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Sunday Interview with Sam Wellborn: 'I may be one of the luckiest guys ever'

By Chuck Williams

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com

Sam Wellborn - Excerpts from the Sunday Interview

The retired CB&T bank president, retired president of the Synovus Foundation, and veteran board member of the Georgia Department of Transportation talks with the Ledger-Enquirer about Columbus leadership and economic challenges facing the city.
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The retired CB&T bank president, retired president of the Synovus Foundation, and veteran board member of the Georgia Department of Transportation talks with the Ledger-Enquirer about Columbus leadership and economic challenges facing the city.

Sam Wellborn has been a business, civic and political player in his hometown for a half century.

He is the retired president of Columbus Bank & Trust Co. He currently holds a coveted spot on the Georgia Department of Transportation Board and has for 25 years.

At 74, he and his wife of 50 years, Dusty, live in a comfortable midtown home. Ten years removed from heart bypass surgery, Wellborn tends to his more than 500 camellia plants.

Recently, he sat down with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams to talk about the past, present and future.

Here are excerpts of that interview edited for length and clarity.

I know you wanted to make a statement. So go ahead and say what you want to say.

Well, I want to begin this proceeding by saying ... that I feel like I'm an extremely lucky man. I may be one of the luckiest guys ever, and I say that because I was born in Columbus, I'm a Columbus native, and my parents were fantastic people -- Betty and Bo Wellborn. My father was a CPA. My mother was a housewife. They were wonderful people, and wonderful parents. I have a sister in Atlanta named Mary, she's 4 years older. She's an incredible lady. Then, I was fortunate enough to meet Dusty as a teenager, literally as a teenager in Columbus, even though she is from Atlanta -- was lucky enough to get her to say yes 50 years ago, and we have produced three incredible children, John, Marshall, and Lucy, my daughter.

So you all have been married 50 years?

In fact, it'll be 51 this summer.

What's so special about Columbus?

I suppose we could live most anywhere. Quite frankly, we ask each other fairly often, why do we live in Columbus? Especially when something's going on that's maybe negative. We always come back to the fact this is home. This is where we choose to be. ...

When you talk about there are great positives and negatives, what are the positives that you see?

One of the positives I see in Columbus is the slow development. We are not a flash-in-the-pan type of town. I have seen, over the last 50 years, just steady, steady, steady improvement, and not much backing up.

A lot of times, you have flash-in-the-pan areas, and then a terrible economic situation will take place, and everybody will get unemployed, and the city goes to pot. Columbus is just gradually getting better, gradually growing. Do we have problems? Sure we do. I'm especially disturbed today about the lack of economic development that has taken place in this town over the last 30 years. We've just learned from the Prosperity Initiative -- the mayor is talking about it, the chamber chair is talking about it, everybody's talking about the fact that for the last 30 years, we are net zero job growth in Columbus.

That doesn't count Fort Benning, right?

That doesn't count Fort Benning, but we've had some good stuff that's happened. We've had, especially with our own homegrown companies like Total System, like Aflac, like Synovus, like Blue Cross, if you will. I am especially disturbed lately about our lack of producing, sure enough, really good new economic partners in our region.

I just think we need to make a concerted, much bigger effort to change that, because I think jobs are what's going to keep us sustained in the future.

Do you think our current economic development recruiting measures are working?

No, I do not, and I have met with Brian Anderson when I learned this information from the Prosperity Initiative. I have met with him twice already and expressed my opinion. Now, look, I'm a retiree and I don't have much clout here, but at least I have the right to express my opinion, and I have expressed it to him. It was very appropriate, because he's new. I told him, "Let's cut out all this junk at the chamber. These luncheons, these dinners, these parties. All of the things that don't relate to economic development, and let's start spending at least 90 percent of our chamber time on trying to create jobs."

As a past chairman (1995) of the chamber board, you're saying the chamber's primary objective is to get jobs to Columbus.

To me, that is the primary objective. Now, I have learned -- this is not news, but I have learned, since I've been getting into this -- that our own economic development people have gotten, somehow, at odds with the state economic development people, to the tune that, perhaps, we felt that we could do it better than them, and so we sort of went out on our own to try to develop jobs and develop companies coming here. Now, I'm not saying that still exists today, but if it does, we need to get that straight immediately, and I've also expressed that to Brian Anderson, that we ought to get the two or three top, most influential people with the governor -- like Kessel Stelling, like Dan Amos, like Pete Robinson ... those are the three I suggested -- and get them to go as a party to Gov. Deal, and let's get that part of it straightened out. There is no reason that the second largest city in Georgia is suffering so, economically, in terms of economic development. I want the state thinking of Columbus when they get a prospect, not thinking of somewhere else, because Columbus thinks they can do it better.

