Jim Ayers presents an intimidating figure as he sits behind his dark wood-and-leather desk. Just over his shoulder lurks a full-grown leopard frozen in mid-prowl, a creature he shot 12 years ago in Zimbabwe. To his right is a dark wooden case housing a dozen high-powered guns, while the head of a 500-pound sable greets visitors as they enter the businessman's second-floor office in Parsons, Tenn., located about 100 miles west of Nashville.
Despite his unremarkable dark suit and understated demeanor, Ayers the safari hunter might be perceived as one of the armed barbarians at the gate. Worth $350 million, he is one of the richest men in the state, thanks to his acumen in the businesses of nursing homes, car dealerships, banking, and real estate. But in truth, he's the anti-Donald Trumpa fiercely driven workhorse who has the no-nonsense demeanor of a presidential aide and an accent as thick as sawmill gravy. His is not a recognizable name, and he wouldn't have it any other way.
Although it's the decisions made behind the desk that have made him a major businessman, Ayers will be remembered for an entirely different legacyone that has made him a hometown hero in this one-stoplight town. That legacy is best summed up in an adage that speaks to one of his favorite pastimes, crappie fishing on the Tennessee River: "Give a man a fish, and feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and feed him for life."
Based on this simple principle, Ayers, 57, and his wife Sharon have established the Ayers Foundation Scholars Program, which for four years provides up to $4,000 to every Decatur County student who has been accepted into college. "What he has promised," explains the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee's Ellen Lehman, "is that no student from Decatur County will be denied a post-secondary education because of a lack of funding."
Launched in the fall of 1999, Ayers' program has already produced dramatic improvements. Two years ago, only about 30 of the county's graduating seniors went on to higher education. In 2000, 81 of 125 seniors were accepted into higher education; that means 65 percent of the county's seniors are going to college, a record-setting number for one of the state's poorest counties, and nearly triple over last year.
Unlike with many scholarship programs, all students who graduate high school and are accepted into college can participate, and there are no grade-point-average requirements. "So many times scholarships are for the straight-A students, and that is one thing that this isn't," says Sharon Ayers. "If you are a good student, even an average student, you can participate."
One reason that the Ayers Foundation Scholars Program is so effective is that it pays the salary of two full-time counselors who work with students at the county's two high schools, Riverside and Scotts Hill. Counselor Carolyn Franks not only helps students figure out which courses they need to take to prepare for college, but she also walks each student and his or her family through the application process. She helps them land additional scholarships and assists them with other hurdles as well. Currently, she's tracking the program's inaugural class, which graduated May 19, 2000, through their first year of college, completing monthly reports to ensure that they stay on track. "You need somebody to give them that push when they're not getting it at home," Sharon says.
The potential impact on this tiny county is immeasurable and will be felt for generations to come. Parsons has four motels, eight eat-in restaurants, and a population of 3,000; the entire county is home to just 10,000 people. In 1997, the county's per capita income was just above $20,000. Although it's a little over an hour's drive to the state capital, Parsons remains in another world, the quintessential small townthe Hardee's there accepted personal checks until just this past June. The town's biggest employer makes large walk-in coolers for McDonald's and other fast-food chains.
Billed as "The Outdoor Capital of Tennessee," Decatur County hosts the World's Largest Coon Hunt, which attracts 20,000 tourists annually. But the county has been struggling for a decade, after two of its biggest plants, which employed a total of 2,000 workers, shut down in 1991 because of the NAFTA agreement.
Although Ayers' program focuses on the county's youth, its impact is much further reaching and may well help this struggling county turn around. "[This] is going to be a great tool for industrial recruitment," says Janice Strawn, executive director of the Decatur County Chamber of Commerce. "What company would not want to come here and see all of their employees' children educated? As far as a skilled labor force, we are seeing that lower every day, and this can give it a big turnaround. Most of the time, we educate our children here, and then they leave and they don't come back to work here. We are hoping that this will be a big turnaround for everyone: You educate them, they come back and work here."
Traditionally, college hasn't been an option for most of the county's graduates. Their families couldn't afford it, so it wasn't even a consideration; like their parents before them, graduating high-schoolers just went straight to work. Jim Ayers hopes that will all change.
"You've got to understand," he says, "this is a multi-generational thing. Unfortunately, none of us will live long enough to see the ultimate good, because if you take a student whose parents either didn't finish high school or barely finished high school, and we get a student to at least get an associate's degree, which would be a big improvement, they would have been exposed to other people, maybe other people who have a four-year or graduate degree. And as they raise their children, they will set the bar a little higher."
