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Alabama Image Enhancers

Individuals and developments that have done the most to improve Alabama’s image over the past 25 years

Jimmy Wales in New York City.

Jimmy Wales in New York City.

Photo by Nicholas Goldberg

INTERNET CREDS

Internet guru Jimmy Wales spins to any who’ll listen the assets of being born and raised in Alabama. “There’s a very friendly culture in Alabama, and I’m a very friendly person as a result,” Wales told Business Alabama two years ago. “That’s served me well in terms of working with people on the Internet.” He is the co-founder of Wikipedia, the 10th most visited site on the Internet. A graduate of Randolph School, a private college preparatory high school in Madison County, Wales earned a degree in finance at Auburn University before heading to Tuscaloosa for graduate school at the University of Alabama. In October, Wales married the former secretary of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Kate Garvey, whom Wales met at the World Economic Forum at Davos. Blair and his wife and a clutch of U.K. celebs attended the nuptials of Kate and her friendly mate from Alabama.

Edward O. Wilson

Photo courtesy of Liveright Publishing / W. W. Norton & Company

DEPTH OF THOUGHT 

Edward O. Wilson is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author, a world-renowned naturalist — ants are his specialty — and developer of a new discipline of scientific study, sociobiology. The fact that he is from Alabama used to be buried in the footnotes, but the Harvard professor emeritus still speaks with south Alabama gentility and made his Alabama childhood a splendid chapter of his autobiography, “The Naturalist.” In 2010, he published an autobiographical novel, “Anthill,” set in a fictionalized Mobile. In 2012, a nonfiction picture book he coauthored, “Why We Are Here: Mobile and the Spirit of a Southern City,” re-explored the biosphere where he grew up. In a 1999 interview with Business Alabama, Wilson recalled his first inspection of a pile of fire ants on a vacant lot in the Down the Bay neighborhood of Mobile. Wilson’s most recent book, “The Social Conquest of Earth,” is an ambitious application of sociobiology to a bigger neighborhood. “This is not a humble book,” said the reviewer for the New York Times. 

HIP TOO

Alabama Shakes added hip to the Alabama brand in the last year — going from boondocks Athens, Ala. to three 2013 Grammy nominations — best new artist, best rock performance and best recording package. The four-member rock and roots band — singer Brittany Howard, guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell and drummer Steve Johnson — formed in 2009, after Howard and Cockrell met in a psychology class in high school in Athens. The group wrote all the songs on their first CD, “Boys & Girls,” released in April 2012. It debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard chart. Appearances on the Letterman and Conan shows soon followed. They performed at the 2012 Americana Music Association Honors and Awards, along with Bonnie Raitt and John Hiatt.

WORKING WOMAN VIGILANCE

Alabamian Lilly Ledbetter stamps the state again as a home of civil rights champions. She is the country’s highest profile champion of equal pay for women. After working nearly 20 years in managerial positions at Goodyear Tire and Rubber in Gadsden, on the manufacturing line supervising teams making tires, she got an anonymous note showing she was being paid far less than the men in her same position. She won a headline lawsuit as plaintiff, and when the U.S. Supreme Court overruled on a statute of limitations technicality, Congress responded with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act. She speaks on college campuses across the country on women’s rights. She delivered a rousing speech to the nation from the podium of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. She’s currently on a book signing promotion of a new memoir she coauthored, “Grace and Grit.”

Albert Brewer

PROGRESSIVE POLITICS

Albert Brewer was a progressive governor (1968-1971) during a brief interlude in Alabama’s otherwise inglorious passage through the civil rights struggles. For that fact alone, he became a lightning rod for menaces of that time, narrowly defeated for re-election as governor in 1970 by George Wallace in one of the nastiest political campaigns in U.S. history. Brewer has continued to reflect the positive side of that coin for the rest of his career. After a return to private law practice, he joined the faculty at Samford University in 1987, where he has taught Alabama history to undergraduates and constitutional law to law students. He was the founder and first director of Samford’s Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, which offers local and state government in Alabama valuable research in better management. He also has served on Alabama’s Constitutional Revision Commission — the recommendations of which might do the most to improve Alabama’s image should the Legislature ever notice them.