Now, that's sort of a layman's opinion. I have not been on the inside of that.

When you look at Columbus, one thing that does separate Columbus -- and I don't want to be the sunshine pumper here -- but one thing that does celebrate Columbus is the TSYSs, the Aflacs. When you look at a Savannah, or Augusta, or Macon, they don't have that, right?

That's right, and I think we're very fortunate. We have had those for a long time, and those jobs are very, very important, and very, very, very good economically, but what I'm saying is, we don't have much beyond that. What we need to create is something beyond that. Now, we've gotten Kia, and I'm telling you, I was astounded to learn about a third of the employees of Kia, which is 20,000 people that work in and around Kia today, come from our area -- Muscogee and Harris, and our region.

When you look at Aflac -- as a banker and somebody who understands business on multiple levels -- what do you see?

I see an incredible force in our city. I see it as the leading employer, in my opinion. I am so grateful that Dan Amos continues to want the headquarters to remain in Columbus, because we all know he could easily put it anywhere he'd like to. I hope it always stays in Columbus. ... In fact, I often, in retrospect, now, in retrospect, I often say to myself, "You know, that's where I really should have worked my 36 years, instead of the bank," because I can sell, and I think I could have sold that stuff pretty good.

When you were at the bank, TSYS was in the basement, right?

Well, when I was at the bank, TSYS didn't exist. Then, when Lynn Page decided to create TSYS, and I do give him all of the credit for that -- it was his brainchild. I guess what I'm saying is, if it wasn't for Lynn, I don't think TSYS would exist today, but it was in the basement, and I remember when it started, and now look at it.

You were elected to the DOT Board by a vote of the General Assembly members in the congressional district.

That's correct. In that year, it was 34 people. ... They took me around the district, and I'll never forget it, and I'll never let them know how much I appreciate what they did for me, but we went around and met everybody. I said that there was a month lapse between the time Frank (Morast) died, and the time I agreed to do it, because I'm sure they were talking, the community guys, Sal Diaz-Verson comes to mind as a community leader back then, were talking to other people, and they finally got to me, and I said yes. So a month had gone by, and I had a big opponent, a guy named Garland Byrd, who was a former lieutenant governor from Taylor County. Here I am involved in a first-time-ever political race with a real tried-and-true politician, and I did not have a clue as to what I had gotten into. Tommy Buck and Pete Robinson were so influential in the General Assembly back then, they along with, I guess, my sales ability, convinced 19 of the 34 voters to vote yes.

When does it expire?

It expires at the end of this year, and I will have to decide at the end of this year whether I want to try to get re-elected again or not.

Which way are you leaning?

I'm leaning toward yes. I'm going to wait until the summer, and see how I feel. As you and I have discussed, I have had a few health issues in the past, but actually, I feel pretty good. In fact, I feel great, and if I still feel great, I'm going to try to go for another five. Now I must tell you, and you probably know this, I am the longest serving board member ever, in the history of DOT.

Talk about the train. I know there is a push, a dream, that one day you'll be able to take a train from Columbus to Chattanooga, to Atlanta, Augusta to Atlanta, Macon, Valdosta. Will we ever see that?

I served on the high speed rail commission in Columbus. The mayor asked me to. I believe in that sort of outward thinking. I think we need to think about it and see what it amounts to, and I am certainly an advocate for it. But I'm also a practical person, and in my opinion, it will never happen in my lifetime, of course. I don't think it will happen in my children'' lifetimes. Way down the line, it might, and I say that, Chuck, only because of the money involved. We can't even raise enough money to get the next level of studies, much less the billions upon billions of dollars it's going to take to build it. Now, we do have a good place to put it. It's not like we've got to go out through the woods and put this stuff, we've got the interstate. To answer your question, it's a long-term proposition in my opinion.

You are, and have been, a strong supporter of Mayor Tomlinson.

Absolutely.

The high-speed rail is one of Mayor Tomlinson's priorities, has been throughout her five years in office. Is Mayor Tomlinson being realistic in her push for the high-speed rail?

Well, I think I've answered that. I've already said that I think it's worthy of looking at. It's time well spent. It doesn't cost anything for us to look at it, to speak of. It costs us a little time to sit around and jawbone about it, and hear various people talk about it. I just don't think it's realistic. You have to spend a certain amount of time on that sort of futuristic thinking. Frankly, I want more time in Columbus spent on the nuts and bolts. Fixing that drain out there that's always perennially clogged -- the sewer, and fixing potholes, and fixing our parks. I do have an idea for our parks. I got a lot of ideas about how we can make Columbus better.

