In this episode we sat down with Casey Williams. Casey is the "new" President of the Eastern Shore Chamber. Full Disclosure: Marcus is on the Executive Board for the Chamber and was head of the committee that hired Casey. The Eastern Shore and Mobile are intertwined in many ways. Casey understands this. She has accepted the challenge of heading up the ES Chamber with gusto and the Board is extremely pleased with the direction things are heading. Make sure to follow the ES Chamber on Facebook and Instagram or visit their site. So, let's dive right in with Casey Williams!
Casey: I'm Casey Williams, and I am the president and director of the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce.
Marcus: Well, welcome to the podcast, Casey.
Casey: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
Marcus: Yeah. Now, I've really enjoyed getting to know you over the last, I guess, what is it, six months now?
Casey: Yeah, that's about right.
Marcus: Oh my gosh. Like, I'm ... We're recording, and I'm just now having that realization that it's been that long since we started the process for finding a new president for the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce. But anyway, I'm happy to have you here to kind of find out a little bit more about the background and the person behind the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce, so ...
Casey: Well, thanks.
Marcus: Yeah. Well, to get started, why don't you tell us about yourself from the perspective of, you know, are you from Mobile, did you grow up in this area, where did you go to school, all that kind of stuff?
Casey: You know, this story, as I've gotten older, I've found to be more and more unique. I grew up in Daphne. My grandson now is the fifth generation to grow up on the Eastern Shore. My grandmother came here as a very young girl, and my mother was born on the bluff where now is Mobile Medical, in Daphne. So the Eastern Shore, Mobile Bay, the coastal Alabama area is ... I'm very passionate about the environment that we live in and the quality of life it brings. So I did grow up in Daphne, I went to Christ the King and Fairhope High School, because there was only four high schools in Baldwin County at that time, so I'm giving away my age a little bit.
Marcus: Don't do the math, folks. Don't do the math.
Casey: Don't do the math. Attended Auburn University, and came home briefly, but ended up living in Georgia for about 15 years, and then moved back here. I have a 30-year career in banking.
Marcus: Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves, so let's park there for a minute.
Marcus: So you grew up in Daphne, you went to, you said Fairhope High School. I mean, what was it ... What do you see when you drive up and down 98 now? I mean, how different is it from ...
Casey: Well, I think I have a great story. When I've ... I remember when they built the four-lane. I was a little girl, I was very little, but I remember it, and for years — I mean, up until probably just a few years ago — I called it "the new highway." "Are you going the old highway or the new highway?" One day, I took off to go to school, I was driving to school, I took the new highway, I took the four-lane, and I had a flat tire. It took over 20 minutes for the next car to drive by.
Marcus: Oh my gosh.
Casey: And fortunately, it was a good friend of the family. He actually took me to school, drove back to Daphne, got my dad, they went up, got the car, so forth and so on. So I remember when there were no red lights between Daphne and Fairhope. None. And so now, coming back home years ago, in '98, just the density that is along the highway, and the resources that we have over here, and just the number of cars and houses, and ... You know, it's a much different landscape than growing up here. For that matter, I remember being stuck in Mobile because the only way to get home was the causeway, and we had had a squall, and there was debris that had to be removed, so we had to sit on this side of the tunnel until the causeway was cleared off, because that was the only way to get home.
Marcus: Wow. No, it's interesting, because when we moved here, I mean, I remember ... This is 2004. I remember, like even back then, we were ... We visited for a couple of years before moving down here — we would visit a couple of times a year, because my in-laws lived here — and at one point in time, my wife and I were like, "Okay, well, we could definitely see ourselves moving down here, because now they have a Target and a movie theater."
Marcus: And it's hard to believe, like, even just in 2004-ish time frame, that on the Eastern Shore, there was no Target and there was no movie theater, and now we've got multiple movie theaters, and a couple of Walmarts, and new Publix grocery stores all over the place and stuff. It's changed quite a bit.