Jim Hudson in his office at the HudsonAlpha Institute in Huntsville.

Photo by Johnny Miller

BREAKTHROUGH RESEARCH

No one has done more to push Alabama’s image as a leader in biotechnology than Huntsville’s Jim Hudson, one of the founders of the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology. He first put us on the biotech map as the founder and CEO of for-profit, Huntsville-based Research Genetics Inc., which developed a process for producing artificial DNA for research laboratories at a fraction of the previous cost and in a fraction of the previous time. The company became the largest supplier of DNA stock for the Human Genome Project, involving hundreds of top research centers around the world — many of which mapped their supply lines to Alabama. In 2001, Hudson sold Research Genetics to Invitrogen for $139 million. Along with the Alabama-based Alpha Foundation, Hudson and other principals developed the non-profit HudsonAlpha Institute, which opened in 2007. It pioneers genetics-based medical research, producing a stream of headlines about research findings, most recently, the identification of gene targets for cancer treatment.

CLASSY SPORTS

The Crimson Tide is a brand the state has carried for decades, but its shine has been smartly burnished by its current coach, Nick Saban. His teams conduct themselves with discipline (almost no penalties on the field, very few disciplinary troubles off the field) and little braggadocio (unlike some dynasties of the past). They are noticeably mature, and with the national audiences their games are drawing (this year’s SEC Championship Game had more than 16 million viewers), that reflects well on the state as a whole. His “Process” — a “make today count” kind of mantra — has become legendary, covered by Sports Illustrated, Forbes and the New Yorker. His defensive scheme takes years of studying to master, so there’s a level of commitment and intelligence learned by the players that benefits them whether they go to the NFL or the workforce. — Ellis Metz

WOMAN OF THE YEAR

Regina Benjamin, the Surgeon General of the United States, has been reflecting honors on her home state ever since graduating from the Morehouse School of Medicine in 1982 and setting up a solo medical practice in the fishing village of Bayou La Batre, in south Mobile County. In 1987, with the help of an MBA from Tulane and money she raised working in area nursing homes and emergency rooms, she converted her practice into the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic. A decade of hard work there won her a Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights in 1998. Then Time magazine named her one of the “Nation’s 50 Future Leaders Age 40 and Under.” The New York Times was next to write the story, “Angel in a White Coat.” People magazine named her “Woman of the Year.” She was the first physician under age 40 and the first African-American woman to be elected to the Board of Trustees of the American Medical Association.

Malcolm Portera

Photo courtesy of the Alabama Department of Archives and History

INSTITUTION BUILDER

Malcolm Portera, who capped a long academic career with his retirement, in early 2012, from the post of Chancellor of the University of Alabama System, built the Alabama brand as an economic developer, as well as an institution builder. While at the University of Alabama as vice chancellor of external affairs, he was one of the players on the industrial recruitment team that recruited Mercedes to Alabama in 1993. He had been in UA offices of academic affairs and research and served as executive assistant to two presidents before becoming a vice president and was the university’s key lobbyist in the Legislature. He left Alabama as vice chairman of the University System in 1996 to establish a successful business development planning company. In 1998, he became the 16th president of Mississippi State University, then returned to Alabama in 2001 to become UA System chancellor. The Materials in Information Technology Program at UA, which he helped create, achieved National Science Foundation recognition as an engineering and materials research center. His industrial development activities contributed to the location of $2.5 billion of capital investment in the Southeast, according to his citation for induction in 2002 to the Alabama Academy of Honor.

David Bronner addresses the Alabama Center for Real Estate’s Alabama Commercial Real Estate Conference & Expo in 2009.

