Gradl Named Kent’s First Female Vice President

Huntsvillian Leah Gradl has been named the first female vice president in the history of Kent Companies.

Leah Gradl

Gradl was recently promoted to vice president of Support Operations. She will oversee the Marketing, Safety, Human Resources, Training/Education and IT divisions nationwide.

“Leah has a long track record of collaborating with cross functional teams across all Kent Companies offices,” said Kent CEO Jeff VanderLaan. “With her leadership, we’re driving for alignment and efficiency across our support divisions, ensuring we provide the greatest impact to our team members, our operating divisions and ultimately to our customers.”

Gradl joined Kent in 2011 in a consulting role. As corporate marketing manager, she oversaw the organization’s national rebranding 2013. Gradl champions new technology platforms, employee engagement initiatives, business development resources and community stewardship.

“Kent Companies is doing all the right things to position our people, our customers and our community for success,” Gradl said. “Our support teams are fully committed to equipping our front lines with the resources they need to build safely, efficiently and with purpose.”

Gradl holds an MBA from the University of Alabama-Huntsville and a bachelor’s in management from Wittenberg University. She supports Kent’s operations across nine offices nationwide.

Michigan-based Kent Companies is a third-generation, family-owned business with expertise in commercial and industrial construction, mixed-use construction, multifamily housing, tilt-up concrete, post-tensioned cast in place structures and a full range of concrete-related specialties.

Strong Coffee, Strong Women Series: Sonia Robinson Shares her Journey

“Strong Coffee, Strong Women,” The Catalyst’s widely popular breakfast and networking event, features inspirational stories from successful businesswomen that focus on professional growth and successfully overcoming challenges along the way.

Sonia Robinson: “The most selfless decision you can make is to put yourself first. Try it. It will change you.” (Photo/Steve Babin)

This particular event was no exception as Sonia Robinson, a breast cancer survivor and the executive director at BIO Alabama, spoke to a sold-out, standing-room-only crowd.

Robinson was very candid about sharing her breast cancer survivor journey.

“I do not miss a chance to talk about my boobs,” she said.

In 2017, Robinson was at the peak of her high-intensity career: 36 years old, divorced and raising two boys, then 4 and 8. To Robinson, going for her routine gynecological exam was just that, routine; another self-care box to check off between meetings and an otherwise busy workday.

As the nurse did the manual breast exam, she suggested that Robinson get a baseline mammogram.

Robinson initially declined, thinking to herself, “My career was on fire. I was 36 years old and never had had a baseline mammogram. I don’t have time; I’ll do it when I’m 40. Had I waited until I was 40, my story would have been very very different.”

The nurse practitioner felt a palpable lump in Robinson’s breast and asked her, “Have you ever felt this?”

For Robinson, monthly self-exams were not on her radar, so the answer was “no.”

Even after the nurse practitioner sent her for a diagnostic mammogram, Robinson saw it as another item to check off the to-do list. She assumed that the lump would be benign and she would be back to work without skipping a beat.

When the mammogram was complete, the technician told Robinson the radiologist wanted to speak with her on her way out.

“I thought my radiologist just had really good bedside manner and stopped to chat with all the patients afterwards; she’s good, but not THAT good,” said Robinson.

The radiologist told Robinson, “It looks suspicious. I’ve already spoken with your gynecologist.”

The next step was a surgical biopsy. When her surgeon called Robinson to discuss the results, he said the words she never expected to hear: “Sonia, we have a little cancer.”

As she processed the news and discussed the treatment options, Robinson slowly walked to her bedroom and lay down on the bed.

Sensing the news was bad, her mother lay down beside her as the conversation with the surgeon continued.

The cancer was likely Stage 1. A double mastectomy or a lumpectomy with radiation would be the options given.

Before making a decision, Robinson wanted a better understanding of what she was dealing with. Her surgeon gave her four weeks to research, gathering as much information she could.

A sold-out, standing-room-only crowd hears Sonia Robinson share her incredible journey. (Photo/Steve Rabin)

“What does life look like on the other side of this?” Robinson wanted to know.

Robinson opted for a double mastectomy. During surgery, it was discovered the cancer had spread to one of the lymph nodes, which immediately put her into Stage 2, which became a game-changer.

When the oncologist told Robinson that chemotherapy was to be scheduled, “I told him, “No,” said Robinson.

