Earlier this month, Mike Gaymon retired after more than 26 years running the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce.
That is an eternity in the chamber business, where the average CEO lasts about five years.
Gaymon came to Columbus by way of Reidsville, N.C., Bessemer, Ala., and Anniston, Ala.
Often a practical joker with an endless supply of corny jokes for any chamber event, he sat down with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams a week after he retired. He was relaxed and at times blunt as he talked about his career, the financial challenges of operating a nonprofit organization, and a high-profile incident in 2010 that prompted a black chamber employee to claim a prank had a Ku Klux Klan connotation.
Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.
How does it feel to be retired?
Well, I don't know; it's the second week. People ask me what does it feel like and I say I don't know, I've never been here before. Last week I spent cutting down some dead trees and pushing up some brush with my old backhoe in the country. It was wonderful. No meetings, no phones, no e-mail.
You like that, don't you?
In what way?
Well, so much of what I end up doing seems like it takes many, many years. Our land swap took us 13. Work on the riverfront development was about 11 years. There's just so many things that I've been involved with that take a long time.
And there's something about bush hogging and you look right behind you and you see that you've finished it. It's done. It looks good. So, it's like that instant gratification that you know you did a job well and you could see the results of it.
Chamber work is not a lot of instant gratification, is it?
You work on a project, and you may work on a project two, three or four years. Sometimes you get lucky and you get them and sometimes you don't get them. If you don't get them, what do you have to show for it? A lot of hard work, a lot of experience, big thick files. But there's not that gratification to say, "Hey, look, look. We finished second in economic development."
That doesn't matter. You've got to finish first. So, there are a lot of things that you don't know whether or not you'll ever see the full results of it or not. You hope you live long enough to see it, but there's some things that are more quickly achieved.
You got into the chamber business ...
April 1, 1976. The bookends of my career is probably a good way to start. The first bookend, I got out of education and entered chamber work on April 1, April Fool's Day, 1976.
The other bookend is I retired on Halloween, Oct. 31. I believe that says it's been quite a career.
You have 25-plus here, right?
What is the average lifespan of a chamber director?
Probably about five to seven years -- max.
So, you were five times average?
I tell people it shows how tolerant the community is. They can put up with a lot but not much for a long time.
How did you end up in Columbus in 1988?
I got contacted -- in fact, by Joe Ragland who was here. And Joe said, "Hey, Mike, I don't know if you've heard or not but I'm going to Pensacola and I know you have been in Calhoun County now for about five years or so" -- back to the five-to-seven year time frame. And he said, "I don't know if you're interested or not, but you ought to check it out."
Did you know anything about Columbus before you came down here?
Not a lot. I knew Fort Benning was here because we had Fort McClellan, an Army base, so I knew something about it, but not much about Columbus.
Describe the Columbus you found in 1988.
Well, I've said this publicly so I guess it's OK to say it now privately. This is private, right?
No it's not. You're on the record.
(Laughter) When I first moved here I described it that the community had what I called an "Eeyore mentality." It was: "Well, we tried that once;" "Well, unless a few certain folks decided they can do that it ain't going to happen;" "Well, this is Columbus, you know."
So, I heard a lot of that. In fact, just to show you where the chamber was, the same person ran small business, military affairs and governmental affairs.
That's a lot.
That's a lot, and you've got one of the biggest military bases around and you don't have somebody full time taking care of them, etc. ...
Over time I started seeing the development of more of what I'll call a "can-do attitude," a positive attitude. We as leaders didn't fully appreciate where the community was ready to go. You remember the first SPLOST?
I remember having many meetings on the SPLOST. It was when Frank (Martin) was mayor. We really did not know whether the community was ready to vote for, like, a new civic center, as an example. We figured they probably wanted more sidewalks because they told us they wanted sidewalks. They would probably go for public safety and put more stuff into public safety.
That made sense, etc., but as far as are they ready to get out of the old barn -- as Bob Hope called it -- called the Municipal Auditorium and build a $30-plus million one, is this community ready for it? And the decision was, let's put the Civic Center as the second part of the SPLOST vote because we didn't want to lose it all. We thought maybe we could get the others but we weren't real sure about the new Civic Center. Maybe the community wasn't ready for a new civic center.