It's crucial, Ayers points out, to get the residents of this rural county to experience life outside their homes, so that they can see "there's a better quality of life to be lived.... Complacency is our problem: People that live in this community and never see anything any better get satisfied with a very low or moderate standard of living.
"This will take generations, but hopefully each generation will raise expectations for their children, and the first thing you know, two or three generations down, a big percentage of these students who graduate will be told by their parents, &squo;Look, you need an M.B.A. If you want to do research, you're nothing without a Ph.D. in biology.' Now nobody talks that talk around here. It can happen; it will happen. The thing now is the execution of the plan; we've got the plan.... So right now I'm just spending all of my energy trying to be sure that we are doing everything right as best we know how to do it."
What that will require is for Ayers to establish a $12 million foundation to keep the program going. He and his wife will foot the entire bill themselves, likely by selling $12 million worth of stock from their vast portfolio. "I think somebody who is wealthy has a degree of responsibility to help people who aren't as fortunate as they are," Ayers explains. "There are ways you can do it that encourage people to help themselves; there are ways you can do it that don't discourage self-sufficiency. If you give people the ability to provide for themselves, not only will it enable them to carry on the rest of their lives, it will give them the satisfaction of self-sufficiency."
To Parsons residents, Jim is simply the friendly millionaire next door, the owner of the largest home in the area (at 8,000 square feet). Sharon, who owns a clothing store in town, is an equally familiar presence. "Everybody knows him," says Whitnee Pearcy, a freshman nursing major at Union University, thanks to Ayers. "If you see him, he's always nice. You even see him at the ballpark, watching kids play ball.
"He's just wonderful. There's not many people who would give the money he gives just to help our community and make sure we get a better education. Obviously no one else has."
Says the Chamber's Strawn, "He could've bought an island in the Bahamas, but he chose to invest here, which shows how much he believes in Decatur County."
While appreciative of these accolades, Ayers adamantly stresses that he's no saint. "We have been awfully, awfully fortunate," he says. "I realize it every day. I tell myself every day that I'm not deserving of it. The Lord has been good to me. If he [gave me] what I deserved, I would be out here sweeping streets."
Ayers was raised nine blocks from his current office, a nondescript, aging building across the street from the new headquarters of First Bank in Parsons, which he also owns. As a child, he walked these same sidewalks, only then he carried a wooden shoeshine kit, offering 10-cent shines. (To remind himself of his roots, he keeps that homemade kit on top of a shelf, always within eyeshot.) He landed his first job, for which he wasn't paid, at age 5, helping his father load up sacks of soybeans to sell to farmers. His summers were spent hauling hay at his aunt's farm in Hurricane Mills. Then, as now, he spent his free time fishing. His lifelong entrepreneurial spirit first became apparent in his numerous Monopoly victories and his success at selling Bibles for Southwestern Co.
His father Paul was a lumber man and farmer who had land holdings in Perry, Decatur, and Humphreys Counties; like his father and grandfather before him, the elder Ayers owned and operated a 20-employee sawmill. Jim Ayers' mother operated a flower shop and managed the duplexes the couple owned while raising three children. "My parents were older when they marriedmy mother was 27 and Dad was 35so I really had a textbook Ozzie and Harriet upbringing. They were mature; they weren't wealthy, but they were financially secure. They had the experiences of life that enabled them to be quite good, loving parents. My upbringing was just about as ideal as you're going to find."
One thing neither parent had, though, was a college education. "Because Dad earned a living doing physical work around the sawmill, it gave him great appreciation for the benefits of anything that would allow you not to have to go through the hot summers and cold winters," he says. "As long as I can remember, he was bound and determined that I was going to get my college education. In those days, even more so than today, getting a college education pretty well assured you of having a better quality of life and probably not having to work under unpleasant circumstances."
Ayers graduated from Parsons High School (now Riverside) in 1961 and earned a business administration degree from Memphis State University in 1965. (His apartment neighbor in college was Fred Thompson, now a U.S. senator.) He graduated $7,000 in debt, so he took a financially appealing job for three years with Ortho Pharmaceutical Co., where he called on doctors and drug stores. By 1970, he'd accepted a job in Memphis as a controller with Care Inn Nursing Home Division of William Bond Inc. "Through happenstance, I was there a few months and there was a major shake-up in that company," he says. "I found myself about the lone survivor at the corporate office. Everybody else got terminated."
He was quickly elevated, first to vice president and then to chief operating officer. And within just a couple of years, he'd managed to pull the company out of a hole and turn it into a salable entity. Once Care Inn was sold in 1971, a man with whom Ayers had worked outside the company signed a bond that gave him the capital to start his own company, which focused on managing nursing homes that had been foreclosed by HUD. In 1976, Ayers sold that company to his partner, Edgar Overstreet, and started a company that later became American Health Centers.
