We sit down with Mike Rogers and hear his story of being laid off and a happen-stance offer that lead to where he is today: Rogers & Willard, Inc. He and his team have won numerous awards over the years and is actively involved in the revitalization of downtown Mobile. They have built restaurants, churches, banks, retail locations, and so much more. Let's jump into our conversation with Mike Rogers!
Mike: My name is Mike Rogers and I'm with Rogers & Willard Inc.
Marcus: Well, welcome to the podcast, Mike. I appreciate you being here today. This is a pleasure to get to sit down with you.
Mike: Well, and I appreciate the invitation. I'm glad to be here.
Marcus: Awesome. Well, we usually start off with our guest giving us kind of some back story, just kind of telling us who they are. So can you maybe start off by, are you from [Mobile 00:00:25], did you grow up here?
Mike: Sure, sure I grew up here, came through the Catholic schools, went to grade school, and high school in Mobile, graduated from McGill, and then went on to get a degree at Auburn University in Building Construction and moved away for a short while, for about three years, to Nashville, Tennessee. Came back in about 1989.
Marcus: Wow, and you also along the same lines, married, kids, as well?
Mike: I am. I was a little late bloomer, so I was 37 when I got married and got married to a wonderful lady who had two girls. So I went from being a bachelor to instant dad, and so I have my wife [Kay 00:01:17], and then our two daughters, Jackie and Katie. Katie's 28, just recently moved back to Mobile with her husband from Birmingham. And our daughter Jackie is still up in Birmingham. And then we have a 13-year-old daughter, so I got a house full of ...
Marcus: House full of women.
Mike: ... women. And they keep me on my toes.
Marcus: I'm the opposite. We have three boys and myself, and my wife, we recently got a dog. And she said, "Well if we get a dog, it's got to be a female." Yeah, so we've got a little seven-pound female mutt and she rules the roost. But you, so what brought you back to Mobile?
Mike: So actually, had a great job in Nashville, and the company that I worked for was a large general contractor. They were having some financial troubles, and so I ended up getting laid off. And at that time, I was still young. I was about 26-27 and loved to travel, and so I had decided that I wanted to go work overseas for a stint. I was not married and didn't have a lot of responsibilities other than my job. And so, I started applying to try to work overseas, and that was the time of the first Gulf War. And so it just really shut that business down. And so by then, I'd kind of committed to doing something and decided to leave Nashville. It was, I love Nashville, I think it's one of the funnest places to live in the country. But, I decided to come back and kind of wait out and see what happened with the international work, and that ended up not panning out. So I actually moved back to Mobile, and during that time, when I was sending out resumes and everything, I had a college buddy ask me if I wanted to help build a building. And that's what I'd been doing in Nashville, and so that actually ended up being the beginning of Rogers & Willard.
Marcus: So that's how it started, was you just like, on a whim, asked you if you wanted to help with this project?
Mike: That's it.
Marcus: That's really cool. I mean, it's funny how, oftentimes, it's just those simple invites, "You want to do this?" "Sure." And then that was, when was that?
Mike: That was in about 1989.
Marcus: Golly, so that's 37-ish years ago?
Marcus: 27. [crosstalk 00:03:53] Math isn't my strong suit. I was an English major, folks. So, 27 years ago. So you guys have been in business since then?
Mike: We have, we have.
Marcus: That's awesome. Well, Mobile is definitely the better for having you not have gone abroad. But how would you ... Go back to high school and college. I mean, how would you characterize those time periods? I mean, were you a good student, or were you ...
Mike: I was not a good student. I was very, I guess, lucky that I was able to attend schools. And so, I always had lots of interests and hobbies and different things. Until I got to high school, I was one of those kids who, I was blessed with some good genes that I didn't have to study much. And into high school got a little bit harder, and my interest in school got a little bit less. When I was 16, I actually hung it up, said, "I'm done with high school." It was mainly ... there were things that were going on that I was not traveling the straight and narrow path like I should have been. But, that's a part of who I am. I went, I quit high school for a while. I went to work and decided really quickly that I needed to get back in high school. And thank goodness, I kind of turned it around and got my high school diploma. And then, went on to Auburn and got my degree there.