So, even in the early '90s, leadership and the folks that were trying to figure out where we needed to be and so forth weren't sure the community was ready to take those kind of bold steps. And of course it passed 89 percent in favor, which became, I think, a really high-water benchmark. At least it said to me -- and I think it said to a lot of other folks -- this community is ready for change. It is ready to make positive things happen and have more of a can-do attitude than just "Whatever, this is Columbus. We just have what we've got," and so forth.
When you look at a chamber our size -- large companies here and the small businesses -- this is a very diverse chamber, right?
Most chambers, the vast majority of their members are small businesses. So, we aren't any different in that about 80 percent of members are small businesses. Most chambers would tell you the majority of their members are small businesses. But, you add in the number of companies that have international headquarters here, that certainly puts us in a whole different realm than most chambers of commerce.
How do you balance the small business people that maybe have seven or eight employees with Aflac, TSYS, Synovus?
One, you try to keep enough of them involved and engaged that you can hear what they want and what they need, what their concerns are. Try to keep the pipeline open so that the big boys will say, "Hey, listen, we need some help with this." Or, "We've got an issue here that somebody needs to help us with." Eighty percent of the resources also come from the 20 percent of the big boys in money, in people, and their resources, etc. It is a balancing act.
A tough one at times, right?
There are times that are: "OK, who are we trying to serve?" I remember when some people were not so happy with the Chamber when we were working on the TSYS campus. Here we were getting rid of a whole lot of small businesses for one big old company.
Most of them will tell you -- Fred Rowell is one of them -- he'll tell you the best thing that ever happened to his business was getting out of where he was to moving up on Second Avenue. Yeah, that was a very delicate balancing act because here we were, some felt like we were riding roughshod -- of course it's us and the city, all working together -- but we had to have a place for that big boy to land.
If not -- in fact, I was looking through the files -- there's an editorial in one of my TSYS files where the editorial in Huntsville, Ala., was congratulating themselves on getting the TSYS campus.
Was TSYS that close to leaving?
Huntsville thought they were. Huntsville was patting themselves on the back because they felt like they were going to get the big expansion of TSYS. So, there's that balancing act that you know you couldn't say, "Listen, y'all don't matter because it's about this big boy." They do matter. Small businesses do matter.
It's kind of like a church. How do you keep your whole congregation happy because some of them don't like the modern music, some of them want this kind of music and some don't like this and some don't like that. So, it is a balancing act of trying to find the right balance so that hopefully you keep the masses happy.
You're a preacher's kid, right?
Did that help you?
What Dad went through dealing with those deacons, dealing with those church members, very much I have seen in my career as well.
Your father was a pastor where?
In South Carolina, around Sumter.
Freewill Baptist, Pentecostal faith. Bible-thumping, shouting. You know ...
That's your religious roots.
That's it. But there is a lot of parallel with the church. Think about it: The church depends on members to pay tithes; the chamber depends on members to pay dues. You can still go to church and not tithe. You can still benefit from the chamber and not ever be a member, not ever pay. You pay dollars to hire a staff. That's pretty much like us. You pay dollars to pay the bills, to pay for a building that you can go worship in. Pretty much like the chamber.
And a lot of what we do, if you will -- not being sacrilegious -- is about tomorrow. It's about making it a better place. It's about what can we do to help God's world be a better place to live and work. So, part of it is you're selling vision, you're selling dreams, you're selling ideas about what could be.
What is the most important thing you ever learned from your dad?
The most important thing, and I can remember it like it was yesterday, they took me to Spartanburg Junior College. As we were standing out on the circle and we unpacked my suitcases and they were getting ready to leave and go back to Sumter, Daddy said, "Son, here's $20, it's all we've got right now, but we think we've got enough for you to stay here for the first semester. Don't know how you're going to stay for the second semester, but we'll just pray and ask God to help. And you're going to do whatever you need to do." He said, "But I want to tell you one thing: While we don't have money -- and sorry that we don't -- what we do give you is a good name and it's up to you to keep it. Money can't buy a good name. Money can buy a lot of things, but it can't buy a good name."
And as they were driving off, I thought, "Well, that's a heck of a thing to leave me here." Here I am wondering if I'm even going to be able to make it in college because I was not a good student. I know I don't have enough money except for the first quarter. What am I going to do? I'm going to have to get a job. And he just left me.
