Sunday Interview: CEO Jane Nichols talks leading Goodwill

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comApril 5, 2014 

Jane Nichols has an interesting — and at times different — view of Columbus.

The president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of the Southern Rivers is based in Columbus, but she is responsible for a 50-county territory that stretches from Carrollton, Ga., to Valdosta, Ga., and pushes into East Alabama.

She has seen the impact of the Great Recession — something she calls the “Great Reset.”

“This economic reset did not discriminate,” she said. “It’s that simple. You see as many men, as many women, as many Hispanics, as many blacks, as many whites, as many Asians. It did not discriminate.”

Nichols sat down with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams to discuss Goodwill Industries, Columbus and a host of other topics.

Here are excerpts of that interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.

What’s your Goodwill elevator speech?

Bring us your stuff. We sell it in our retail outlets. We take the profit and we reinvest it into career services. Specifically, that means we’re going to help you find a job; we’re going to help you keep a job; we’re going to provide basic level skills training. The most beneficial (service) to the individuals we are serving is that financial education piece, as well as the life skills piece — how to go to work and how to stay at work.

What have you seen as far as people’s financial management?

For years, you saw that the middle and high income knew what a budget was, knew how to manage their funds, knew what to do with it. What we’re seeing today is everybody is trying to make ends meet. It’s not a privileged society anymore. So the populations that we’re serving — unemployed or the underemployed — have no boundaries in terms of income anymore. So that’s the first thing to recognize.

The second thing to recognize is when they go to work, or when they move into a position that is paying more, they don’t have a financial plan to go with it. And I’m not talking about investments.

I’m talking about core budgeting that includes savings, that includes if you’ve got medical bills — and there are a lot more people with a lot more medical bills. You know, how are you going to manage day-to-day? What are you going to do when you get that 25 cent raise and it may cost you having to come off of some sort of federal or state subsidy that you you’re on? How are you going to manage through that? Sometimes you’re better off not taking that 25 cent raise or that $1 raise. ... You are literally better off staying where you are and accruing and building up a savings account so that you can afford to come off of these subsidies.

That runs counter to intuition, right?

Bingo. And we see it as one of the highest reasons for turnover at the lowest level of all organizations. Even if you’re not bringing them in at $7.25 an hour, even if you’re bringing them in at $10 or $12 an hour, if there’s not a plan to go with it that financially moves them through this process, we’re going to loose them.

What is an hourly livable wage in Columbus?

Without literally sitting down and recalculating it based on the shifts in the housing market, I’m going to say its $18 to $22 per hour. That’s probably a family with a working parent and a child.

And there are a lot of people who fall below that in Columbus?

Yeah. There are a lot of people who fall below it. Our territory numbers are even more vast than that.

If somebody had told you in 2008 when this recession started, would you have thought it would look like what it looks like?

I would have thought that people would have weeded out under-performers versus the blankets that were done. The blanket layoffs did not discriminate.

As a community we’re still seeing the impact to that?

Oh, heck yeah. And look at the hiring trends. When we were growing up, summer jobs and after-school jobs, that was a piece of cake. Talk to the kids these days and how they’re trying to go to work. It’s harder for them to find a job than it is for that person that’s 55 and older because they have a proven work ethic. So they’re getting ... I mean look at your part-time positions. Look at how the workforce is aged there versus what used to be backfilled with high school students.

You were talking about the retail market. Goodwill has always been in the second-hand retail market, right?

Always.

It’s a little more crowded today than it use to be, isn’t it?

From a national perspective, thrift is trendy. You’ve got for-profits with big pockets that are playing in that world and it’s not benefiting anybody. We in the state of Georgia don’t have those for-profits yet. But what does that mean? There is a thrift market calculation and if any community can show that 60 to 70 percent of that thrift market is already occupied, your for-profits are not moving in.

So a lot of your players in Georgia are focused on “let’s own the thrift market; we don’t care who owns it. Let’s just keep the for-profits out.” We’re focused on it. You see us popping up everywhere. Salvation Army is playing in that game, and they need to be. There’s plenty to go around. Don’t think this has to be a Goodwill-owned thing. There is plenty to go around. So from a strategy perspective, if the thrift markets in Georgia will own 60 to 70 percent of it, we’ll keep the for-profits out.

There’s a new Valley Rescue Mission thrift store in North Columbus. You welcome that?

There’s plenty to go around.

What about the small for-profits — the mom and pop stores and thrift malls?

You’ve got a couple of things that happen. You’ve got those shoppers that come to the Goodwills and to the Valley Rescues and to the Salvation Army’s and they pick and they buy and they go resell. I’m OK with that. Our mission is still funded. You’ve got the for-profit boxes that pop-up, which is a whole different story.