She advised the audience, “We are to question; we are to ask, to research. Y’all have to fight for your health.”

Robinson still believed that everything would be ok without chemotherapy.

“I felt that maybe I should have Dr. Harriman just ‘clear the margin’ and I do nothing, no chemo,” said Robinson. “As the words left my mouth, I thought how irresponsible that was.

“I had an 8-year-old and a 4-year-old. I wanted to be their mommy for a long time. When you’re given a diagnosis like this, it’s not just you, it’s we.”

After four weeks of research and consulting the medical community and breast cancer survivors, “I was told, ‘Sonia, you’re in a gray area’,” said Robinson. “You have to be happy with the decision that you make. Ultimately, I made the decision to move forward with chemo.”

Once the decision was made, Robinson threw a “Shave Party,” inviting forty of her closest friends and family members. The event included a champagne toast and a bouncy house for the kids.

After her head was shaved, she reveled in the new look.

“Try it, shave your head,” said Robinson. “It changed my life.”

Then, there were reconstruction decisions, such whether to keep one’s nipples or get tattoos. Robinson decided to keep hers. “Nipple tattoos, it’s a real thing, y’all,” said Robinson. “I want y’all to look at these,” as she sent images to friends, male and female, to get honest feedback. “Our boobs are so important to us as women,” said Robinson. “I really needed that feedback. I was 36 years old and single.

“Had I been older, I may not have made the same decision.”

Robinson’s fourth and final round of chemo came just 6 days after her 37th birthday. That came with the expectation that life would return to what it was, pre-cancer.

“Chemo is over, Sonia is well,” said Robinson. “That’s when the real work started.

“In order to be your ultimate self, guess what you have to do? Put yourself first. The most selfless decision you can make is to put yourself first. Try it. It will change you.”

 

 

 

Rocket City Trash Pandas: As Much About Fun as Baseball

MADISON — Just weeks away from the Rocket City Trash Pandas throwing their first strike at Toyota Field in Town Madison, the Madison Chamber of Commerce heard from the “Voice of the Trash Pandas,” Josh Caray.

Josh Caray: “It’s about fun, whether you are a baseball fan or not.” (Photo/Kimberly Ballard)

Caray, the team’s Director of Broadcasting and Baseball Information, gave the Chamber a preview of upcoming attractions during its quarterly luncheon at the Best Western Plus on Madison Boulevard.

“Thank you for being the home of the Rocket City Trash Pandas. It’s been wonderful getting to know the community and we look forward to a very long and prosperous relationship,” said Caray. “It’s been a long journey … we are very excited about what we and this community have to offer.

“It’s going to be the talk of the town not just this year, but for the next several decades to come, so we’re excited about it and happy to be a part of it.”

The Trash Pandas make their home debut April 15 in Toyota Field against the Mississippi Braves. They open their inaugural season April 9 in Birmingham against the Barons.

Caray gave an overview of coming attractions for the Trash Pandas and, as odd as it may sound, he said Minor League Baseball is not so much about baseball as it is a carnival atmosphere with a baseball diamond as its crown jewel.

“The great part about Minor League Baseball is that fans will see the best of what the Minor League system has to offer not only in the Trash Pandas, but in the talent on opposing, visiting teams,” he said. “Double-A baseball is a must-stop if you are a big-time prospect.

“At some point, whether a player starts in rookie ball, Single-A, or High-A, they must stop at Double-A at some point [on their way to the Major League] because it’s such an important point of development.

“One day in two or three years, you will flip on the television and see them playing in the Majors, perhaps play in or win the World Series and say, ‘I remember when I saw him hit a ball out of left field in my ballpark’ or ‘I have an autographed picture of me with him’. It’s fun to watch how they are succeeding in their professional careers.”

Fans of the former Huntsville Stars saw that very scenario play out in Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire.

The other things to understand, he said is that Minor League Baseball is about the experience.

“It’s about fun, whether you are a baseball fan or not,” he said. “You want the Trash Pandas to win, but if they don’t, it’s all right. We want you to watch the game, but we also want you to get up and walk around.

“Baseball is a long game, three hours in most cases and you won’t be able to keep the kids still that long, so walk them over to the (Kids Zone) playground; visit the Team Store and buy some merchandise; go up to the Rock Porch and have drinks with friends; visit the stadium restaurant. And if, at the end of the game you forgot who won or what the score was, so be it.”