Do you share those ideas with Mayor Tomlinson?

From time to time, I do.

How would you grade the job she's done?

Look, I figured you might ask me that. I'm going to tell you this. We have had a lot of good mayors. One of them lived in this very house. He was a very dear friend of mine. Butch Martin. I just thought the world of him personally, and I thought he was one of our great mayors. We have had some strong mayors. Jim Wetherington, I think, was absolutely essential at the time he was elected. I'm going to surprise you, maybe, with this, but I think one of the best mayors we ever had, and this goes way back, was Bob Hydrick. I served with Bob on a lot of stuff. I was a very young banker at the time, but I remember being very impressed with the way he conducted business for our city. I'll tell you what else I have recently, sort of, come to learn, and to know: that the mayor's job in Columbus, and you already know this, is almost, not quite all, but almost totally ceremonial.

If you tell that to Mayor Tomlinson, she is going to argue with you.

We can argue about it, and she does an incredible job with what I would call the ceremony. That is, welcoming people, making great speeches, and all of that, but when she wants to get something done, she's not like Obama, who makes an executive order with his pen. She has to get her six votes too. That's what I mean. I'm not saying that I think it's right. I think the mayor should have more power.

You've been a strong supporter of the arts here.

I realize how important it is, and when you want people to stay in Columbus, after they're reared and educated, and not leave. We've got 30 organizations, as a part of our arts and cultural society in Columbus, that probably set us apart. You know the facts. They provide about 1,500 jobs. We are so lucky to have the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. We're so lucky to have the Springer Opera House. We're so lucky to have the RiverCenter. Historic Columbus, the Columbus Museum.

You've got sitting over you right now a picture of the gateway, coming off I-185 into Fort Benning. You and your friend John Flournoy ...

That's a segue to John Flournoy, because I think he's one of the most outstanding people in our city. In fact -- I've said it publicly -- he's the most outstanding man I've ever met. He's quiet, he doesn't want any credit, but when you go to all of the interchanges in Columbus, and you see the beautification of it, that's because Frank Martin -- I don't know how long ago it was, 25 years, maybe -- John got his attention, because John was complaining about how bad it looked, and said, "OK, if you want it better, you fix it." That's what he did. ... That's why we look so good, and that's why, when people come to Columbus, they say, "What did you all do?"

You're as proud of that as you are of anything you've done, right?

I'm proud of a lot of things from transportation. I'm proud of the fact that we got 185 a scenic highway, because there will never, ever, except for an act of Congress, be a billboard on 185, ever. So it's a nice, pleasant 41-mile drive on the interstate system that's not clogged up and proliferated with billboards. I'm proud of that.

... I worked with Gloria Weston-Smart, and Keep Columbus Beautiful in getting that done. I'm proud of this. I'm proud to work with John on that. It's all a collaboration.

I want to go into one thing that we haven't talked about. A little over 10 years ago, you had a heart attack. Tell me a little bit about, one, how that medical crisis changed you, but how it impacted you as well.

I was walking up my steps in my home and I suddenly got a chest pain. Long story short, Dusty took me to the hospital. ... I had quadruple bypass surgery 10 years ago. Dr. Belk Brooks is my all-time hero. I'm certain that he saved my life. Actually, today, 10 years later, I feel better than ever.

How did it change you?

It changed me for the good, because my wife, she didn't mean it this way, but she basically told me about six years ago, she said, "I feel like you got about five more good years," good years meaning you can travel. So, we took off traveling. I never traveled too much. I was too busy ...

You were a banker..

I was too busy down at that damn bank. That's why I'm so involved in camellias. I never had time for camellias, back then. I was raising a family and fighting the bank wars. Anyway, those five years are over, and I'm still traveling. That's a good outcome of what's happened.

Now, I cannot end this interview, without you asking me about -- you don't even have to ask me, I'll just tell you -- the most significant person in the history of this city in my lifetime, of course, is Bill Turner. What I always say -- I knew him fairly well -- what I always say is, "I would hate to see what Columbus would look like today were it not for Bill Turner." I get a little choked up talking about Bill Turner, because he is such a significant person. I've never seen anybody as generous. I've never seen anybody that spent most of their -- especially in his later years -- time thinking about, 'How can I make Columbus better?'

How has Mr. Turner made Columbus better?

