Occasionally someone will ask me what the secret is to having a successful career. What advice would I give some budding entrepreneur or someone just beginning to climb the corporate ladder? The answer has probably evolved for me as I built a company and eventually retired. However, now there is no hesitation with my response and the answer is always the same. Surround yourself with the best people possible. They will make you look good.
When I moved to Georgia as the new manager of Beall Peanut Company’s new location in Donalsonville, I was the youngest person on a payroll of 45 people. While I had grown up in the peanut business and was no stranger to hard work, I would have likely been destined to fail had I not enlisted the support of some of the existing people on the staff. They bought into what I was trying to do, and I treated them right. It was a good partnership from the start and good things happened.
Later, when I started building restaurants, my first great partner was my brother, Ernest. We could never have had the success we had without working together. We complimented each other and were aware of our own strengths and weaknesses. In this case, the sum was definitely greater than the parts.
While we hired over 40 thousand employees during our 34-year run with Hardee’s Restaurants, we could never have done it without the fine men and women that dedicated their lives to making our company the best it could be. When we sold our company in 2018, the thing I was most proud of was the large number of people that had worked for us for over 20 or 25 years.
This past week, a retirement celebration was held for a person that was hired on my watch as Mayor of Donalsonville. It was one of the best hiring decisions of my life, though the entire City Council had a hand in the matter.
Steve Hicks came to Donalsonville as City Manager, after retiring as City Clerk/Treasurer in the much larger city of Enterprise, Alabama. He had great success there but was looking for a new challenge. Steve and I had gone to the same high school, where he was two grades behind me, but he was hired on his own merits.
Marty Shingler had a long and successful tenure in that job but following his retirement the position was a bit of a revolving door. Morale at City Hall was low, and the citizens were not always happy with the way things were going.
After yet another lengthy search, the Council decided to hire Steve. It was one of the best decisions we could have made.
Steve brought discipline and accountability to the city’s operations. He leaned on his financial skills to streamline the budgeting process and make it stick. Gradually, everyone from the Council to the Department Heads to the office staff began to realize that you could count on Steve’s projections and forecasts.
When the right person is in charge, it can be amazing what can happen. What seemed impossible became routine. City Hall became a happy place, believe it or not. People got along, ate lunch together, helped each other out, and worked as a team. Steve was definitely the “right fit” for the city at that time.
Steve understood politics. He knew what his role was and what it was not. Steve worked to resolve problems quickly and tried to manage them before the Council was even aware there was an issue.
Donalsonville was fortunate that Steve was at the helm when Hurricane Michael slammed through town and when the pandemic hit the world. His previous experience in dealing with FEMA and other government agencies was an enormous help during the most challenging times in the city’s history.
Perhaps Steve’s greatest accomplishment is that he left the city in a place where he can easily be replaced. That was my goal when we first talked about the position. To make the city run so smoothly that it did not matter who the Mayor or the Council members were.
The city never missed a beat when I retired and resigned as Mayor. The city should not miss a beat now that Steve is retiring. That should be a goal for every leader; to ultimately make themselves dispensable.
I only have one regret about Steve Hicks. I wished we had started working together earlier in our respective careers. It was a pleasure and a privilege to work with him. He was a class act all the way.
Enjoy your retirement, Steve. You have certainly earned it. Well done!
Dan Ponder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org