Casey: Well, when I was growing up, you practically packed a bag to go to Mobile. I mean, you didn't just run to Mobile. You went to Mobile for, you know, specific things that you needed. My dad drew house plans, so he had to go to Waller Brothers, and so we would plan other trips around going to Waller Brothers to get blueprint paper. So my favorite ... One of my favorite childhood memories is my dad would give me the quarter when we left the house, and I would hold it all the way to Mobile so that I could give it to the guy at the front of Bankhead Tunnel, because it was a quarter to go through Bankhead Tunnel.
Casey: And I would hold that quarter, and that was, you know, sad to say, a big highlight back then was to give the guy the quarter to go in the tunnel.
Marcus: But I can see that, though. I mean, tunnels aren't ... I mean, they're more common now, but back in the day, I remember being very excited about tunnels and bridges and stuff like that. Now, you mentioned Auburn, so half of our audience has stopped listening now, but what did you study when you went to Auburn?
Casey: Oddly enough, my degree is in fashion design and merchandising, with a minor in textile chemistry.
Marcus: Which I think is just fantastic, because I know you, and I know what you've accomplished, you know, and just think it's interesting that you came from there and ... We're going to get into your story, but the transition that you've gone through.
Casey: Well, when I got to Auburn, I had worked in retail in high school, and had a great mentor who used to take me to market with her, to Atlanta, and I fell in love with that whole buying process, and that's what I wanted to be, was a buyer. And, you know, now that I look back, I realize what an incredible degree it was, because it was business-oriented, contract law, you know, all things business, but also it was creative. My final in textile chemistry was little pieces of fabric, and you had to do different tests and analysis to say what fabric they were, what was the finish. I had to take a sewing class, I had to take art classes. It was probably one of the most well-rounded experiences, because it was creative, it was business, it was marketing, it was all of those things, so it was-
Marcus: Wow. I take back everything I said, then, because that sounds very much like a ... You know, what you would find in a business or marketing degree. Yeah.
Casey: It's kind of a specialized business and marketing, and ... But you had the creative element. I had to take some art courses, and I found some pictures the other day, when I was cleaning out a closet, of my sketches of different articles, like pearls and shoes, and I thought, "Oh, I wasn't too bad."
Marcus: Yeah. No, that's really cool.
Casey: Back in the day.
Marcus: So how did you end up in banking?
Casey: I totally just tripped over myself getting into banking. I call myself "the Lucille Ball of the banking world." I got married and moved to LaGrange, Georgia, and it was not a hotbed of fashion there, and there really wasn't a place to go close. I mean, the closest thing I could do was, probably even just to work in retail, was an hour away, so I worked a couple of odd jobs, and then a friend of mine said, "Well, there's a customer service opening at the bank," and it just seemed kind of a good thing to do in transition until I figured out what I really wanted to do, so I went into customer service.
Ended up with my real estate license that I took at night. My husband did shift work with Milliken, so I took some courses at night, ended up getting my real estate and finance license, and so when they needed somebody in the mortgage department, I ended up being a logical choice because I knew what a VA funding fee was. That sealed the deal. That's all I knew, but I guess that was one more thing than somebody else. And so eventually, I came over and took over the mortgage department, ran that for several years, decided I wanted to do something different, and that's when banks realized that you could not just be an order-taker. You needed to interact with your customers, lo and behold, have a conversation, and actually assist them with their financial world, you know.
Marcus: There's an educational aspect to it too, [inaudible 00:09:03]
Casey: And let people know what products and services we have that can actually help them. So I went to a meeting, and with my bank president, and they said, "Well, who's going to be your sales manager?" and it was me. So I went into the sales management, business development, PR, advertising, marketing, I kind of took on all of those roles for the bank, and found that ... A passion of developing people and their skills, really, how to motivate, how to get them out of their own head and look at a different way of doing things, and it was very gratifying to see people take on a whole knew skillset that could propel them forward. It was not easy, because that was just unheard of in banking. "Oh, we don't want to be pushy." Oh, well, you know, if they need something, they're going to appreciate you making it available, so there's a big difference in a need and a push.
So I came into banking and that whole arena, and realized it spoke to something within me, because it was about developing people and giving them the skills, because ... You know, if a bank is driven by numbers, I'm not a number person, I'm more about the activities that drive the number, and I had a lot of success with that.