Toyota Field will be open year-round and host concerts, weddings, parties, business meetings and the like.

One of the unique aspects of Toyota Field is that it will be open year-round. Caray said there will be concerts and festivals in the ballpark and there will be a hospitality area for weddings and wedding receptions, bachelor parties, company outings, holiday parties and a place for team-building sessions.

The Trash Pandas just hired Executive Chef Ryan Curry, recently named one of the best chefs in Minor League Baseball and there will be a wide variety of great food at the stadium. Panera Bread Company, Outback Steakhouse and The Hub will all be within walking distance of the stadium.

Caray said the field has a 360-degree open concourse so if you have seats behind home plate, you can still get up and walk around the entire complex and still see the game.

“Go sit out on the berm and get a suntan; go watch from the outfield or the (Inline Electric) Rock Porch next to the video gameboard ….,” he said. “When it’s hot, there is an air-conditioned suite area with an outdoor patio, so you have the best of both.”

The stadium holds 7,500, including fixed seats and standing-room. There is a party area beyond the bullpen along the left field wall; hospitality suites that seat 75 to 90 people, perfect for group meetings and parties; and a picnic area for large groups of up to 400.

There are also six single-game suites seating up to 25; and the SportsMed Stadium Club along the first-base line that can be booked as well for non-game day events.

Next season, the Hotel Margaritaville should be up and running and the ballpark will be integrated with it, a lazy river, and a swimming pool.

“We are building a year-round revenue-generator with the baseball park as its crown jewel and fun built up all around it with apartments, homes, high-rises, brewhouses, restaurants, and retail outlets,” Caray said.

“I swear we will have a parking lot!” he said to laughter. “If it stops raining, we will have a parking lot with room for about 2,000 cars; plenty of lighting and a live sound system.”

Caray said single-game tickets go on sale March 14 and will range from $8 to $20. There are still some season tickets available and sponsorship and business opportunities available to get involved with the team.

Since the Trash Pandas’ store opened at Bridge Street Town Centre in November 2018, they are closing in on $3 million in merchandise sales (at the store and online) with customers from as far away as Bora Bora, Paris, Ireland and Alaska.

Furthermore, the Trash Pandas have more than 10,000 Twitter followers and they haven’t thrown a single pitch!

For Caray, broadcasting baseball is a family tradition as he comes from a long line of famous baseball broadcasters.

Josh’s grandfather was Harry Caray, a 53-year Hall of Fame baseball broadcaster best known as the voice of the Chicago Cubs during the 1980s and 1990s when the Cubs aired nationwide on Superstation WGN.

He is the son of the late Skip Caray, the longtime Atlanta Braves broadcaster. His brother, Chip Caray is a TV broadcaster for the Atlanta Braves and Fox Sports.

“My dad was behind the mic when Sid Bream slid across home plate to win the 1992 National League Championship Series on Frank Cabrera’s big hit, and when Marquis Grissom made that winning catch in the 1995 World Series,” said Caray.

All Trash Panda games will be carried live on WUMP 730 AM and 103.9 FM. They will also be streamed online using the TuneIn app, and all home games will air via video streaming on MiLB.com (https://www.milb.com/live-stream-games/subscribe).

“First pitch will be at 6:35 p.m. giving people time to get off work, go home, pick up the kids, and go to the game,” said Caray.

Friday games will begin at 7:05 p.m. Saturdays are Fireworks Night beginning at 6:05 p.m. Sunday games will begin at 2:05 p.m. from April through June and move to 5:05 p.m. July through September to help with the heat. For information, visit trashpandasbaseball.com.

 

 

Brown Hired as VP for Southern States Bank

Brooks Brown has been named vice president and commercial banking officer for Southern States Bank’s Huntsville office. 

Brooks Brown

He will be responsible for growing and originating deposit and commercial loan relationships, primarily in the Madison County market.

With more than 20 years of banking experience in commercial lending and business banking, Brown joins Southern States Bank from Wells Fargo Bank where he served the last several years as a business banker. Brooks also worked at First Commercial Bank in commercial lending and underwriting, and  relationship management.