But then the words that he planted: "It's about your name." And I think that's the biggest thing I learned from my dad. Try to do the right thing for the right reasons. It's your name that counts. And if people hear your name, if they believe you're an honest person, they may disagree with your opinions. your decisions, etc., that's life, but protect that name.
What have you done to protect that name?
Try to do the right things for the right reasons. Always be honest. I'm not smart enough to lie. Just be honest. And sometimes that gets you in trouble. When you tell people the real truth, so to speak, sometimes folks don't really want to hear the whole truth; they want to hear part of it. And that goes back to the Bible as well.
The Bible says they have "itchy ears." They hear what they want to hear and don't you tell them what they need to hear because sometimes that doesn't work.
What are you most proud of with your work here?
I think I've seen the community grow into kind of a "can-do," the Valley Partnership where we are doing some things regionally and not just me and mine. It is about a greater region. When I ride by and see whitewater, when I see the RiverCenter, and remember what the old Three Arts Theatre used to be like, those kind of things just help me to say, "You know what? The journey was worth it."
When I ride by a company like Road America and see a bunch of cars out there in the parking lot: "You know, what we did there did make a difference." There are people working and we've played a part in that and I think that's the high, high parts of the job.
Is the chamber's primary responsibility economic development?
By far. Our mission statement says "to be the regional leader in economic community development." That's where it start and that's where it ends.
In some communities, economic development is part of the city government. Right across the river, economic development is in the Phenix City government complex. Should economic development be in a private source like the Chamber or should economic development be a city department?
I can show you examples all over the country of all kind of different models. The key, I think, is what works best for that community. What fits here may not fit in Phenix City, it may not fit in wherever. There are some chambers -- for example, like Nashville that has convention bureaus, sports council, all kinds of entities that are under a big broad umbrella of the chamber. For Nashville that works, and it works very well. For other communities, things are split, separate and so forth and so on.
So, I would say for us -- and it's been tested over the years, I think -- for our region, keeping a primary job creation underneath the umbrella of the chamber, where you have that private-sector driven but public-sector supported, that public-private partnership for us I think has served us very well for 30 plus years.
What does Aflac, TSYS and Synovus mean to Columbus? How does that make us different from Macon or Savannah or Augusta?
In just that, it does make us different. Several times people from Macon have been over to talk about us and they say, "Y'all are so lucky, y'all got so much stuff going on." One thing is Columbus for the most part has had more of a common vision.
Now, we have a lot of people in the choir singing a lot of different parts, etc., etc., but we don't always hold hands and sing "Kumbaya." But where there are things that really matter -- the big stuff -- we typically find that the community is supporting it. So, we're singing with not one voice but at least with a choir that seems to be working together rather than we-they, we-they.
And we said if Macon ever got focused just on them, and not we-they, it would be amazing what they could do. And the other thing they talk about is, "Y'all are so lucky to have the corporate headquarters that you do." And we say, "You're absolutely right."
But is that luck?
No, it's not luck. It gets back to when the Amoses are knocking on doors trying to sell insurance policies, that was a small business. And that small business grew. We've got a lot of examples of small businesses that became bigger, bigger and bigger, because of obviously the environment and the leadership was such that it supported that.
TSYS was a department at CB&T.
Absolutely. So, have they made a difference? Absolutely. If it weren't for those big boys, we'd just be another community in Georgia, kind of struggling trying to get by. You can pick up the phone and call whoever you want to call and say, "We'd like your help; at least help us to figure out what needs to be done if anything can be done." That opens a lot of doors.
As they say, sometimes it's not what you know, it's who you know. And it makes a big difference when you've got people who can say, "You know, you need to talk to this person. I think maybe this person can get you in the right direction."
Is there envy from other parts of the state on what Columbus has from a business standpoint?
I would imagine most other parts of the state would love to have a TSYS headquartered in their town. They would love to have an Aflac international headquarters in their town. They would love to have a philanthropic company like the W.C. Bradley Co. located in their town. Why wouldn't you? Those are such big, gigantic footprints internationally. So, envy? I'm sure there is some enviousness -- why wouldn't they?