Marcus: It's interesting how in business, some people get so focused on top-line or bottom-line revenue numbers, but the reality is, those are just an output of the activities that you put into the business.
Casey: Exactly, and so I was a bit of an odd bird in the banking world. Maybe in the whole world, but in the banking world in particular, and so at a ... Around 1998, had an opportunity to move back to the Eastern Shore from Georgia, and went to work as a commercial lender and branch manager in Daphne, because our ... Had a good basis of customers there. And again, after two years, the company that I worked for, the holding company, decided they needed a corporate sales manager, so I went to work in three states with 12 different banks and 132 branches, and developed their sales and service initiative, and just was happy as I could be.
It was a win-win situation for everybody, but I had to ... You know, you have to work through the barriers, and ... So I did that for about 12 years, and my holding company was acquired by a large bank, and I was there for about two and a half years, but that just ... I'll just say wasn't my real cup of tea after being so community-bank-oriented, and so I took a sabbatical for two or three months, and then went to work at United Bank in Atmore as retail director and executive VP over the 17 offices.
Marcus: Which is where we found you.
Casey: That's right.
Marcus: Right. So, full disclosure, I was part of the committee for the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce that interviewed you and put you through the ringer, and it was definitely an interesting process. I mean, it's not often somebody gets to go through that process as part of a committee for a chamber, trying to find somebody that's going to head up the Chamber of Commerce, so it was pretty cool to see that. But anyway, so we went through that process, and you are now the president of the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce.
Casey: It is, and I am.
Marcus: Yeah. So, tell us what ... I mean, it's been about six months now. Tell us what that's been like.
Casey: This was something that I almost looked to do a few years ago, when the position was open about two and a half, three years ago, and when it became open again, I thought, "I may not have another chance." I grew up running around the Fairhope Chamber office. My dad was the Fairhope Chamber manager for years, when it was one day a week. They had an admin assistant that really kind of ran everything day-to-day. He did public appearances, was there on Thursdays. And so I've always seen the Chamber, and the connection that the Chamber brought to the community. In going through paperwork, I found our incorporation papers that moved it from the Fairhope Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce to the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce in 1959, and my dad's signature was on there, as well as many other people that are part of the fabric of the Eastern Shore, and-
Marcus: Was that at the Scenic Overlook?
Casey: Mm-mm (negative). This was at the Fairhope ...
Marcus: It was at the-
Casey: It was the Fairhope office.
Casey: We've been in the Fairhope office for a number of years before it was bequeathed to us by Mr. Bagley, so ... This was truly a calling. I'm so passionate about the Eastern Shore. My dad owned his own business, I have been in banking for 30 years, I have worked with people in business, so I understand profit and loss, I understand what it means to give so much of yourself to your business that sometimes you need help with connecting to resources and opportunities, and looking at a bigger picture, because you can get very focused when you own your own business. And, of course, we have other great businesses too, that come to us from all over the country, so we have a very ... We have 985 members right now, and they're everything from your mom-and-pop merchant to large chain retailers, and everything in between, and they all have their place, and they all are part of the fabric of where we are.
Marcus: Right, and it's all ... I love that kind of feeling of, you know, the business community really kind of binds together, and it is kind of driving the Eastern Shore in a positive direction. I mean, it really is a neat thing to watch, when you get a group of people together supporting a chamber, and you can do some really powerful things. If you were ... Knowing now that you have all of that experience, and that you've seen a lot of different things in your business life, and now as the president of the Chamber, if you were sitting down with somebody that was thinking about starting a business, what would be the one thing, if you were only able to say one thing to them, what would be the one thing that you would say to them?
Casey: You need a good business plan, and that takes on several components, but most ideas are generated for a business through the creative process, or they've done this, they've been in this business a long time, they feel like they can do it better, they can do it different, they can do it in a different place, and often, they have the expertise or the knowledge, but trying to get that knowledge out of their head on a piece of paper ... You know, you have to have some numbers to back up your plan, especially if you need financing or you need a partner, or you're going to ask your mom to help you.