“We are excited and honored Brooks has joined our team in Huntsville, “said Richard Perdue, Senior Vice President at Southern States Bank. “With Brooks’ commercial and business banking experience, coupled with his relationship management skills, he was a natural fit to join our team in Huntsville.”

Sitdown with Success: Louis Breland: An Old-School Developer Leading New-school Developments

This month’s installment of the Huntsville Business Journal’s series “Sitdown with Success” features developer Louis Breland. “Sitdown with Success” spotlights local entrepreneurs who describe their successes and failures.

Tell us about your very first touch with Town Madison and how you got involved.

We had developed a lot of property on Madison Boulevard that we still own, and we used to have offices out there.

Louis Breland (Photo/Steve Babin)

I was looking out the back window one day at a gorgeous tract of land I had my eyes on for a while. I knew Intergraph founder Jim Meadlock owned it and he didn’t need to sell it. But this day there was a tractor clearing trees! I’m thinking, “Holy smokes! I should have been calling on this property!’’

I knew Mr. Meadlock was a really nice man and I had his phone number, so I called him up and said, “Mr. Meadlock, did you sell that property because I see a tractor over there?”

He said, “No Louis, it’s just some farmers clearing trees for me. Do you want to buy it?”

I said absolutely, and negotiations started there.

It looks like such a huge and complex development. Did you know that going in?

Town Madison is actually a relatively simple development. Except for having to put in interstate ramps and things like that are complicated and takes a long time, but Breland has always done fairly large residential communities. My first Huntsville development, Autumn Ridge, is probably 800 homes.

I’ve watched cattle farms turn into major cities, so I recognized that Town Madison is in an incredible location – 2½ miles of interstate frontage and a gateway to the city. It had everything you could want in terms of a location. Town Madison started out as just a great piece of real estate at a great price.

Jim Meadlock and Intergraph owned most of the property and the rest was smaller parcels owned by four or five individuals, so we had to arsemble all of it.

You mentioned Autumn Ridge as your first Huntsville development. You came to Huntsville from Mobile?

I started a homebuilding company in Mobile in 1976 and we were building throughout Mobile, Gulf Shores and Baldwin County on the eastern shore.

A friend invited me to come to Huntsville around 1982 or 1983, to see all the activity. President Reagan had poured money into the Huntsville and Madison County market to support the military buildup for Star Wars.

The market was just exploding! The market is really good now; it was better then. There was very limited competition and there was room to put in subdivisions and build houses. And buyers were lined up.

Within the week, I decided to move here, and we closed our Gulf Coast operation. By comparison, the coast was a very tough market: in Baldwin County, you could barely sell a house.

From the day we started in Huntsville it was on fire – successful from day one. You had a tough market nationally but here there was a shortage of housing and lots of land available for development.

To get started in the development and home building business, do you just start buying land?

Correct. Within just a few months we bought a 400-acre tract of land on South Parkway (Autumn Ridge) and a big tract of land at Zierdt Road where the Edgewater community is now.

You have been involved in this part of town for a long time.

Wayne Bonner of Bonner Development developed Edgewater, but I was one of the first to buy land from him to build houses. Lady Anne Lake was just a bunch of trees back then.

Mountainbrook was one of the first developments at Edgewater. I bought 100 lots that became Mountainbrook and Heritage Woods.

What has it been like being in the homebuilding and commercial development business and still come out on top, with all the volatility over the years?

Louis Breland with Toyota Field in the background. (Photo/Steve Babin)

You have to remember, back then, interest rates and energy were not predictable. Oil goes from $50 a barrel to $150 a barrel; inflation starts in, the Feds raise interest rates and you go from 8 percent to 10 percent to 12 percent, 14 percent and then back to 10 percent. There’s nothing in the real estate business – nothing – predictable. It is always changing. But the difference between then and now, I believe, is that 100 percent of energy came from the Middle East and we had no real energy policy in place.

It was just crazy what fluctuations in energy and interest rates would do. It was always a roller coaster.

And interest rates are like oxygen for a homebuilder and interest rate volatility is very hard on us. It cuts off your oxygen and the higher the rates go – it starts choking you and you have no control over it – period.

But despite this, we thrived here in the Huntsville market. We probably had 30 to 35 percent of the homebuilding market here – 30 to 35 percent of all homes sold were Breland Homes. We were by far the largest builder here.

Has the business changed much?

Extremely different.