Marcus: So you got your GED, basically what-
Mike: No. They let me back in McGill.
Marcus: They let you back. [crosstalk 00:05:38] We've had a number of people that have said similar stories where they were just like, "I'm done with this." And it's funny the line, most people that I find that are entrepreneurs aren't good students. We're the ones that couldn't stay at attention, focused, because it wasn't interesting to us. There was no practical application, right? Maybe you suffered from the same thing. But you know, that was me, for sure.
Mike: I do find that.
Marcus: Do you remember back to that first project, and maybe it wasn't the first project, but within the first couple of projects, where you thought, "Okay, well, there may be something to this." Like-
Mike: You know, I think that for probably even a couple of years, it was just kind of, I was still thinking that I would do something else. You know? And I think that when the company was formed, it was more or less, just for legal reasons, because we were beginning to start to construct buildings. And we had at first, it was just under a old company name that my first two business partners were at. It was actually not Steve Willard. It was Pat [McLaren 00:06:53] and [Guy McLaren 00:06:54] and so the name of the company was [inaudible 00:06:57] Rogers. And doing business, we kind of had to form the company. I still thought I would go work overseas or do something. But as we continued to have more success, then I did start to see that, hey, maybe we do have something here. I think I always had that kind of eye on something different. But looking back, it was just really fortunate that it all work out the way it did.
Marcus: No, that's cool. So using that same kind of thought process, you certainly are one of the few people that I've met that really has a vision for Mobile, and what Mobile can become, and what it is becoming, right?
Marcus: Do you, like, when did that start? Like, when did that, kind of, because there's a passion there, right? Like, you definitely want to affect this city in a positive way. I mean, do you remember when that happened, what kind of [inaudible 00:07:55]?
Mike: I know exactly what it was. It was when I moved to Nashville and I saw what a melting pot of young people it was. And so, it's just back then, Nashville was nothing like it was today in terms of what they have, with the hockey and with the music industry has really boomed, and they got pro sports. And you go any night of the week now, and it's like Bourbon Street. It was nothing like that, but the culture was the same. It was a very welcoming place for outsiders. I felt like I went to Nashville and immediately had a group of friends from Nashville and other places that we're all there just really kind of having a good time and working-
Marcus: They didn't worry about where you were from or, yeah.
Mike: Sure, sure. And so, when I came back to Mobile I was still young and I had just come from that experience and I thought, "Why not Mobile, what are we lacking here?" And as things kind of go along and opportunities are presented to you, that was always kind of my overarching theme was how do we make Mobile like Nashville in that regard of openness and attracting talent and getting the young people and stopping the brain drain and reversing it and all of that. And so, I got involved in different organizations that did different things, but always for me I was always looking for a way to use that as a vehicle to be a part of that change in the city in that way if that makes sense.
Marcus: Well then we're in the same mindset. Obviously, you're further down and you have much more invested than I do, but we're very much along those same lines. Like anything that we can do to kind of help move us in that direction. I have adopted this city as my own even though I'm not from here, and I just, I see so much potential here. And I also, it was more of a personal thing for me as I'm sure it is to you where I didn't want my kids to have to grow up, go to college, and then move away for opportunity and interesting things to do with our lives. I wanted to see something created here that they could fall into it they wanted to that was challenging and brought them opportunity. And the short period of time we've spent together, I think you're very much with the same mindset of we see so much talent going to Atlanta or Nashville or Chattanooga now because they're growing Huntsville, Birmingham, you know so on and so forth. It'd be nice to retain some of that talent and build Mobile through that. So tell us a little bit about, I mean you all have made a statement in a big way by being one of the first folks on St. Louis Street as part of this new technology corridor I guess that the chamber and the city are kind of branding this as, and what's your vision? What do you see for even the downtown area?
Mike: Sure, so really a lot of people say, "Golly, you were so smart to do that." And I will say we'll take some credit for that and the fact that we did it, but where a lot of that came from was the 2009 Map for Mobile. It was our new plan for Mobile was actually what it was called and it was a master plan. And Mobile's done something over the years that's been really great and that they've invested in master plans and different things that were forward-looking. I think that where the city maybe has not done as well in the past is that a lot of those things end up on a shelf somewhere, and that's in any business.