Casey: You should have a business plan so that you at least have a framework in which to start and grow your business. And there are a lot of resources, and as the Chamber manager, I find a new resource every day, and that is one of my priorities, is to make those resources available. But know your business plan. It's got to be something concrete that you can make your framework, and you may learn something, you may need to add something, and be open to counsel. Go to people that you trust, find an accountant that you trust, find an attorney that you trust, especially if you're going into any kind of partnership. Find people that you trust that you know is going to not just tell you what you want to hear, but also tell you what you need to hear, and then be open and receptive to that. You know, there's-
Marcus: I went to the SCORE group early on, and man, that was such a painful experience, and it wasn't because of anything they did, it was because your ego takes a huge hit when you're like, "Man, I'm going to" ... Like, "I'm going to conquer the world, and I'm going to go, and I'm going to do this," and then they start asking you some basic questions about, you know, financing, and numbers, and "How many clients do you need in order to support blah blah blah," and you're just kind of like, "I just wanted to make cool websites, man." You know? I mean, and, you know-
Casey: Yeah, and that's what I'm talking about, and-
Marcus: Yeah. You need to be asked those questions, though.
Casey: And we do have an incredible SCORE chapter that operates in Fairhope, as well as the Small Business Development Center in Orange Beach. You know, people don't realize, you have to ... If you're going to do business in Daphne, Spanish Fort, Mobile, Silverhill, Loxley, you probably need a business license in every one of those ... From every one of those municipalities. You may even need a county license. If you're going to have anything to do with alcohol, there's special insurances and licenses and all those things, and you need to know what those are, you need to know how much they're going to cost, you need to know how long it's going to take you to get them, you need to know ... Because they're all going to ask those questions. Do you have certain insurances, do ... And it's usually a bigger process, but I think doing that work up front certainly sets you up for success much sooner, and you can bring in those other partners that you need, should you need financing, or looking for someone else to go into business for you, or even if you're going to lease a building.
Marcus: It forces you to do your due diligence so you're not ... Because there's already so much to learn as an entrepreneur anyway.
Marcus: If you're having to focus on some of the basics, then it just ... You know, it's just really ... It's not ... Doesn't make for a good situation.
Casey: I mean, fortunately for us, we live in ... You know, between Mobile and the Eastern Shore, we have a lot of sole proprietors and small partnerships, and the businesses that we have here are astounding. I'm so amazed every time we do a Morning Marketing Meeting, the people and the passion for what they do. And we have nonprofit members, and I always call them the soul of our community, and we're working hard to connect them ... You know, there's ... What's your passion: rescuing a dog, feeding people, teaching children? We have something for whatever passion you have in your heart, and so it's a lot of fun to put those groups together. You can do well by doing good, and I feel like our community fosters that.
Marcus: That's very cool. All right, so you mentioned some resources. I don't know if you're a big reader or not. That's one thing that we haven't talked about over the last couple of months, but are there any books that you've read over the last, say, six months to a year that you think would be helpful to a business owner?
Casey: I'm a huge proponent of feeding your mind, and especially if you're a small-business owner, or even just an owner of a business, you seldom get the nourishment that you need for that thinking outside the box. Right now, my whole staff is doing Crucial Conversations.
Marcus: Oh, cool. It's a good book.
Casey: I read it once a year, and every year, I find something that's just a little ... Kind of makes me think. But Crucial Conversations is about assessing how people communicate under stress — as they say, when the stakes are high, and the emotions are too. So how do you ... People always say to me, "I don't like confrontations," and I'll say, "Well, you're going to have one eventually, and it's either you're going to be able to have a constructive conversation, or you're going to blow out about something that's just completely unrelated to the real problem, and then you do have a communication problem that you have to resolve before you can get to the root cause." So our whole staff is doing that. We read a chapter or two every week, and we talk about what's the "a-ha" moment, what really spoke to you, what action are you taking to communicate differently when you're under stress, and how have you seen ... It has a little quiz in there, and it tells you whether you're one of the three passive communication styles or one of the three aggressive communication styles. So it's been very interesting.