By 1974, he had moved back to Parsons, using the $450,000 from the 1976 sale to build a nursing home there. It started out at 65 beds and now has almost 200. "A lot of people when they move off don't want to go back to a small town," he says. "I thought I'd be that way, but when I lived in the city, there are so many more people there. But you actually know fewer people there than you do in a small town like this. I had family here, and I just felt more comfortable in a small town where I grew up and knew the people. I basically moved back as soon as I had the financial independence and the ability to put my office anywhere I wanted."
In the mid-'90s, Ayers sold American Health Centers, of which he owned 88 percent. "I was ready for a little bit of a change," he says. "I had gotten in the banking business and I liked it. It wasn't quite as intense as the nursing home business. I didn't have 3,000 employees to worry with." He began looking for a way to sell the company without causing the local employees to lose jobs or to be transferred out of the area. He found the solution in the Employee Stock Ownership Plan, which was created by Congress to encourage workers to own a piece of the companies that employed them. In 1993, he sold 35 percent of the business and then in 1996 sold the remaining 53 percent, providing him with his largest single influx of cash. He invested much of this money in the stock market, where about 50 percent of his assets remain today.
The list of Ayers' current business investments and holdings is impressive, to say the least. He has invested in a number of Nashville companies, among them Community Care Inc., a Brentwood-based firm that specializes in outpatient medical services; Hallmark Jeep/Eagle; Crown Ford; and Council Capital Management, a venture capital firm. He recently sold his stake in Nashville's Capital Bank and Trust but remains a major shareholder and chairman of CommunitySouth Bank in Columbia. And he is the sole owner of First Bank, which is headquartered in Lexington, Tenn., and has branches in Parsons, Jackson, Camden, Linden, Dickson, and Huntington. First Bank has total assets of about $700 million.
"He's unique in that he has proven he can be successful in many businesses," says friend Denny Bottorff, chairman of AmSouth Bankcorp. "Some people just have street sense, and Jim certainly has a lot of good, practical street sense. He has also got an incredible sense of timing. You saw Jim exit the nursing-home business before you had many of the big increased government challenges confronting that business.
"My favorite thing about Jim is that what you see is what you get. Jim is very unassuming, as is his wife Sharon. They're both very, very nice people, and their wealth has not changed their substance."
Adds Parsons native Ted Welch, a prominent Nashville businessman who has been a friend of Ayers' for 45 years, "He is very intelligent, determined, focused, honorable, and has as great a vision as anyone I've ever met. He is not afraid to take risks and make decisions."
Perhaps like most people from such small-town origins, Ayers never dreamed he would be this successful. "My dad worked hard, and he was above-average financially successful, but by most folks' measure, we [were] nowhere near wealthy," he says. "From the age of 10, I always felt concern that I would do as well as my dad business-wise.... I had a goal to be worth $1 million and make $100,000 a year before I was 30, and I beat that by two or three years."
But the way Ayers sees it, his wealth doesn't change anything about his basic humanity. "I consider myself normal; I'm not any better than anybody. If I had been born in the ghetto with only one parent to guide me, I doubt I would be in as good shape as I'm in today. It's just the luck of the draw: I just happened to draw two good parents."
While he may have been lucky, he has also worked tirelessly six days a week, with his support staff alternating on Saturdays and Sunday afternoons. He admits he's a Type A personality who is anything but laid-back in the office, but employees say they find his management style inspirational. "He has a personality that makes you want to strive and work hard and go the extra mile," says Scooter Clippard Jr., the Ayers Foundation's president and CEO. "It just makes you want to go out and accomplish something. He just has this air about him.
"One of the reasons he has been so successful is the people who have been around him have been able to somehow catch hold of this vibrant amount of energy that he's got to go accomplish things."
A recovering workaholic, Ayers began cutting his hours back 10 years ago following the unexpected death of his half-brother Bill Durham, who was killed in a farming accident. "That will change you a little bit," he says. "I've slowed down a little. When I go home, I don't leave here and go play golf all afternoon," he says. "When I go home, I collapse."
Ayers developed the idea for the Scholars Program after watching a CNN story on a Texas businessman who launched a similar initiative. The man guaranteed to provide financial assistance for college if students agreed to remain good citizens who refrained from drugs and alcohol. "That stuck with me for six or seven years, and I thought that [it] would be nice if we could do it down here," he says. "We talked about it and kind of had plans to do that, but one year led to the next."