Marcus: Well they can cast division, but they don't necessarily have, they can't purchase the properties and get people to move in and that's the role of guys like you and I.
Mike: Sure, and so on St. Louis Street, I remember we had our annual Christmas party for our company at [Wenzel's 00:12:23], and we had everybody in there, and Steve and I both love downtown, and I suggested to him that we move our business downtown, and he was like, "Great idea. Go find a building." And so about a week later, I came back and said, "Okay I found a building," and it was the Buick building and it took us a little while, that was about 2011-2012, and we went through several processes to kind of figure out what was the best thing to do. One of the things we knew was that it was going to be a really big investment, because it was in such bad shape, and we really didn't need all of the building for our company. And so our company occupies about 6,000 square feet, the building is about 40,000. And so we needed a reason, really, to be able to make it financially feasible.
And so we had a couple of things come along, we did some design, we had looked at a couple of the local kind of technology companies really doing some really big projects. We had them actually kind of schematically design and super cool modern buildings on some of the surrounding blocks around that area. And during that whole process, I just learned a lot about all the different things that were out there as far as incentives to try to piece together to make a project feasible when there's not a lot of capital out there. And so, that kind of began a process where we studied new market tax credits and the incentives that the state of Alabama has both historic and industry related, and you just learn a lot about the programs and then began to kind of plan. And one of the things that we did that we picked out of the 2009 plan was that they had identified St. Louis as a technology corridor.
And so we began to kind of talk about how you would use [Bishop State 00:14:29], which anchors one end of it with all of these companies and they could collaborate. And so we kind of set that vision out there and started the discussion, and like so many things once you start telling enough people and you start getting the momentum going, people start to actually believe some of it. So, we were real lucky and that we went along, that project didn't work out. We had another one that didn't work out, and the economy got a little better and along comes Rural Sourcing and they come to Mobile and their leadership had kind of been in this restoration-type mode in other cities and they like being a part of kind of helping a city, turn around an area or a building.
And so they walked in the building, and I'll never forget, we were in there with their leadership team, and we were sitting there and it had rained that day and we're standing and all the slush because part of the roof was missing and we were looking through all the junk and all in the building. And the CFO said, "It's beautiful, I love it."
Marcus: And you're thinking, "Do you need my glasses?"
Mike: Well no, actually I'm the same, I'm that guy, I see through all of that. But a lot of people come in and they say, "This will never work, this is a disaster." But it was because of them kind of having that vision and that confidence in us to execute that we were able to get the financial package together to make it feasible, and then we work closely with the city, too. They helped us with TIF funds to actually make it kind of a signature project. There were a lot of things that we could have done that would have made it still a great project but not really a kind of-
Marcus: Well it's transforming the street right? So you've got Innovation Portal going on down there. I know there's an engineering firm that's-
Mike: Precision Engineering, and then Old Mobile Antique Gallery.
Marcus: Yeah, I mean your little three or four blocks pretty soon are going to be completely transformed. All those buildings are under construction at this point, right? So, at some point in time it's going to be a completely different part of the city.
Mike: I agree.
Marcus: It's neat to see. So tell me, when you look at the city overall and you just think about the vision for downtown, the thriving business district that it could be, what do you see as far as the landscape goes over say, like, the next four or five years?
Mike: Well, first of all I see just tremendous opportunity. I think that when we continue to do things in different parts of the city, and it's one of those things where when we got our building, and some of the buildings that were purchased after ours, people say, "Oh, all the good deals have gone away." Well, it's all relative. I think that there is still just tremendous opportunity, and I think Mobile is such an entrepreneurial ... The ground, it's in the water, it's in the people. I think that we haven't always had the kind of fancy tools that we're starting to get now with incubators and a lot of different things. But that creativity and maybe it came from being a port city or being in manufacturing or all these different things, but we have this neat kind of energy here.
