It’s a laudable and appropriate sentiment coming from the Chamber’s 2019 Chairman of the Board. And it’s no hollow bloviating either. When Durham says he serves, he means it, and his involvements extend far beyond the Chamber, including seats on multiple local non-profit boards, leadership in his church and even a service-first philosophy that takes priority in his work as a State Farm Agent.
Putting in the time and effort all his roles require is a skill the Montgomery native learned from his parents. “Both of my parents worked really hard and taught me a strong work ethic,” he said. “I’d see them both leave every day and work 10-12 hours.”
Showing them how their examples affected him underpins the motivation that keeps him going and growing. “I’ve always been driven by the desire to make my parents proud,” he said. Another fruit of the seeds they planted is a service mindset that manifested when Durham enlisted in the Marines right after graduating from Jeff Davis High School. His goal was to serve four years, but that turned into 20 and included time in Memphis; Okinawa, Japan; and San Diego, California. He eventually became a Marine recruiter, a position that put him in Birmingham and then Atlanta before bringing him home, where he was the senior enlisted for the city’s recruiting command.
Durham retired from the military in July 2003, but he wasn’t slowing down. He worked as salesperson for Cintas for one year before he opened his State Farm Agency in July 2004, a decision inspired by Mrs. Durham. “While I was still recruiting, my wife was an underwriter at Southern Guaranty, an insurance company here,” Durham said. “She often told me, ‘Honey I think you’d do good in insurance. You are disciplined, structured and care about people.’” He reached out to State Farm, and they agreed with her. “They gave me the chance to start this agency,” he said.
In the past 14 years, Durham’s success and satisfaction have proven her right. “So the moral of this story is always listen to your wife,” Durham said. “I love what I do and love that I can help people when things go bad and can be there when things go right too. The ‘good neighbor’ thing is true.” Despite the use of a State Farm advertising phrase in his explanation of why he enjoys his job, his enthusiasm for his work is genuine. “It’s rewarding to have the opportunity to do well for yourself while also doing good for others,” he said.
Owning and operating a small business keeps Durham busy, but never too busy to give back. He’s on the board of Child Protect because he’s passionate about protecting children. “I want to support anyone advocating for kids, especially kids who’ve been assaulted or involved in violent crimes,” he said.
His belief that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect and that providing affordable housing and job training are effective ways to do that drives his service on the Montgomery Habitat for Humanity board, Hope Inspired Ministries board and pushed him to accept a position as a commissioner with the Montgomery Housing Authority. “I came up in public housing, and I’m concerned about good housing options for people here,” he said. “And what Hope Inspired Ministries does is so crucial, catching people who are falling through the cracks of life and giving them the education and skills they need to provide for themselves.” He’s also on Baptist Health’s board, and often touts the importance of recruiting good doctors to our area.
Each of his commitments fulfills a specific need he sees in his hometown, but each instance of generosity stands on a common foundation too: Durham’s faith. “The most important thing I do in terms of service is being a deacon in my church, New Home Missionary Baptist Church,” he said. “The Word says, ‘To whom much is given much is required.’ And I have been truly blessed.”
Sharing his blessings includes not only just being a Chamber member, but also actively promoting it and helping it achieve its goals since becoming a Chamber Ambassador in 2004. “I’ve just continued to get more and more engaged with the Chamber, and I’ve been able to see more of the inner workings and better understand the Chamber’s mission,” he said.
This understanding is something else he hopes to share during his tenure as Chairman. “What the Chamber does is key to our area. Business recruitment and retention, job creation and preservation, its leadership in championing public education, embracing diversity, it does all of these,” he said. “So one of my main objectives as Chairman will be to increase Chamber membership by making people more aware of what the Chamber’s role is.”
He also outlined some misconceptions he aims to clear up. “I think some people think the Chamber exists to bring business right to them,” he said. “But that’s not accurate. The Chamber exists to create an environment where new businesses will want to locate here and businesses already here will stay and grow. When that happens, everyone and everyone’s business does better.”
He’s devoted to pushing the number of small business members up, too. “Small businesses are essential, and I want them to know that the Chamber is here for them as well. It’s not just about the big industry companies,” he said. “I want them to see the value of Chamber membership.”