The plan was finally set in motion after Ayers hired Clippard to serve as the foundation's president. "He had the time and energy to put it together because it's a pretty complex undertaking," Ayers says. "If you throw money at the problem without the proper counseling, you won't get the desired results. All of a sudden, we had the makings of the manpower to make this happen, so we embarked on this journey two years ago."
Riverside's Class of 2000 first heard about the program during an assembly in the school gym in the fall of 1999. "He announced it, and we just kind of sat there and looked at each other, &squo;This is crap. He's not real,' " says student Whitnee Pearcy. "But it is real, and it's just hard to believe that he's doing it. Everybody was so shocked: &squo;Is he crazy? What is he thinking, giving all of his money away?' But everybody is really excited because a lot more people are going to be able to go to school than before.
"Almost everybody is taking him up on it. Some people were going straight out of high school to work, and now they are getting the opportunity to go to school. Everybody wants to go. The reason some people were acting like they didn't want to go [before] was because they couldn't afford to go."
Whitnee's mother, Paula Pearcy, a single parent who has two other children, had worried about how she could afford to send her daughter to college on the salary she earned as a supervisor at the Ayers-owned Group Data Services. "It's just like you dream about," Paula says. "It's like an untouchable. You think there's no way it could happen; there's not enough money; it's too expensive. If this had not come about, Whitnee would have been unable to do this."
Chandni Patel, whose parents own a small motel in town, is now a freshman at Vanderbilt University. "I would have still gone to college," she says. "I just wouldn't have gone to Vanderbilt. For some people, it made the decision whether or not they were going. I have friends who picked better or more expensive colleges because of this. Their parents had just enough to pay for college if they took out loans."
Just as important as the money, both students stress, is the involvement of counselor Carolyn Franks, who helped Patel win a $1,000 scholarship from Wal-Mart and helped Pearcy find and win a local nursing scholarship. "Without Ms. Franks, I could not have made it," Pearcy says. "She makes sure everybody has done this or that and gotten our records sent. We wouldn't know how to do anything we've done."
Says Franks, "I think the resounding theme with my students...is that they have more choices now. They've moved up a level. Instead of being junior college students, they are attending four-year institutions. Instead of attending part-time, they are attending full-time." This is exactly the kind of transformation Ayers wanted to see, and in time, it should bear out in even more fruitful ways.
Ayers has applied the philosophy of helping those who help themselves to all aspects of giving. He views his charitable donations as investments, so before he'll participate, he kicks the tires, crunches the numbers, and looks at the cost-benefit analysis to determine if a particular project makes sense. About two years ago, for instance, the United Way approached Ayers for a donation, but at first he declined. "He said, &squo;No, I won't do that, but I'll help you if you will help me improve the quality of life in Decatur County,' " Janice Strawn says.
Ayers ended up donating $1 million to the United Way for a grant that was earmarked for economic growth in Decatur County. Out of that came the Community Action Network, a public-private partnership of individuals, businesses, churches, and government agencies that encourages economic development and industrial recruitment. The organization has several different segments, including an education foundation, a river development program, a Main Street project, and a business council. "It's an achievement grant: The more you achieve, the more he does," Strawn says. "You've got to show him. With all of the improvement that you do, he'll back it up. Who else would do something like that?"
At least a few others, hopes Ellen Lehman, who as president and founder of the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee helps unite donors and causes. "There are a lot of generous people in Middle Tennessee, but this gift has sparked so much excitement in others," she says. "People who don't live anywhere near Decatur County see in this example proof that they can realize their own charitable dreams of what will make their community a better place. I can't tell you the number of people who have asked me about it; this gift has galvanized and charged others up in a way that few have."
In 1997, Ayers was awarded the Silver Beaver Award by the Boy Scouts of America, the highest honor a non-Scout can receive. The next year, he was given an honorary doctorate from Union University. Again, Ayers downplays his accomplishments and appears a bit uncomfortable with all of the attention. "There's just something about my personality that has enabled me to create wealth, and I can't tell you what it is," he says. "It's probably not extremely high intelligence. It's 90 percent persistence and 10 percent IQ."
More significantly, though, Ayers has determined that his notion of success, his very sense of self-worth, be dictated not by what he has accumulated, but rather by what he has given away. "Wealthy people can do two things with their money," Ted Welch says. "Be a slave to their money, or have the money be a slave to them to do greater good. That is what Jim Ayers decided to do. The world will be a better place because of Jim Ayers having lived."
And furthermore, we don't try cases based on what the news reports. We try them…
In order for there to be a 1st degree murder charge they would've needed solid…
It's overdue, but I'm glad it's in progress. I still don't understand, with the information…
Past time Nashville Metro, Get ya head outta ya ass and do the right thing,…
It's about time he was arrested.