Are there changes in the donations?

A couple of things. What we have found is convenience makes all the difference, and everybody knows that game. That’s why you have boxes everywhere. What we struggle with is convenience also means high rent sometimes or high price of ownership to get a donation location where it’s most convenient to the donor. So you’ve got this economic thing you have to weigh out. When a person takes and receives that donation that someone is bringing to us versus being dropped in boxes — we were getting 30 to 50 percent garbage. And I mean bags of garbage. Dirty diaper garbage, that type of stuff.

From where you sit, is Columbus a giving community?

Yes, very.

Has that generosity been stretched over what you call the ‘great reset’?

Albany, Ga., has been stretched, stretched big time. They have lost employers left and right. Columbus again — and I get on my Chamber of Commerce spiel when this happens — but I’ve had the privilege of being able to look from Carrollton to Valdosta, and Columbus is in a bubble. And from the standpoint of the economy being impacted, the number of new businesses are here, even small new businesses, the number of new apartment complexes. If you ride through the rest of our territory, you don’t see that. So when you say stretched, my answer is no. But my answer is no because of this economic bubble that we’re in compared to the rest of the 50 counties I’m in.

What do you attribute that bubble to?

I attribute it to the Chamber. I attribute it to them constantly telling the story. Also, the fact that we have played in that economic development arena so well, so long and have such a great reputation that when everybody else was being overlooked, especially in the corridor I’m responsible for, we weren’t. So while there haven’t been gargantuan announcements — and there haven’t been many of those in the nation anyway — in the last couple of years we still had the second- and third-tier manufacturers moving in and the suppliers moving in, which results in more apartment complexes, which results in more people moving, which results in more closets being cleaned out, which results in, you know. ...

Where does Fort Benning play into that?

I think they are part of it. I don’t know that they’re all of it, and that’s where I get into that balance back at the Chamber. Economic development for them is two-fold — new businesses and taking care of the partnership at Fort Benning. If Albany would have been focused on that or Valdosta — you know Moody Air Force Base is in Valdosta and the Albany Marine Corp Logistics Base is in Albany — they’d both be a different place.

You’re from Albany, right?

I am.

You graduated from high school there?

I went to Westover. Longest losing streak in football that exists in the state, but I graduated.

What are some of the misconceptions about Columbus that you may have heard when you were younger and growing up in Albany?

First of all for significant birthdays — and usually that was one that ended in a five or a zero for my grandmother — we would come to Columbus shopping because Albany, there just wasn’t. All your back-to-school shopping was here. My dad and mother were very involved in Jaycees and Jaycetts, so they were involved in the Miss Georgia Pageant for years and years and years.

I knew we always went this way, but I really didn’t know where Columbus was. My first day after moving here with (Cason) Callaway they sent me to do something and I will never forget crossing the bridge seeing “Welcome to Alabama.” I’m like, “Holy Cow, how did I get there?” You just don’t realize how close and how much they share. The misconceptions, you know, I always thought that it was such a military town that it was going to be rough and tough and that the whole town was going to be the perception that Victory Drive use to be.

I don’t even think Victory Drive has the same perception anymore. So forever that was my perception. When I moved here, the timing of when I moved here, there were no restaurants. None. I moved here from the Newnan-Atlanta area and that was just mind-boggling and then shortly thereafter, the Combined Sewer Overflow project that resulted in the RiverWalk started and a number of things began to shift and take off. So today, it’s one of the coolest places I’ve ever lived, obviously, but visited even.

What bank did you work for?

SouthTrust. I was on the team that jumped the river from Alabama. So, this was 20 years ago. I remember going to the Uptown Business District meetings and we talked about garbage collection and the garbage lying in the streets, and we talked about how are we ever going to get people to come down here. How are we going to shift? And every time we’d meet one of the owners was talking about they’re closing. The consistent in all of it was Buddy Nelms. I mean, he was always reinvesting. So to look at what Broadway was to be a part of making a decision to close the old Goodwill store there and what Broadway is today and where it’s going, oh, my gosh, it’s huge, a huge difference.

You’re heavily involved with Columbus Tech, and you’ve been a Columbus Tech supporter for a long time. Long time. What is the value of Columbus Tech?

Oh my gosh. Nationwide, again, the one thing we’re finding is the lifetime earning power for an individual, and understand an individual with a high school diploma is a must. In our territory and even in this area, our numbers are worse than the state and worse than the national average. So first of all we’ve got to get them out of high school. So the value of Columbus Tech starts there. There are so many joint enrollment opportunities that other communities have been doing for years where they graduate from high school and because they took all of their electives in a particular area, they’ve also got even a two-year degree from Columbus Tech immediately. We’ve got to capitalize on that. Lorette gets that.

Lorette?