Accepting the Chairman’s gavel is, to Durham, just another outward expression of what he’s long held to be true, that we are the difference we seek. “If this is your home, you can sit back and complain about the things you don’t like or the changes that need to be made,” he said. “Or, you can roll up your sleeves and see what you can do about it. If I can play a small part in advancing our area, the return I get on those efforts is so much greater than what I give.”
MEET THE MAN BEHIND THE SMILE
Plenty of people in the River Region know who Willie Durham is, even if they’ve never met him. They see his bright smile beaming off his numerous State Farm billboards or catch that grin in real life if they pull up next to him in his car that’s wrapped in the insurance company’s red and white logo. But maybe you’d like to know a little more.
Between work and his multiple community contributions, it seems almost impossible that Durham has any time left for a personal life or other interests and yet he s been married to Terrie, his high school sweetheart, for 34 years and helped her raise a 19 year-old-son (Kolby, a sophomore at AUM). And, he squirrels away moments to indulge his love of reading (mostly self-help books about leadership) and to cheer on his beloved Atlanta Falcons and Auburn Tigers.
We asked new Chamber Board Chairman Willie Durham his thoughts on the direction of the city and region.
What’s the state of the city right now?
We’re entering a transition time, with Mayor Strange not running again. Who will the new chief executive be and what will his fiscal and business policies be like? We don’t know. But what I know is that for the city and area to survive and thrive, we have to stay business friendly. With have a built a great foundation for the tech boom here, and we have to grow that, to seize that potential. We’ll do that with more and with deeper partnerships with Maxwell-Gunter AFB, with our universities and with the private sector.
What steps should the city take to stay on the leading edge?
We need to embrace our youth and get them more involved. City leadership has done a great job bringing us to this point, but we can’t continue to lose our talent to Nashville, Huntsville and Atlanta. We have to reach out to youth and let them know there is a seat for them at the table as well. The “They have to wait their turn” thinking is flawed.
Where would you like to see Montgomery in 10 years?
I would like to see no distinction between public and private education. I would like for all of the options to have at least one description in common: quality. I’d also like to see the city become even more of a destination city, not just some place you pass through going to the beach or somewhere else. I think EJI is doing things to bring people here from all over the globe, and I want to build on that. The Memorial to Peace and Justice is so powerful. I know history, but to actually, physically see the names and read the stories at that memorial is very compelling.
WORKING THE PLAN
Chairman Willie Durham’s work ethic and broad community engagement fit right in with the Chamber’s aggressive and proactive approach to economic development. “One of the greatest strengths of our Chamber is that we approach economic development comprehensively,” Durham said. "So, whether it’s tourism, or military mission vigilance, attracting new air service, helping companies expand, recruiting new companies, building our workforce, or helping launch small and minority-owned businesses, the Chamber is one organization working seamlessly across all those fronts with one guiding mission in mind – to create jobs and prosperity for our community.
Through the Chamber, business and elected leaders come together in partnership and agree on the obstacles we have as a city and region, and then that same group of leaders builds the strategy to turn those obstacles into opportunities.” While the four major pillars of the Imagine strategy remain a consistent guiding roadmap for the work of the Chamber, Durham admits he has his own “priorities within the priorities” that he is particularly passionate about:
Goal 1: Build Competitive Regional Talent
Montgomery deserves quality public education. Period.
Goal II: Strengthen and Diversify the Economy
Small businesses make up more than 80 percent of our local economy, and those businesses need a one-stop resource where they can connect to their community and their customers and learn how to grow their business and stay on top of issues. Those companies also need someone working on their behalf to grow the Montgomery regional marketplace. That’s what the Chamber does, and I want our small business community to be more aware of all the Chamber has to offer.
Goal III: Transform the Image of Montgomery
We’ve got to focus on quality of place if we are going to change our image. Other cities like Nashville and others are investing in quality of place projects that will attract and retain talent.
Goal IV: Build Community Capacity
We have a diverse new group of elected leadership emerging in Montgomery. They are stepping up because they want to make a difference. I’m excited about that.
ONE GOOD GOAL
“One of my main objectives as Chairman will be to increase Chamber membership by making people more aware of what the Chamber’s role is.”
WILLIE’S 3 KEYS TO SUCCESS:
Believe In Yourself
Know that you are capable despite your background, past or circumstances.
Have A Plan
Know where you are going. Success comes with thought and preparation for each step.
Be Willing To Work
Success involves hard work. Long hours and continuing after everyone has gone home is often necessary to achieve your goals.