Would the transition out of the textile era have been more difficult without these companies?
Going back to just my frame of reference, we were a two-industry town -- military and textile. 32,000 people worked in textile mills. Now it's less than 900.
So, you got rid of 31,000 jobs. Congratulations.
Thank you very much. Me and NAFTA, we showed them, didn't we? But I think it's going back to the leadership we've had at the Chamber and the development authority.
Many years ago, long before I got here, it was that famous meeting up at Callaway with (Jim) Blanchard, George Woodruff, and those folks met with Frank Morast with DOT. They were talking about why can't we get the legislators to help us, those bunch of sorry, no good, blah, blah, blah. And Frank just kind of read them the riot act and said, "Until y'all start supporting your elected officials, until you understand they are your elected officials and work with them and help them... Columbus will never be able to have the kind of relationship that you need to have, much less a partnership.
No one even talked about partnerships back then. And it was that meeting, the best I understand, was when the gauntlet was thrown down by Frank Morast to the big boys saying, "Y'all need to find a way to really get the public sector and the private sector working together, because if you don't, you'll always just be at each others throats."
How did the economic downturn in 2008 change the financial climate of non-profits like chambers?
A lot. We've been like you're in an ocean and you come up and get a breath of air and then you go back down again, come up and get a breath of air and then go back down again. And you throw in what it did to the fabric of the whole economy, dollars just weren't there to support some of the things that you used to support.
And we've raised a lot of money in this community for great projects, wonderful projects. A $100 million here, a $100 million there. After a while the well is only so deep and so wide and not-for-profits all across this nation I think have really struggled and they are still struggling. Our chamber is still struggling for getting the financial resources to do all of the things that we love to do, want to do, need to do. But at the end of the day, how much money do we have to work with?
An example would be Bill Heard. Mr. Heard was a huge supporter of this Chamber of Commerce. Then in 2008, it fell apart when Bill Heard Enterprises went under, right?
The equivalent of about 100 members. Bam! Just like that. So, yeah, it makes a big, big impact upon the bottom line. And once again the chamber is going to continue to do the things, etc.
Do you pay your power bill? Do you pay your chamber bill? There are some businesses unfortunately that have to make those choices. They've got to keep their power bill going. So, they have to make the choice of "I just can't pay my chamber dues right now, I've got to pay my utility bills." And you understand that, but once again -- like getting ready for BRAC, we need to be very aggressively working on the next BRAC because it has tremendous opportunities for us -- but there's no appetite right now of raising a bunch of money for the next year and a half or two years to get us in a position for the next BRAC. We're just pushing rope, so, OK, no sense in continuing to push that rope right now.
How difficult was it to meet the financial obligations of the chamber over the last five years? I've heard people say there were financial issues.
There are always, I think, going to be financial issues with a not-for-profit. I don't think many not-for-profits ever are so strong that you don't ever have to worry about money.
You can go back to 2008. With the number of businesses in our region, we ought to be at 2,500 or so member firms. We are about 1,250. So, there's tremendous opportunity for us to grow and unfortunately we just have not grown to the degree that we need to grow in getting new members to join, getting other businesses to join.
Our retention rate is pretty good. We are about 90 percent retention, and the U.S. Chamber averages about 88 percent. You're going to turn 10 to 12 percent every year. They go out of business, they get mad about something, that's kind of the norm. So, we're a little bit better than the norm as far as retention, but the challenge is we just have not been able to figure out how to get our membership growth to be to the point it ought to be.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
A lot of things.
You want me to explain that? Wow! One of the things we did was when we got involved and were able to successfully -- this is what I call a successful failure -- get over $2 million to help support the work for when the Armor School came in from OEA (Office of Economic Adjustment, the Department of Defense field organization that supports state and local governments responding to major defense program changes). That $2 million brought about $200,000 to our bottom line every year. OEA said, "You've got to have an office somewhere. You've got to have a staff to run these programs. You have to pay out expenses." They're all in the grant. I mean, everything that we got reimbursed for was in the grant.
And rolled into the Chamber.
Yeah. So, we had plenty of space so we could lease space to the OEA. Once again, these grants -- I think four annual grants -- and we had an audit each year and not one penny was ever questioned about where it was spent or where it was supposed to be.