The new president over there. Lorette Hoover. (Muscogee County School Superintendent) David Lewis gets that. So I’m excited and the value they could add there is, No. 1, our graduation rates that also immediately result in somebody being able to go to work with a certificate that is skilled labor verses unskilled, just a high school diploma, is huge. That could totally shift the perception of our graduation rates quickly.

Do you look at your work career, at what you’re trying to accomplish, differently in your early 50s than you did in your 40s?

Ignorance is bliss. I’m really passionate about the young professionals in this community. We were on Facebook and they were having a contest to give away two free memberships. I posted on Facebook why I would want a YP membership. And the reason I would want to be a Young Professional again is that if I knew today everything that I have learned and I could apply it in my 30s and 40s, I wouldn’t waste time. And I mean waste time in chasing shiny objects that don’t matter. I would have invested more in the people around me. I’d do that now and have had a wonderful 16 years being able to truly work with people, and help develop people, and help them push their leadership and their emotional intelligence. And that’s what matters, because that equals quality of life for people. So many stereotypes for our age bracket that I guess we inherited from the atmospheres that we were in growing up just because of our age, don’t matter.

Like what?

I hear people still stuck on race and all the ethnic issues, and they don’t matter. They just simply don’t matter. What matters is creating this vibrant atmosphere where everybody can be successful. You’re different than I am. Your skills are different from my skills. Your passions are different than my passions. Your family is different from my family, but that doesn’t make you right, doesn’t make me wrong. I know that now and I’ve been living in that space for probably 15-16 years. I wish I would had spent all my life in that space.

When you came here as a young professional, this was a very different town. Does Columbus have the ability to attract a higher quality of young professional and also retain the ones that might have grown up here but might go somewhere else?

We get the quality of life piece and we have created a phenomenal one. We don’t get leaders, mentors, potential leaders. It’s something I have tried to participate in since the day I moved to Columbus, and literally board member conversations when I joined Goodwill helped me find mentors. They would set me up with a very successful leaders. I got the proverbial pat on the back, Goodwill does good things.

Nobody gets mentoring in Columbus, Ga. Not at the level we’ve got to mentor, that we’ve got to help people move to the next place.

Here’s an example: I work with what I consider 17 young professionals that can call me 24/7. They’ve been wonderful for me. They’ve taught me to listen. They’ve taught me to be open to new ideas and to understand real young professionals. Here’s what they’ve shared with me that I taught them: That shift from moving here and getting that first job, to moving up in those companies, because as an individual contributor they are humming, they are rock ‘n’ rolling and they love it here. Their quality of life is phenomenal, their friends are great and they’re doing well at work and they are getting promoted. They get that first promotion where they start leading people and they don’t know how.

They don’t know how to shift from being a fabulous individual contributor to having it to be all about the person sitting across the table from me and not about me. They are learning that if they can make that shift to everybody else is more important than I am, they’re doing well. It’s thinking “I’m going to work longer hours and I’m going to have my finger on everything,” and it’s that shift between individual contributor to that first real leadership role. Every young professional that I am around is having that same issue.

What do you attribute that lack of mentorship to?

I think it’s a time issue. I love doing it. I would do it 24/7. I don’t have time. I want a balanced life, too, and everybody’s world today is more with less. ... We want you constantly in coaching conversations, constantly taking time to have two-way conversations. If I’m doing something or I need to be doing something different, my direct report is going to come and have a conversation with me, and I have it with them. Well, all of our environments have to get to the place that we’re doing that. And to me it’s a wonderful success story when you have turnover, and you’ll see it on here, team member progression rates and positive turnover.

We count positive turnover as good. We’ve got folks at Aflac in leadership positions now, we got the lady running the new charter school in LaGrange came from here, and we consider that success. And what we’re hearing from them is nobody else in town was willing to invest in me and teach me leadership. I experienced it. I ended up with an executive coach out of Atlanta because nobody wanted to spend the time. That’s what Columbus is missing, leaders that know how to lead investing in those that are learning.

Anything else you want to say?

You don’t want me to say anything else.

Age: 51

Job: President and CEO, Goodwill Industries of the Southern Rivers and two affiliates, Power Works Industries Inc. and Columbus Community Campus LLC

Education: Westover High School, Albany Ga.; Georgia Southern University, bachelor’s of science in communication arts; Troy State University, master’s in business and human resources

Family: Son, Ned, 18

Nichols on poverty: “The individuals living in poverty think better on their feet than anybody in middle or upper class ever thought about. Faster, plan A, plan B, plan C, for survival. Where it becomes an opportunity is that America is a middle- to upper-class based environment. So the benefit structures that are in employment don’t support somebody in poverty. They support somebody in a middle- and upper-class environment.”

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