In 2013, Midlands Anchor CEO, Tia Williams, joined Aida Rogers on Greater Lexington Chamber’s “Tower Talk” to discuss of the beginnings and mission of Lexington Anchor (prior to rebranding). The transcript is available below.
Question and Answer Session with Tia Williams
Why did you start the Lexington Anchor?
My background consists of a pinch of writing, communications, photography, politics, event planning and business development. My friends know that I am “all over the board” when it comes to my interests, which can prove to be chaotic for most professions, but comes in handy when working on a publication. So, at first the Anchor was simply a great artistic outlet.
The main reason I started the Anchor was to promote and broadcast VisionLexington in a way that is easy for the mass public to comprehend and share. During my time in grad school studying urban planning, I read hundreds of great comprehensive plans that all averaged a very short shelf life.
Political leaders and administrators, like many business executives, often put all their effort into creating a vision but fail to keep the public engaged in the execution stages. I didn’t want the same thing to happen in Lexington.
Have you always wanted to be involved in the community?
Yes. I’m not sure what first sparked it, but by the time I started my first real job on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, I realized how important it is to focus locally. While I really loved my position and being a real part of national public policy development, I was drawn to the many town and city leaders who would come through our office talking passionately about their hometowns. I then made a decision to pursue Urban and Regional Planning as a way to start getting back to my roots.
Is running SERVPRO and the Lexington Anchor what you saw yourself doing with your life?
Not at all! In 2012 I found myself in a position of needing to either commit to or move on from the Columbia area. I had just graduated from an Urban and Regional Planning masters program at Virginia Tech in 2009, fully believing I would be moving out West or elsewhere for my next big adventure. My family lives in Columbia, and almost all of them own businesses that I could easily fall into if so desired. But being the stubborn person I am, I wanted to be able to blaze my own trail.
I decided to move back to the Columbia area and to pass the time and earn my rent I worked for my dad’s company, SERVPRO. SERVPRO is a leading franchise specializing in water and fire cleanup, but also has a very involved training division that he happens to manage as well. As the months passed I found myself becoming more and more interested in SERVPRO and the role the business played in the community. All of the franchises I worked with are family businesses that happen to be extremely involved locally, be it with church, school, sports or volunteering. Not surprisingly, the more community-involved franchises were also the most successful. This correlation resonated strongly with my previous research. Finally, after about 9 months of job searching, I decided to plant my roots in my hometown and give SERVPRO a real shot. I knew my dad (a second generation owner) would expect me to take the decision very seriously, and 4 years later I’m realizing it has helped me meet my personal and professional goals better than I had ever imagined.
What does the Lexington Anchor have to do with Economic Development?
Many people don’t realize that economic development involves a lot more than local bureaucrats offering incentives to out of town investors and companies with deep pockets. The economist Richard Florida was one of the first to emphasize the correlation between economic prosperity and the creative class. He notes that, by catering to the talented young professional population, these burgeoning cities are promoting creativity, a sense of place, educational opportunities and long-term investment. In essence, they are strengthening their inner core.
My goal has been to capture the creative, historic and aesthetic strengths of the area through local columnists (i.e. everyday residents) and visual arts. I usually focus the Anchor on promoting free or low-cost events that draw people out of their homes and on young professional opportunities and happenings. It’s a small start but I hope the mission will catch on and something bigger eventually takes its place.
How does owning a small business help with the Lexington Anchor and community development in general?
Like I said before, I’ve grown up in a small business family so I don’t have much else to compare to except the eight years I spent doing my own thing. I realized in grad school at the University of Virginia (which focused on Environmental Planning) that the conversation about community development did not involve small business involvement nearly enough as I thought it should. It was actually during these discussions that I thought about all that my dad had done to help his community. Through the years, he had sat on the South Congaree planning commission, coached T-Ball, was one of the first graduates of Leadership Lexington County, and been asked numerous times to volunteer his expertise and opinion for various planning projects.
My dad isn’t the only small business owner that is so involved locally. Almost everyone I interact with who owns their own business has something they devote their time and passion to. My only explanation, after managing SERVPRO myself for over 4 years, is that there is a huge responsibility laid on a person to take care of the people they employ as well as everyone around him or her. If times get tough, it’s my responsibility as an owner to do all I can to assist my employees and continue to provide quality services. It’s not an option for me to complain to someone higher up or become disgruntled. Therefore, we ultimately become very active in local charities, schools, civic projects, etc. We want the very best living climate, educational opportunities, safety and financial options so that our employees are as happy as possible when they enter the building each morning.
Why do we need to think regionally? Why does it matter?
Municipalities often miss out on growth opportunities if they become too consumed with their neighbor’s success (i.e. parochial childishness). Columbia felt this first hand after losing Southwest Airlines to much more collaborative Charleston and Greenville. The only way for Lexington to create its own destiny is to embrace regionalism as a way to move forward. Former Mayor Randy Halfacre realized the importance of the loss of Southwest and quickly acted to help launch the Midstate Chamber Coalition. Local Lexington leaders also led the campaign to secure Amazon, understanding that Cayce’s gain will be the region’s boon.
Moreover, while we all enjoy the great benefits that the suburbs usually bring—spacious yards, good schools, easy parking, safe neighborhoods, etc—it is dangerous to not consider the long-term effects of haphazard development. In essence, everything has a price. I’ve learned from years of studying urban planning that sprawl costs the local tax payer dearly in utility and infrastructure development and maintenance. Before we expand further out, we need to be looking inward and focusing on connectivity with our neighbors in the Midlands.
What other community activities are you involved in?
Right now I am Chair of Lexington Young Professionals, board member of the Columbia Clemson Club, Communications Chair for the State Chamber Small Business Council and involved less formally with several other groups like Columbia Opportunity Resource, United Way Young Leadership Society and the local Chambers. By January of 2014 I will be stepping down as Chair of LYP to spend some more time in my business and building our new SERVPRO office on East Main Street in Lexington. However, there is talk of forming a unified service or leadership league within the young professional groups in Lexington County, so that might be in the cards for me as well. We’ll see.
Why do you do all of this??
I ask myself that all the time. (kidding…kind of). But when things start to get overwhelming and I feel a temptation to quit, I quickly remember the many years of being poured into and taken care of by those who love me. I feel like everywhere I’ve lived, all of my time in school and volunteering has led me to this place and it just feels right to spend most of my time in the community. My faith is also important to me, especially the grace that has extended to me despite many mistakes. Now that I feel like I’ve gotten to a place where I can really appreciate that gift I want to spend as much time as I can showing others the same kind of benevolence.
Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
Hopefully still owning SERVPRO and playing a vital role in the healthy development of my hometown. My ultimate goal is to open a non-profit leadership camp for young children that focuses on team building, goal setting and perseverance. I worked as a camp counselor at Camp Bob in Hendersonville one summer for children on scholarship, and I was blown away with the incredible impact one week made on their lives. I would like the leadership camp to have a similar model and function collaboratively with the many other great groups currently benefitting the Midlands.
What is a bit of advice for the college class of 2014?
Upon graduation, focus more on building skills and experiences than landing the ‘perfect job’. I graduated with a Psychology degree knowing that I would probably end up having to do some kind of higher education down the road. Until then I allowed myself a couple years to stay open to new possibilities and because of that learned a lot about my interests and strengths. The best thing you will ever do is to write down your 5, 10 and 20 year goals annually (both personal and professional). Sure enough, in some round about way, your path will work itself out. Oh, and never ever, ever be afraid to fail.