Back then there was no one to buy lots from. We bought 100 acres, built the lots, developed all of the infrastructure like roads and utilities; built the homes, sold homes, and we financed them. So we were very integrated – from raw dirt to turning on your stove for the first time at move in.

Now, if you just want to be a homebuilder and not get into development, you can just go buy lots from someone.

How did you survive the financial and real estate collapse back in 2006 through 2008?

I’m old school.

That housing boom was not real world. In the world I grew up in, you had to have real credibility. You had to have real equity and real money which meant you had to put 30 sometimes as much as 50 percent in cash down to get a deal to make a development happen.

I did not participate in that because I could never understand how somebody who couldn’t qualify to borrow $100,000 could borrow $100 million.

We saw some of it coming.

We owned one of the largest privately held self-storage companies in Alabama, Mississippi and South Florida.

In 2006, we sold it for almost $100 million, so we were very liquid. When it collapsed, we had a lot of inventory, but we were liquid, so we bought over 100 communities in great land locations out of bankruptcy at giveaway prices. And we did not go back into the market.

I told everybody here, “This is either the most incredible buying opportunity in real estate, or the largest sucker hole we’ll ever go through – but we’re going to go for it!”

From Government Contracting to Broadcast TV: ProjectXYZ Has Always Been About Diversifying

It was just sitting there. Huntsville businessman Larry Lewis created a business entity called ProjectXYZ, but he had a government contracting job that kept him busy.

So, ProjectXYZ just sat on the sidelines waiting for someone to define it.

Larry and Kim Lewis: “ProjectXYZ was always about our intent to get involved in a variety of businesses and to diversify.” (Photo/Steve Babin)

In 2002, Lewis was dating Kim Caudle. Looking for a way to make extra money to support herself and her daughter, Caudle was working a fulltime job at the hospital and doing consulting work for the healthcare IT industry at night and on weekends. She was struggling because, despite her background in the business, large health care companies preferred to do business with another business, over an individual.

“ProjectXYZ gave me the company cover I needed for the first five years,” said Kim Caudle Lewis, the company CEO.

She and Larry have since married and in 2007, when the company Larry worked for was sold, he came over to work with her as president of the company.

Larry and Kim merged her IT skills on the health care side with Larry’s 30 years in the government contracting business, to expand their government IT work.

“Larry said, ‘We can go out and knock on a hundred hospital doors and get small contracts,’” Kim said. “’Or, we can concentrate on the government side and get larger contracts.’

“So, that’s what we did. We expanded the government contracting side of the business.”

In 2008, ProjectXYZ won its first big government contract – providing IT services to the Army’s Network Enterprise Center at Fort Gordon, Ga.

“I was very excited,” said Kim. “We were chosen as the prime on that contract and not a sub, so that built up our prime contracting capabilities. It also allowed us to build out our infrastructure, which further proved to the government we can do big government contracts.

“Plus, all the health care work we had done was outside Huntsville so that contract kept us focused here in Huntsville.”

For most government contractors, such success would be the end of the story but, for ProjectXYZ it’s just the beginning.

The Lewis’ have a partnership with Darnell “Super Chef” Ferguson and his Super Chef restaurant in Tuscumbia. Ferguson is known for his “Urban Eclectic” cooking style and has won competitions on the Food Network, while appearing on many popular TV shows including “Today,” “Rachael Ray” and a variety of shows on the Cooking Channel, the Travel Channel and HLN.

ProjectXYZ is in the planning stages to bring Ferguson’s restaurant concept to Huntsville this year.

They are also looking to venture into a retail business this year and Larry is launching a new investment company. But the biggest acquisition ProjectXYZ is working on is local TV station WTZT in Athens.

Early last year, Larry became intrigued by the fact there were few black and minority-owned television stations in the country. He started doing research about what it would take to buy one.

“We were actually looking to buy a larger station,” said Larry. “It was going to be a considerable purchase for us, but as it turned out, we were simply not able to stay in the game.”

Four months later, the Lewis’ received a phone call from Jamie Cooper, North Alabama’s longtime morning anchor and owner of WTZT-TV, a low-power Class A station known as ZTV11.

“Jamie wanting to talk to us about something and we suspected it was not about buying advertising,” said Larry. “Jamie had affiliated the station with COZI TV and negotiated with the cable companies to get on most (but not all) of the major cable carriers in North Alabama. That added a lot of value to the station.”