We had 100 percent squeaky clean audits. So, they said, "You've got to have a staff." OK, we got a staff and they're doing military affairs so we were able to shift some of those calls over to OEA because they said, "Yeah, we think it's important to see what the impact of BRAC is going to be for the 10 county region.
Toward the end of your career you had a situation where you got accused of making a racial remark and that ended up being a very high-profile incident. Have you thought about what happened there?
I think any leader is subject to being the target. If the stars line up right, you'll be the target.
Do you think you were targeted?
Oh, there's no doubt about it. There's no doubt about it. Now, anybody who knows me knows that was a totally unfair target. I like jokes and I'm a clownster. It was 10:30 at night and everybody is tired and worn out and it's Halloween, etc.
So, I'm playing a ghost. For the people who took that and said it was racial, I became the target. People who know me know that totally had nothing to do with who I am and what I am. But if you've already made up your mind, you can always find something to validate that you are right.
What that lesson showed me, Chuck, is, one, you know who your friends really are and you find out who your friends really are when your back is against a wall. When folks are really, really testing you, you find out what you're made of and you find out what others are made of as well. I don't know any perfect people.
I got emails, I got phone calls, I got support from people that I didn't even know. And basically what they said was, "You know, this is so unfortunate. We know you. We really know you." Back to that good name.
Many people wouldn't have survived that. Why did you survive?
I think because I was honest. I was honest with the person. I was honest with the leadership who wanted to know what happened. "Hey, here's what happened: I was clowning around at 10:30 at night. It was Halloween; I'm a ghost."
And I became a target of racial stuff for whatever reasons they decided to do that and so forth. You can't call in your chips when something happens. People either have to trust you or they don't trust you. They support you or they don't support you.
That is one incident of 26 and a half years. I could tell you stories of other employees that would just make you cry. ... But those never made your headlines. Those never make the highly exposed stuff.
Did you think about leaving back then? Did you think about just not fighting it, saying I'm done with it?
Sure, you think about it, but I'm not a quitter. I don't run away just because somebody accuses you of something. Lord, look what they did to Jesus Christ. And they killed him.
So, I think those things that don't kill you make you stronger. It certainly helped me to realize: Put your faith where it needs to be, not in man. For me, put your faith into somebody who is greater than all those people and all those things and all those issues, and trust in God. There's a season. There's a reason.
So, you picked the season where you left your job -- Nov. 1. Why now?
38½ years. I told the board I've had 320 board meetings since being here, 462 board meetings in my career. If I never go to another board meeting I'll be happy. It takes its toll of everyday, 24-7, whether you're in a grocery store or wherever you are, "You're the Chamber guy!" And I love it and it goes with the job. That's the wonderful thing about the job.
You don't go to church without somebody saying, "Hey, can I talk to you about this?" "Can I ask you about this?" It's part of the job. It's part of that persona that I love, that I enjoyed. There are several reasons. One was I have an elderly mother and daddy, 88 and 87.
Are they still in South Carolina?
They are still in South Carolina. For the last 26½ years, I've run home when I could every three or four months. I'd spend two days trying to help things get going, try to help do things and come back and call them on Monday: "Did y'all follow-up?" "Did you get this done?" "Did you go ahead and call the doctor?"
So, now you're more involved with that.
So, one of the things that helped me decide it was time to retire was that, you know, my mother and dad need me now. And I can give back to them. I can give back my time. I can help them. I can go and spend a week or two and help them fix things, help get somebody who will come in every day to make sure they're taking their meds right and so forth.
That's a gift I can give back to my mom and daddy, because they gave me all they had when I was coming up. They gave me everything they had. Now, I can give back to them. I'm at a place and time in my life where I can afford to do it. I still have reasonable health, and for me to be able to go and spend a week or two with them at a time, help them get through their closet, help them get through some of that stuff, what a gift to give my mom and daddy.
So, you are at peace?
Did you leave on your own terms?
Absolutely. I left with my head held high and my chest stuck out. I didn't leave anything on the field. I gave it all I had up until Friday afternoon. I made some hard decisions that week that needed to be made, but I gave it all I had. ...
Do you and Shelia plan to stay in Columbus?
Is this home now?