Another one of my favorite books is The Tipping Point. I love all of Malcolm Gladwell's books, but that one was the first, and again, probably read it ...
Marcus: So what are you?
Casey: I'm a Connector.
Marcus: Okay, yeah. And that never came up in our interview process, but I can totally see that now, so yeah.
Casey: And I do think that's really one of the primary roles of the Chamber, is to connect people to markets, and people to people, and business to people, and people to resources. I just got back from Montgomery, where we had a legislative drive-in to Montgomery for Coastal Alabama Partnership, and bring that information back, and our governmental affairs are really getting to the meat of what's going on that affects business, and we're drafting our first quarterly newsletter for, you know, "Here's what's happening in your municipality, here's what's happening in the county." If it speaks to you and your business, or could affect your business, then you might want to pay more attention to it, or you might want to go to a meeting, or look up what the ordinance, or, you know, whatever it is. Connecting information, because there's so much, and people don't have time to do that.
Marcus: Yeah. For those that are listening that aren't familiar with Tipping Point, it's not a recent book, but it is definitely something worth picking up. He discusses the different types of people that you might find in a business ecosystem, I guess is the best way to describe it, so he's got Connectors and Early Adopters, and that kind of thing. And so what it does is it kind of helps you understand, especially if you're putting a product together, it would be extremely helpful to know, because then you better know how to position yourself to reach the right people, to get the snowball effect that you're looking for.
Casey: And that really is what he is trying to ... He thinks of things in a much different way than traditional business books. But how do you ... How does anything become epidemic? You know, I remember this ... The weird-colored Hush Puppies that everybody wore several years ago, that started in, like, Greenwich Village in New York, or Brooklyn. I mean ...
Marcus: Brooklyn, or something like that. Yeah.
Casey: And a certain group of people started wearing them to the club, and the next thing you know, they're on ... It's epidemic. Blue's Clues. There's all different ... I mean, even an illness. I mean, how do you, your product, your service, how do things become an epidemic, in a ... You know, in a good way, and so you have Connectors, and you need all these different people talking about your business, and you have people that ... People trust their opinion, so if I say, "That's a really good restaurant," and you respect my knowledge of food, you're probably going to go try it.
Marcus: I'm an Early Adopter when it comes to food, that's for sure. But I'd also view myself as a Connector. Like, I love putting people together, much like you do. So yeah, it's definitely a good read. So what do you like to do in your free time? Any hobbies?
Casey: Well, I do like to work in the yard when I have a chance. I like being outside. I love being on a boat, any kind of boat, on just about any kind of water. I used to sail a lot; haven't had much chance at that. But typically, if I have a few minutes these days, I'm playing with the most divine creature.
Marcus: You're not biased.
Casey: No, not at all. I have a 21-month-old grandson named Charlie, after my dad, and I just can't think of a better way to spend my time than to take him for a walk, because everything is new, and it's "Ooh, look," and we walk down to the May Day Pier. Now that it's going to be lighter later, we'll get back to doing that almost every day that we can, and ... I like to put him in the kitchen already. I love to cook; I guess that's probably my favorite pastime, is I love to take a recipe and just create and make, and I sit him on the same stool I think I used to stand on, and he's my buddy, so ... And entertain, I love to have somebody to cook for, so I typically ...
Marcus: I'll be over soon.
Casey: All right, it's a deal, it's a deal.
Marcus: Now, I love to cook as well, so I understand that. There's something very cool about feeding someone good food. Like, even the idea of feeding my own family, like my boys, you know, and pushing their palates in a new direction, right? So I have ... You know, I have three boys. My oldest son will eat just about anything you put in front of him now. It's taken me years to get him to that point, but, I mean, there's not much, and I love watching Chef's Table, and The Mind of a Chef, and stuff like that, and I'll watch it and I'll get ideas, and it's cool to have people that will try those ideas, and a lot of times, it's a home run, but every once in a while, it's kind of like "Wah wah wah." You know, like, "I don't know what you were thinking, Dad, this sucks. [inaudible 00:28:11]"
Casey: Well, but, you know, I've made some recipes, and I'm like, "Okay, this isn't great," but put my own spin on it, or I'll go find another recipe and meld the two together. It's kind of like a science experiment. So if I watch TV, I watch Cooking Channel. Literally, sometimes on Saturday, I'll watch The Pioneer Woman, and we'll say, "You know, that looks good," we'll go buy everything, and make the whole dinner.
