ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.
Today’s guest blogger is Mike Warren. If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.
My name is Mike Warren.
I grew up in Auburn, attended schools there, and graduated from Auburn University. I received my law degree from Duke and I’ve joyfully lived in Birmingham ever since.
My first Birmingham job was with a major law firm and then I joined one of its largest clients, Alabama Gas. I eventually became Chairman and CEO of Energen, Alabama Gas’ parent company.
When I retired from Energen at the end of 2007, I became the CEO of Children’s of Alabama.
I tell you this to give you a sense of how long I’ve worked in our business community. I’ve witnessed first-hand Birmingham’s wins and some of our biggest disappointments. And though I love Birmingham, I join many others who feel Birmingham has never reached its full potential.
When I first worked at Alabama Gas a little over 30 years ago, one of the real expectations of Birmingham headquartered companies—and particularly public companies and utilities–was that senior people would be significantly involved in community and civic activities. At that time Alabama Gas, Alabama Power, Bell South, Protective, Vulcan and our large regional banks were among the public companies headquartered here which formed the cadre of large businesses that were interested in and involved in most civic things.
Since then, we have watched painfully as many big companies moved away. Sonat relocated from Birmingham to the energy world in Texas. Torchmark understood that they didn’t have many business ties to Birmingham and also moved to Texas. Bank mergers had a dramatic impact. Today, even Alabama Gas may be for sale. Fifteen years ago there were 30 public companies headquartered here—now there are just 13. Fifteen years ago we had six Fortune 500 companies—now there are two—Regions Financial and Vulcan Materials.
At that time our larger businesses not only undergirded the financial support for a broad range of civic and community activities, but they also provided leadership at the top and at the mid and lower levels as well. So the volunteer and civic leaders often came from those same companies that were providing financial support.
With the loss of many of our largest companies, something of a vacuum has been created. That vacuum must be filled and I think greater involvement by our privately owned companies and by UAB is the answer.
In many ways, UAB is our ‘sleeping giant.’ UAB’s the largest employer, not only in Birmingham, but in our State. The human capital at UAB is amazing and we need to put much more of it to work in leadership roles throughout the community and State. Historically, most of the UAB-provided leadership for community efforts has come from the President of UAB. I think that needs to change. Now we clearly need the President to be a big player, and fortunately for us, Ray Watts can and will fill that role with relish. But the community needs more from UAB; we need to take advantage of other strong leaders in positions of influence at UAB.
UAB can be more ‘intentional’ about placing other strong UAB leaders in positions of leadership in the community; it would make us much stronger. There are many additional leaders in the UAB pipeline and Birmingham needs to use those leaders more broadly.
Just think about the brainpower at UAB–doctors, scientists, statisticians, and researchers. What would happen if we took that intellect and energy and channeled some of it to Birmingham?
UAB is the best hope for Birmingham; and, UAB stands to benefit the most from Birmingham being a great city.
I’m pleased that President Watts has added what he calls the “Fifth Pillar”– economic development to the UAB Capital Campaign. And I think he’s serious about it. Ray Watts believes it can lead to many new innovative, creative and entrepreneurial companies; I believe it can also provide Birmingham with many new leaders.
As much as I hate to say nice things about Alabama Power and its past President and CEO, Charles McCrary, (can you visualize my tongue being in my cheek?) Charles and Alabama Power know how to be intentional about economic development; they know how to get things done.
Alabama Power has strategically placed key employees in leadership roles and funded every significant economic development effort in Alabama. I think a lot of good might come from Ray sitting down with Charles to create a plan for having UAB’s brightest and best work intentionally and strategically to ignite Birmingham.
Good things are happening in Birmingham. We are feeling better about ourselves–momentum is building. Now it’s time for UAB to be purposeful in helping to transform Birmingham into a world class city.
Mike Warren is President and Chief Executive Officer of Children’s of Alabama. He married his high school sweetheart, Anne, and they have three married children and 10 grandchildren.
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David Sher is the publisher of ComebackTown, a co-founder of Buzz12 Advertising Agency and co-CEO of AmSher Collection Agency. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham)), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).