And so, I see us starting to kind of realize that, unearth that, and see it in a lot of different places that maybe we didn't see it before. Just kind of like, just almost like looking at the building that you see every day until it's changed, you don't even notice it. And so, I think that if you look around, we have such a rich history and culture and just kind of a fabric. Even going back to downtown being laid out and designed in the 1700s, there's just so much here. And yes, we've lost a lot of it, but I don't look back. I look-
Marcus: That's what we do with what we still have rather than-
Mike: Yeah, I'm thankful that we still have as much to work with. I'm fortunate in that I get to work with a lot of people from out of town on various fronts, and particularly people that are from other countries or people that are from other cities where they don't really have any idea what Mobile's about. They come here and they're just absolutely blown away. They talked about the quality of the housing stock that we still have left. I think that there must have been an image of the South painted long ago that they taught in grade school and other places that people have, and when they come here, you know well that's-
Marcus: It's completely different.
Marcus: It's interesting 'cause you said that there's still opportunity, and I'm reminded of an article that I saw and it's an email newsletter that I get every day, and it basically gives you like a couple of paragraphs about any various topic of the day. And they were talking about Airbnb taking over the building that Zynga is in. And Zynga, it didn't make any, like I didn't know, who was that? They're the makers of Farmville. Well, Farmville was really big, but never made the transition to mobile devices. And so they had purchased this building and they didn't know what the heck to do with it. Well, Airbnb is taking over that building and they said something like the lease was like 30 million dollars a year on this building. And I'm like, I understand like this is Mobile, this isn't San Francisco. But I started doing the math, okay how big is the building, what's the square foot, price per square foot? I was just like, people have no concept, granted you don't want to pay crazy amounts for price per square foot, but the local market anywhere from 15 to 20 and 25 dollars a square foot. I mean they're looking at several hundred dollars a square foot for property in San Francisco. So yeah, there's still plenty of upward movement there for sure.
Mike: Vision, but my vision of what I see happening now on a more, I guess, from a buildings and streets and different things, I think one thing is a lot of structural things seem to be happening within the city with the Simpson Administration that I think will be, that are hard to see, but that will pay dividends down the road, with long range planning and getting the permitting. So there's a lot of things where there's kind of a culture being built, being a real progressive city and getting the kind of things that you have to have in place to really run with the ball.
Marcus: You're talking about like Three Mile Creek and some of the stuff?
Mike: Well, or just like having all the different departments for a long range planning, actually being out there doing that and working with the plans and Map for Mobile, and really making sure that all the capital projects are done in a way that really makes sense. And so, I feel like that's really good, and I think that we have so many assets like you mentioned Three Mile Creek, that's one that is used to be the main lifeblood of the city, and it became kind of a drainage ditch and now it's being brought back to life. And I think that that's going to be something that ultimately will connect downtown to 11 neighborhoods and West Mobile. And it could be just transformative for the whole city.
Marcus: I'm excited about things like, I don't know what the timeline is, but we made a lot of use of the WO, is it W-O-N-D or W & OD, I think it's W & OD, Washington & Old Dominion, it's the railroad track that runs from like Winchester, Virginia and straight into D.C. And on the weekends, people are rollerblading, walking, running, biking, doing all kinds of stuff along this, and it's a significant stretch of asphalt that runs into the city. But there's also all kinds of parks that come off of that and various things, and so it'll be interesting to see how Three Mile Creek shapes up because I think you're right, that has the opportunity there for changing the kind of the feeling of this city is huge.
Creating more of those open spaces where people can be outside and do things, stuff like that is extremely important, important for downtown and creating the kind of ambience that people are looking for, especially young people if we're trying to attract that 22 to 28, 29-year-old group to live down here and work down here. Yeah, that's important.
Mike: It's one of those things that it's really, it's much bigger in the fact that it's the main watershed in the city, and that means so many things. We always, since Katrina, we talk about resiliency and that's very, very important that that watershed be resilient in case we have another tremendous impact like that. And I think a lot of that ties back to kind of the nature of who we are as Mobilians in that we've got the bay, and we've got the delta, and we've got the creek, and we've got this, one of the most biologically diverse states in the country. And we just have all of these great natural assets. And I think somewhere like Costa Rica where they grasped onto that I don't know in what period it was, but they all, everybody became an environmentalist kind of. If you get in a cab, they'll tell you what kind of tree that is, the cab driver will. I mean that-
Marcus: It's the eco-tourism is what did it for them, and it's kind of funny because like I think about guys like Scott [Tindall 00:25:28] who started the duck boat, I mean he's kind of dependent on some of that, right? 'Cause he's using the port, the waterways, and stuff like that to get people around and stuff. So, it'll be interesting to see how that firms up over the next couple of years. But if you were talking to someone who wanted to get started running their own business, you've been at this for a while now, what's the one bit of wisdom that you would say to them?