Not only that, but WTZT is only using one of four channels available, so there is plenty of room for growth if they expand those other four channels. They will have the option of affiliating one or more of the channels with a syndicated network like COZI, or they can keep them for customized programming.

“We are currently awaiting FCC approval and they said it would take 45 to 90 days to approve the transfer so we can take ownership,” Larry said. “We are hoping, in terms of time, to have that approval by the end of March and begin rolling out new programming by summer.”

He said they will continue to work to get the channel on all major cable carriers in the area, and Jamie Cooper will continue his live TV show and shoot new material to keep his “Country Rover” show on the air, a show he has been doing for 30 years.

“COZI provides 32 hours a week of programming and that leaves the rest to us,” said Larry. “I do a lot of stock trading and investments and people ask me about it all the time, so I would like to have some local financial programming; a sports show; community shows that focus on economic development and entrepreneurship; as well as information about nonprofit organizations and what they are doing throughout the area.”

He said once they take ownership of the station, they will be open to outside ideas.

“We want people to know it is the only locally owned TV station in North Alabama and the only minority-owned station in North Alabama,” Kim said. “We will cover happenings all over North Alabama, not just Athens or Huntsville or Decatur.”

The Lewises have been prominent business owners and long-time advocates for small businesses. Kim was selected to be the Young Professional member of the Huntsville/Madison Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors. Shortly thereafter, she was named to the executive committee and is now immediate past chair of the board, having served in that post all of 2019.

The couple purchased the BizTech building in 2014 and, in 2016, Larry became CEO of BizTech, Huntsville’s first and most successful technology business incubator.

“Project XYZ was always about our intent to get involved in a variety of businesses and to diversify,” said Kim. “The company has morphed over the years and its true we have a big investment in the defense industry, but we are continuing to venture out into all sorts of projects, in several industries, with different verticals.”

Finley: State of Madison is Strong; Outback, Panera, Marriott, Hub Coming to Town Madison

MADISON — It wasn’t a stretch for Madison Mayor Paul Finley to make a Super Bowl reference Friday night in his annual State of the City Address.

“This is the second opportunity I have had to give the State of the City Address and on behalf of the City of Madison and the Madison City Council, I am able to say again that the state of the city is strong and continuing to get stronger,” said Madison Mayor Paul Finley from beneath the Saturn V rocket at the Davidson Center. “I am so proud to be the mayor of Madison … and if you want some examples, let me give you a couple…,” upon which images of former Bob Jones High School star Reggie Ragland, and Madison Academy’s Jordan Matthews popped up on the big screen to thunderous cheers from the audience.

Madison Mayor Paul Finley delivers his State of the City Address. (Photo/Steve Babin)

Ragland started at linebacker for the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs against Matthews’ San Francisco 49ers.

“That’s just cool,” Finley said to even more applause.

Finley also made two “super” announcements at the address that had not yet been revealed.

The first is the city’s upcoming acquisition of the 28,000 square-foot Three Springs juvenile facility on Browns Ferry Road.

The second special announcement concerned Town Madison, the home of the Rocket City Trash Pandas and Toyota Field.

“I’m excited about Three Springs but I am equally excited about Town Madison,” Finley said.

In addition to the recent announcement about J. Alexander’s restaurant coming to Town Madison, Finley said they are also expecting a 200-room Marriott near Toyota Field; Outback Steakhouse and Panera Bread Company will open on the Zierdt Road side of the development and The Hub, a newcomer to the state.

Residents who spend vacation time on the Florida Panhandle will be familiar with The Hub, a relaxing outdoor venue surrounded by live music, ice cream, burgers, and family-friendly movies shown under the stars.

“Town Madison is going to continue to build out,” Finley said. “Outback, Marriott and Panera Bread already have a footprint in the Tennessee Valley, but Town Madison will welcome the first Hub in Alabama.

“The Marriott is the fifth hotel announced – and just so you guys know, the matrix we put in place to fund the stadium had three hotels in that matrix. We are now at five.”

Concerning Three Springs, Finley said the city will be purchasing the empty 33-acre facility, using funds from the sale of the Madison Library. Over the next four to five years, it will be converted it into a community center.