TRUE BELIEVER

David Bronner, CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, has changed the actual landscape and infrastructure of the state, as well as improving its image. Beginning in 1989, Bronner transformed downtown Montgomery with a series of RSA-financed high-rise office buildings that now house much of the state government, as well as the RSA and other tenants. In the name of economic development, in 1999 Bronner invested $2.5 billion of RSA’s then $22.4 billion in assets in the formation of Community Newspaper Holdings — the largest chain of newspapers in the country, over 200 of them — and one of the largest television groups in the country, Raycom Media, with 46 stations across the country, over 10 percent of the U.S. TV viewing market. Prior to that, of course, he invested $100 million of RSA funds in the development of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. Then beginning in 2000, he added a series of RSA-funded resort hotels. Largely as a result of the Trail and the resorts, Alabama’s tourism industry over the last 15 years has grown from a $1.8 billion to a $10 billion a year industry. Raycom and Community Newspapers, as part of their deal with RSA, give the state $50 million a year in advertising.

BIG CEOS

It helps the Alabama image that it is the home state of the CEO of the world’s largest publicly traded company, Apple Inc. Even if Wall Street still seems to be assessing the performance of Apple CEO Tim Cook, he has overseen hugely successful launches of the iPhone 5 and iPad mini tablet and in August, the one-year anniversary of his taking over the top post from Steve Jobs, Apple reached a stock price peak that gave it the biggest market value of any public company in the world, surpassing its nearest U.S. rival, ExxonMobil, by some $200 billion. The company remains at the top, in spite of a market slide since September, which might have as much to do with fed tax policy speculation as it does with analysts’ kibitzing. Cook, 50 years old, was born in Robertsdale, Ala. and graduated from Auburn University in 1982 with an engineering degree. He became Apple’s senior vice president in charge of worldwide operations in 1999.

Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, in Tuscaloosa County

SMART INVESTOR

Critics called Alabama’s $253 million incentives package to attract Mercedes in 1993 the granddaddy of economic development boondoggles. They wished. Four years after opening in 1996, Mercedes was exporting its Alabama assembly line system back to its plants in Germany. In 2009, on the 15th anniversary of the opening of the Mercedes plant outside Tuscaloosa, Andy Levine with DCI, an industrial marketing firm in New York, said landing Mercedes may be the smartest investment any state ever made. Alabama Development Office Director Neal Wade at that time said Mercedes “was a game changer” that altered the direction of business and employment in the state forever.

TOP FLIGHT SMART

The landing of Airbus in Alabama will probably prove as positive and large an impact on Alabama’s image in years to come as Mercedes has been. Airbus plans seven main buildings on 116 acres at Brookley Field, a $600 million investment that will be ready to assemble planes at the outset of 2015, with the first plane complete by 2016. The firm expects some 3,000 construction jobs, followed by a steady employment of about 1,000.

Right: Airbus President & CEO Fabrice Bregier walks away from a JetBlue Airbus A320 at Brookley Field, in Mobile, after announcing that Airbus will establish its first assembly plant in the United States in Mobile, July 2, 2012.  AP Photo/Dave Martin

Alabama Shakespeare Festival, in Montgomery

Photo by the Alabama Tourism Department/Porfirio Solorzano

ALABAMA SHAKES 1.0

William Shakespeare has been the cultural ambassador for Alabama since 1985, with the opening of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival on an endowed, 250-acre estate in Montgomery. Construction magnate Wynton Blount was benefactor of the $21.5 million, 100,000-square-foot complex, which includes two theaters with a total of nearly 1,000 seats, as well as production shops and rehearsal halls. The Festival presents 14 productions annually, from Shakespeare and other classical plays to modern musicals and new productions, drawing more than 300,000 visitors a year.

Chris McFadyen is editorial director of Business Alabama. Ellis Metz is a writer for Mobile Bay Magazine, a sister publication to Business Alabama.

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