Mike: I don't know if I can boil it down into one thing, but I guess there's a couple of things that I have learned. One of the things that I believe in is being a connector of dots, and what I mean by that is number one, get out and meet everybody you can meet and learn from every single person that you come into contact with, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, whatever. Everybody's a teacher, and there's a lesson to be learned. I think that what I've been able to do is a lot of times I'll go to seemingly random conventions or some sort of educational deal, and I'll get one piece of information and then three months down the road, it will end up being tremendously useful and could make on one of those connections. And so, I think that's a big part. I think another thing, I kind of learned this from the internet when they first started to really, people would start giving you stuff for free. Being from the tail end of a baby boomer, that was just like no free lunch, I mean you were just very skeptical-
Marcus: Why do you want to give me this thing?
Mike: Right, right. And so that's been transformative for me and being free with information and being very transparent. There's certain things, I'll probably get in trouble sometimes for telling more than I should tell, but I think if you operate in that way and you help others by making those connections or telling them about how to build a better building in my case or whatever it is, if you just kind of ... I think but that's really been key for me is just, because it builds trust. And when you have trust-
Marcus: I love that.
Mike: ... people open up.
Marcus: Right. And the other thing too, 'cause I completely agree with everything that you just said, it is something that the internet has taught me as well and just the way that people are so giving with information and stuff. The interesting thing about that is that the unintended consequences you have to go out and learn more, right? You can't just sit still and have all of this information that you just gave away out there and not continue to learn, otherwise, you're losing. So, it's really cool that just the kind of mentality of how the internet works has forced us all into that kind of realm. And it's interesting that somebody in your industry would have that same mindset, 'cause we give away a lot of information through our blog and through meetings that we have and stuff like that, and it's just nice to see that other industries are starting to catch on that that's okay.
Marcus: What are the last two books that you've read that you found helpful? Or resources, they don't have to be books, but two books or resources that you found helpful?
Mike: Resources, you know I'm really not good about reading books because most of the time I just read on the airplane. And I can't remember, I can pull up my Kindle and see what I read last. I'd say right now I just-
Marcus: Well, we can move on if you don't-
Mike: I would say, what I was going to say is I read like three chapters of a lot of books, and I get a lot of books on leadership and different things and-
Marcus: I think he and I are brothers from another mother or something like that. I've got a whole slew of books over there. I get three chapters in and I'm like, "Okay I got it."
Mike: But I probably have about 20 books open on my desk right now, and they're very diverse. One of them that I've just purchased this last week was The Gulf, I believe it's Jack Davis, and it's a relatively new book and it goes from kind of 10,000 B.C. or before up to through the oil spill. So, I have made it to the prologue and the first chapter of that one.
Marcus: Two more chapters to go.
Mike: And I'm a huge Eugene Walter fan, so I collect all of the books that he wrote over time, and so I've got a couple of his books sitting on my desk to read and I haven't read those yet. Then I have one on the city of Greenville. This year's chamber trip was to Greenville, South Carolina, and so they wrote a little book and I keep that one out in front of me so I'm like, "I'm going to get to it, I'm going to get to it." So, that's kind of the way I am. If you come in my office, I've got about 40 books in plain view, but it's just finding the time-
Marcus: Whatever strikes your fancy that day.
Marcus: Yeah, it is interesting, 'cause I do a lot of the same thing. And there are books where I will literally go back to them three or four times because by the fourth time I'm like, "Okay, I've made it all the way through the book, 'cause I know there's information later in the book that I need to get." But there's a lot of books. I think they could probably take the first two or three chapters of most leadership books and just take that, because after that it's just all the supporting documentation that they need an order to justify the 20 or 30 dollar price tag, right?