Finley said there are several local entities such as the Madison City Senior Center; the Enrichment Center, which helps schools with counseling; and American Legion Post 229, which is involved in Memorial Day and Veterans Day events around the city that are all bursting at the seams when it comes to parking and office space.

“This purchase will take our city to the next level,” Finley said. “The library is not the right fit for our city right now, so it is up for sale. Over the next five years, you will see other organizations who also need more space, move into the old Three Springs facility.”

Other significant highlights from the speech were updates on sidewalk improvements at Dublin Park to make it safer; the revitalization of an aging Hughes Plaza, a retail center on Hughes Road across from City Hall; and numerous improvements to older office complexes and buildings.

Furthermore, the City Council invested more than $4 million in a new public works facility. They had outgrown the aging building and there wasn’t enough parking for the employees or for the service trucks. The new facility is on 16 acres and they will move into it in a couple of weeks.

Finley shared Census Bureau data showing the growth in Madison’s population over the past 40 years. In 1980, Madison’s population was 4,500. By the 1990s, it was nearly 15,000. There was a big jump in population in 2008 to over 42,000; and in 2019, it has grown to 50,926.

“That is astronomic growth,” Finley said. “In fact, we are in such good shape in our city that our Rocket City Trash Panda mascot, Sprocket, was just named one of the top 20 people locally of 2020.

“Because of what we are doing, we are collectively blowing this growth thing out of the water and the state of Alabama is stronger because this community is stronger.”

There was also a special recognition for Madison City School Superintendent, Robby Parker who is retiring this year; and the mayor announced that the Trash Pandas have broken records, selling over $2 million, in Trash Panda merchandise.

There will be no traffic relief for residents and businesses traveling Madison Boulevard from Zierdt Road to Wall Triana while construction continues on the I-565 interchange at Town Madison; but a greenway extension will run under the railway tracks just south of Palmer Road, into historic downtown Madison where Sealy Realty is building the Avenue Madison, a multi-use residential, retail and commercial development right in the heart of downtown.

“It’s an exciting time right now to be in our city,” said Finley upon conclusion. “We are managing growth, we are open for business, but we are being really smart about it.”

Nominations Open for Fifth Annual Entrepreneur Awards

The Catalyst Center for Business & Entrepreneurship is accepting nominations for the fifth annual Entrepreneur Awards – a culmination of the 2020 Innovate Huntsville Week events. The Entrepreneur Awards recognize and honor the skill and courage of entrepreneurs to develop a business from an idea.
“The Catalyst is excited to host the fifth annual Entrepreneur Awards as culmination of Innovate Huntsville Week,” said Tracy Junkins, Women’s Business Center Project Coordinator for The Catalyst. “This event honors and recognizes the talented entrepreneurs within the community. The Entrepreneur Awards is where entrepreneurs come together to celebrate one another’s successes in building up the unique community of North Alabama.”
Award categories include: Entrepreneur of the Year, Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year, Creative Entrepreneur of the Year, Female Entrepreneur of the Year, Veteran Entrepreneur of the Year,  Youth Entrepreneur of the Year, People’s Choice, and Entrepreneur Champion of the Year.
Nominations close Jan. 21 and may be made at www.innovateHSV.com. The winners will be announced at the Entrepreneur Awards ceremony Feb. 28.
For information, visit www.innovateHSV.com or www.catalystcenter.org.

Sitdown With Success: Sheila Cummings Shatters Glass Ceiling One Solution at a Time

(Editor’s Note: “Sitdown With Success” is a monthly feature spotlighting local entrepreneurs and their keys to success and tips for future entrepreneurs)

Dr. Sheila Cummings is shattering the glass ceiling—one aerospace engineering solution at a time.

As a Native American aerospace engineer, small business owner, community leader, and family-focused female, Cummings is at the forefront of Huntsville’s path to the future.

And although she has encountered many challenges along the way, she maintains that those challenges have been the driving force for her determination.

Cummings Aerospace, her grassroots creation, is on the cusp of its 11th anniversary, and we caught up with Cummings to gain some inside into her entrepreneurial success.

Tell us about your background and how you chose aerospace engineering as a career.

I grew up in the Lumbee Tribe of Indians in Pembroke, N.C. I always loved math and science. I had a few mentors in the military who I looked up to, and at one point, I was honestly very focused on joining the Air Force after high school. The recruiter said “we’d love to have you, but we need nurses not pilots” and that ended my dreams of joining the military. But I chose the aerospace path instead because it would allow me the opportunity to pursue working on systems while allowing me to be near aircraft and leverage what I was good at academically.