We have children who live here; we have three kids that live here, and another child that lives in Auburn. Five of our grandchildren live here -- three live here and two live in Auburn. So, this is where we call home. So, what's next? There's a season and I'm looking forward to the next season, but I don't know what kind of field I'm going to be planted in, don't know what kind of crops we're going to be growing in that next field, but I'm looking forward to it. I'm beginning to write a book.
What's the title of your book?
Haven't got a title yet. I've already got one chapter written and it's about a view from the backhoe. It will be some of the experiences I've had. It will be some of the things leadership have taught me -- working with people like Carmen (Cavezza), like Phil (Tomlinson). I've had some unbelievable leaders who have had tremendous careers and I've been able to learn an awful lot from those folks. They have helped mold, shape, guide me, help me to be kind of what I am today.
So, I'm really looking forward to doing that. I've already sold three books, which is more than Hillary has done. I've sold a book to my Momma, one to my wife and I'm going to buy one. I'm looking forward to writing that book and getting my thoughts out on paper.
When I finished college, I started coaching and then I coached at a junior college as head basketball coach, Chesterfield-Marlboro Technical College (now Northeastern Technical College).
You were a junior college basketball coach? What was your record?
Our first year we were 8-4. Loved it. It was great, but I decided I did not want to stay in education and finish a master's and then go on and get a doctorate degree so you could eat. When I made the move from education, I was coaching in a Title I school, and I knew I wanted to get out of Title 1 school. So, the opportunity came along to go to the junior college.
The director of admissions says, "I want you to come, I think our president is ready to hire you, we're starting our first basketball team and you can be the first head coach." We were meeting with the president, Algie Grubbs, and he turns to my boss, Carl, and he said, "Carl, sorry I didn't tell you this but you know that other guy we were interviewing, he's accepted the job. So Mike, I'm sorry this job isn't open for you. But go ahead and get your master's degree and I'm sure we'll find a place for you in two or three years down the road."
I was seeing myself as a junior college coach: "Man, this is going to be great." So I left and got into the car and these are the exact words I said: "God, I've done all I know how to do." And then it hit me like a ton of bricks. I had done all I knew how to do rather than going back to my faith. My faith is "In God you trust." You trust Him, not yourself. It kind of hit me: that's the problem. I had been planning my career rather than say, "OK God, it's up to you."
So, I went back coaching in the Title 1 school. Two days later: "Coach, you've got a phone call." So, I go to the office; it was Carl. Carl said, "Mike, I don't know what happened to that guy who said he wanted this job. He decided he's going to take another job and Algie said if you wanted it, it's yours."
Are you done working?
What I've said to myself and my wife -- who is very happy that I decided to retire, by the way, and that's important because she knows what the job takes, she knows the phone calls that you get on holidays with people ripping your lips off because you dared to talk to somebody and didn't go through them, she has lived through all of those kind of things so she's very happy that now we can just spend some time together -- "We can do a little bit of traveling. We can take care of your Mom and Dad. We can go up to the country and spend a week and not have to hurry and get back."
That was very, very important to me that she was very happy with it. What I've said is, "I'm going to take November and December and just kind of debrief. Go visit Mother and Dad. We're going to take a couple of short trips, two or three days, just to get away.
I've already been up to the country and spent a week on the backhoe and on the tractor and used the chain saw. That was wonderful therapy. So, I'm going to spend a couple of months just kind of getting the chamber business out of our system for a while. I'm trusting God that the next chapter will be just as exciting, just as rewarding -- don't know what it'll be.
There have been a few offers that have come in and I've said, "Thank you, I don't want you to think that I'm not grateful, I'm absolutely grateful that you would even think about I might be a good fit in your organization, but in fairness to you and in fairness to myself and my family, I've got to take a couple of months just to kind of unwind some.
Job: Retired CEO/president Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce
Education: Mayewood High School, Sumter, S.C., 1968; Spartanburg Junior College, 1968-70, associate's degree; Erskine College, 1971-72, bachelor's degree in science/health; attended graduate school at University of South Carolina.
Family: Sheila, wife of 20 years; children Bill Williams, Nashville, Tenn.; Wes Williams, Columbus; Sumer Buckner, Columbus; Robin Saffold, Auburn, Ala.; Kasey Boyde, Columbus; and five grandchildren.