Well, I think of it in terms of lots of ways, but the most recent, I think, way, is not just buildings. You know, they have many buildings in this town that wouldn't exist without the Turner family. You could just pick them off around town. It was his vision to get Columbus State downtown. To me, that's a significant part of our future. We got the arts, we got CSU as a major gem of this city. We got Fort Benning. All of these great assets, but having Columbus State downtown, I think, has provided the impetus to turn it into what it's becoming. Again, I started out by talking about steady growth. It's not a flash-in-the-pan downtown. Every year it's just going to continue getting better, and better, and better.

You talk about what Columbus was like without Mr. Turner. What does Columbus look like without Columbus State University?

It looks pretty bad, in my opinion. It would be a major, major hole in this city if they weren't here. It'd be like if Aflac wasn't here. It'd be like if Fort Benning wasn't here. Columbus State is just part of the stool, a major leg in the Columbus stool, and it's only going to get better. Fort Benning's only going to get better. All these things are going to continue to get better, but not quickly. Over a long period of time, Columbus will ... I think about the question, though, what's Columbus going to look like a hundred years from now? Or 50 years from now, even? We've got a wonderful cadre of young leaders, and we haven't even talked about that. We've got some folks in this town that are ready to take over, that are going to be ready to take over.

Name some of them.

Other Turner family members, like John -- John Turner -- who I hold as primarily responsible for what's happened with white water, and what that river's going to become and mean to our city. You got a guy named Cameron Bean that's involved with the arts. That guy, to me, will become one of our true Columbus leaders, especially in the arts community. You might have asked me ... who are the guys at CB&T that you really came to admire over the years, and I'm telling you this only because their children are now stepping forward, but I would say John Flournoy, Rick Alexander, and Marvin Schuster would be three of the most outstanding businesspeople that I was associated with at the bank, and now their children Jake Flournoy, Jay Alexander and Todd Schuster -- are taking over in their fathers' footsteps. They may be even better.

You've got girls, you've got women that are ... I think of Crystal Shahid. She and I and Bennie Newroth ran the ESPLOST campaign, and we haven't even talked about that. I became so impressed with Crystal Shahid as being a minority future leader of our city. I do think, and I keep saying this, before this is over, I want to tell you this.

OK, go.

The schools superintendent, David Lewis, is the most important leader in Columbus today, in my opinion.

Why do you say that?

I say that because he is responsible for the education curriculum of 33,000 children. Our education system -- it is not unlike other systems -- needs dynamic, forceful leadership if we are going to get trained and educated people to hold these jobs that I'm saying we've got to create in Columbus. We do have an economic disparity, and it is proven that education is tougher for those that are less advantaged.

If you had to grade Mr. Lewis on the job he's done ...

A+. A+ is the grade I would give him.

You've got your fingerprints on a lot of things in this town. This'll be the last question that I'll throw at you. What are you most proud of?

I haven't thought about that too much, but I'll tell you this: My interests today are not what my interests were 15 years ago. I'm interested in beautification. I'm interested in things like the Columbus Botanical Garden. I'm interested in camellias, and I have developed a reputation in the last few years of being the camellia man.

When Dusty writes my obituary, I've told her, don't spend much time talking about that old bank. That was a long time ago. That was a lot of heartaches, a long time ago. I mean, being a banker is tough. What I want her to focus on is what I love now, which is my children, and my grandchildren, and beautification, things in life that are beautiful, and friends. That's what I want to be known for. I don't feel like I need to have a legacy, but if I did have a legacy, I'd want it to be on those things and not. ... As Mr. Blanchard always used to tell us, which I agree with, is when you get to the pearly gates, they ain't going to ask you about your career at Synovus. They're going to ask you, "What kind of friend were you? What kind of dad were you? What kind of parent were you?"

You feel good about those things?

I feel good about all of those things. If I should happen to leave us tomorrow, which I hope is not the case, I'm a pretty fulfilled guy, and with lots of blessings.

BIO

Name: Sam Wellborn

Age: 74

Hometown: Columbus

Job: Board member, Georgia Department of Transportation; retired Columbus Bank & Trust Co. president; retired Synovus Foundation, chairman.

Education: Attended Columbus High School and Woodbury Forest High School in Orange, Va., graduated from Hallie Turner, 1960; University of Georgia, BBA, 1964; Georgia Banking School.

Family: Dusty, wife of 50 years; children Lucy Wellborn Jones, Marshall and John; grandchildren Caroline and Ashley Wellborn and Laurie Clare, Liza and Lulie Jones.

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