What initial challenges did you face?

I graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in aerospace engineering. All throughout college, there were maybe three other girls in my graduating class for aerospace, so I definitely chose a field that was male-dominated. I had to figure out how to operate successfully in that domain. I’m from a large family of many brothers and sisters, so building relationships was a natural capability for me. But there is a difference when you are competing academically.

I also didn’t have much outside exposure culturally, so going to a university that was amassed in culture and diversity was in itself a tremendous challenge. But I was driven, and I wanted to succeed and make my family proud. I was a minority but I didn’t allow it to deter me. I used it as fuel for the fire in my belly. I was still in a male dominated force and constantly having to prove myself. As women, we just have to work harder to get recognized.

Once you graduated, how did you begin your career?

I began my career with the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., as a government civilian.

After nine years of working for the Navy, I transitioned to becoming a contractor for the Missile Defense Agency, and that’s where my connection to Huntsville began – this was the early stages of BRAC.

In 2005, I helped the Kinetic Energy Interceptor Program and I was responsible for helping the government transition the work force. What was supposed to be a six-month assignment turned into Huntsville into being my home.

Tell us about the origin of Cummings Aerospace and what makes you different as an engineering firm.

I decided in 2009 to break out on my own, largely because of the community’s support of small business start-ups. There were lots of advisors in the community who were encouraging me to start my own company.

Our goal at Cummings Aerospace is technical excellence. Being in the engineering domain is very competitive. We can’t do everything all the time, so what we do, we know we have to do very well. Our reputation resides on it. Quality is very, very important to us. But it’s also much more than that. One of the glorious things about being a small business is that we get the opportunity to be a family and to learn about each other and the family we have created.

What does a successful future look like for you?

I’m probably a little different in that I measure success on the capability we are carrying to the war fighters. How are we contributing to our nation’s defense and protecting the freedoms we enjoy? And how are we helping our engineers to be better and how are we advancing their careers? I want to expand to serve different regions and give back to the Huntsville community and the Native American community, but at the end of the day, I don’t have a specific number in mind. Owning a small business is the best engineering project someone can give you. There are too many variables and a constant pursuit of solutions.

Any advice for future entrepreneurs?

If you are a minority, don’t look at yourself as a minority. Focus on who you are and what you want to achieve and don’t be distracted by the labels that society puts on you.

I think in today’s society people are becoming very accepting of women as engineers. We are still a minority, but we’ve come a long way. The playing field is leveling and I finally feel like I have a seat at the table, but that didn’t come without blood, sweat, and tears.

Being a single mother, I’m not sure I knew what I was getting into initially, but my 3 kids have been my greatest champions. I probably missed one too many family dinners and took them to McDonald’s one too many times, but at the end of the day you just have to ask yourself, am I doing the best I can do?

I’ve definitely have had my share of successes and failures but I wear my scars proudly on my back.

 

Huntsville-based Merit Bank Announces Board of Directors

Huntsville-based Merit Bank has announced a board of directors reflecting its philosophy of focusing on local small businesses.

The board for the bank, which opened this summer, is comprised of entrepreneurs and small business owners. Merit Bank is among six percent of the banks which are Huntsville-based.

“The directors guiding Merit Bank have been small business owners themselves. They have turned startups into multi-million-dollar companies and have led complex government contracting processes” said Merit Bank President Hill Womble. “They are Huntsville business executives who know what it takes to get things done. Now they are part of the Merit Bank team, bringing their experience and insight to provide a unique voice and vision for local businesses.”

The board members are: Steven Cost, president of Hexagon Safety & Infrastructure; Chad Falciani, founder and CEO of Strategix Medical Solutions; Kevin Heronimus, former CEO of Line-X; current chairman/CEO of Technical Micronics Control Corp.; Jeff Huntley, owner of T-H Marine; and Brent Romine, founder of nou Systems.

“Bankers are an essential lifeline for small business success,” Romine said. “As a Huntsville- headquartered bank focused on industrial and commercial banking, Merit Bank is well positioned to be a small business enabler.

“Our bankers not only understand working capital needs, but are vital advisors for businesses growth.”