Marcus: I did that the other day. I was watching Mind of a Chef, and I was like, "I'm going to Fresh Market," and I went to Fresh Market and got a bunch of stuff, and we ate well that night.
Casey: And it's so fun, and my husband Lee loves to eat, so that works out really nicely. The other thing I like to do in the fall, I'm a huge SEC football fan. I will watch-
Marcus: Alabama, right?
Casey: Uh, wrong. Now, I will say that being a mature SEC football fan, I pull for Auburn first, I pull for the state of Alabama second, and I pull for SEC third, and I will pull for the SEC because if we want a strong conference, we need to win in a conference, so I will watch ... My favorite morning in the fall is when I wake up and it's the first game day, and I turn on the channel, and there's Kirk Herbstreit, and I'm just ... That's it. I'm worthless the rest of the day. I will watch every football game, SEC football game, all day.
Marcus: That was an adjustment, moving down here, as people really do love their football. I went to a university that didn't ... We didn't have a ... I don't even know. Did James Madison have a football team? I can't say that now, because-
Casey: No, but they have a basketball team.
Marcus: They have a basketball team, but they actually won their division like two years ago or something like that, so, I mean, they-
Casey: Well, they were in the Final Four a few years ago.
Marcus: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, so they've made quite some strides, so, anyway. So tell people where they can find you.
Casey: Well, most days I am right there in downtown Fairhope, where our office is, on Fairhope Avenue, and I am at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm very much a believer in learning from others, so if somebody has a great idea, they come from another area that a chamber did something that was really cool and fun, we're putting together a lot of new things, I would love to hear ideas. I'd love to hear about what would bring value to the membership, what are people looking for and how we can help them, because that's what we're here to do. My mantra has been "Business aren't here to grow my Chamber, the Chamber is here to grow business, and to do that work."
Marcus: And that is a new ... That is a new mentality that I know you've brought in, so I'm happy to see that.
Casey: We have a great staff. I cannot say enough about them. We do some great things for the youth through our Workforce Development. We do some great events, and we're planning a revamp of our Jubilee Festival in downtown Daphne. We want to do the Festival of the Arts, and look at performance arts and culinary arts as well as art and craft. So we have some fun and exciting things going on, and there's going to be some opportunities for folks to get involved that maybe haven't been before, so I'm really looking forward to that.
Marcus: Oh, it's very cool. I am very excited about the direction that the Chamber is heading. I'm also ... Full disclosure, I didn't say this before, I'm on the Executive Board, so I'm privy to a lot of these things that you're pushing us to do, and it's exciting to see, because I know for a long time, the Chamber was really just known as the Arts and Crafts Festival Chamber, and it's changing. There's definitely a need on the Eastern Shore, as commerce has become a thing, so there's a lot of businesses that are moving to the area, and the population is growing, and stuff like that, the Chamber needs to change its focus slightly, or at least add that to its repertoire, of being able to bring businesses together, and to foster that community, and to build people's networks, and help them grow their businesses.
Casey: You know, the favorite part of my job is to be having a conversation with one person, and they talk about something they need, and I'm like, "Oh, wait, hold on, you need to meet this person," and it's so gratifying to see how it all comes together, because in ... Even in today's digital world, and all the different ways that we can communicate not being person-to-person, at the end of the day, you want to do business with someone you know, or you will do business with someone that you know and a referral to that business.
Casey: And so it's those connections that are so critical to the success of everybody's day-to-day business.
Marcus: Yup, very good. Well, I want to thank you for coming on the podcast. To wrap up, any final thoughts or things that you'd like to share?
Casey: No. As I end most things when I'm talking to a group of people, today is a good day for a good day. And thanks for letting me be here.
Marcus: Absolutely. It's been great. Thank you.
Casey: You're welcome.