. They have to think that the leadership in the city and the citizens are the place where they should relocate their company. They're going to get that feel ... maybe they'll crunch numbers and they'll look at demographics, but at the end of the day, it may be an interaction that they have with somebody at a restaurant. It may be an interaction with an Uber driver. So every one of us need to be aware that we have an opportunity to sell the city, promote the city, and we got to make it happen.

Marcus Neto: Remind me to tell you a funny story about Uber after we finish, but we're very thankful that Uber's here. Let's just put it at that. Anyway, I want to thank you again for coming on the podcast. To wrap up any final thoughts or comments you'd like to share.

Mayor Stimpson: My best Uber story is my son and daughter-in-law live New Canaan, Connecticut. They've been using Uber for a couple of years. They come to Mobile. We have Uber. They call Uber to pick them to bring them downtown. My daughter-in-law grew up in Boston. They're living, as I said, in New Canaan. The first Uber ride they had in Mobile is a black, four-door, F-150 pickup truck.

Marcus Neto: Nice.

Mayor Stimpson: My daughter-in-law says she can't wait to go back to Connecticut and tell them about her first Uber ride in Mobile, Alabama.

Marcus Neto: Yeah, that's neat. Well, I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share your journey as a business owner and entrepreneur and mayor. It's been great talking with you.

Mayor Stimpson: Thank you Marcus. I'm delighted to have the opportunity to visit with you all. Thank you all for what you all are doing.

Marcus Neto: Appreciate that.