Mike: And there is a service that actually, I can't think of it, it don't come to mind right now that-
Marcus: It's the executive summaries.
Mike: Is the cliff, yeah the executive summaries.
Marcus: Yeah, no they're not Cliff Notes. We're much beyond Cliff Notes. Those are the executive summaries. So what do you like to do in your free time? Any hobbies?
Mike: That's one of my issues is that I have lots of hobbies. But some of my favorite things are I've always been an avid fisherman, and that's probably my number one hobby, I don't get to do it as much as I like, but I love to Marlin fish, and so any time that I get to do that, I did that this past weekend. I'm an avid photographer.
Marcus: Oh cool.
Mike: I became a birder about 10 years ago, and really a bird photographer. And so, Dolphin Island being one of the top birding spots in the country during the migration, I'll live at Dolphin Island in the summers, and lived there full-time before I got married. So, it's a special place for me. And so I got into the birding, I do that a lot. And then I love to travel, like I said, love, to see new places, and so I get to do that a lot.
Marcus: I know last time we talked you said you were going to Detroit to kind of see the revival that's happening there. It's cool that you can mix the love of travel with going and learning what's going on in other areas and bringing that back, and I'm sure you've got some insight as to things that they're doing that might benefit-
Mike: It was invaluable.
Marcus: Was it?
Mike: One of the things that there are lots of great things or learned and I can't say enough great things about, can't think of his name now, the guy who started Quicken Loans, I mean it's just unbelievable what he's done for that city. But one of the little brochures I picked up, the title of it was For More Than Profit, and so I thought that "What a great thing," because I think a lot of that is when you think about profit first, it just makes other things get in the way. And so I think that a lot of this when it comes to revitalization and those things, the profit will come, but the other reasons are more important.
Marcus: Sure. Investing back in the community that you, yeah.
Marcus: Yeah, 'cause there's something over the years I've gotten more involved in the chamber, and I'm starting to hear more and more both of the information, and I think a lot of people don't realize just how much an area depends on everybody having a good education, a good home life, a good lifestyle, all of those things, and don't take it the wrong way on the capitalist, I believe in all of the things that capitalist believe, but at the same time I recognize that without reinvestment back in an area and helping everyone kind of raise their level of education and all of those things that I just mentioned, that it's always going to kind of press down on what an area can achieve. And if you're part of that area, then you are going to be part of getting that pressure from above, right? It's just, you know, I sat in a meeting yesterday, and my mouth dropped when, and I won't say the number, 'cause I don't know if it's public knowledge, but when they talked about the unemployment rate in Mobile, what the actual rate is versus what the publicized rate is and stuff like that. It's just like, come on, we have got to do something. This area has got to have something else that clicks that gets us from where we're at now to where we need to be. I think, just to kind of put a bow on all this, I appreciate everything that you're doing, 'cause obviously, you are using your company in such a way to effect positive change on the city and it has not gone unnoticed. It's one of the reasons why I wanted to have you on the podcast and talk to you and give you a chance to tell the story of what you're doing, 'cause I think it's phenomenal what you all have done. So, kudos to you for figuring out how to marry having a business and being able to be successful in the business, but also giving back to the community and understanding that there is something else besides just the profit.
Mike: Well, and I appreciate you doing this as well. I mean, it goes both ways. It's giving back and showing others, and I think that I couldn't be more encouraged with all of the young people that are out there that are so fired up about our city and that are really getting engaged in lots of different ways. I think that with the more that we start to collaborate and do things that-
Marcus: There's a lot of potential here, that's for sure.
Mike: Sky's the limit.
Marcus: Yeah, that's for sure. Well, just to wrap up, where can people find you if they want to find out more information or somebody's listening to this?
Mike: Yeah, anybody can find me at 451 St. Louis Street, corner of Hamilton and St. Louis. Or anybody can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marcus: Very good.
Marcus: Well, I want to thank you for coming on the podcast. To wrap up, any final thoughts or comments you'd like to share?
Mike: Love Mobile, and I'm proud to be Mobilian and I think we're all salespeople from Mobile, and I think that we're experienced in times like certainly Mobile hasn't seen in a very long time, and I think that the best is yet to come.
Marcus: Awesome man. Appreciate it.