By Sharon Littlepage
Bristol Motor Speedway, the AT&T (Batman) Building in Nashville, the Knoxville Convention Center, and UT’s Neyland Stadium are familiar Volunteer State landmarks.
As different as they are, the structures share at least one important common denominator—the entrepreneurial Jim Powell of tiny Limestone, Tennessee, whose company built these facilities.
Headquartered in Johnson City, Tennessee, Powell Companies has locations in Knoxville and Nashville; Beckley, West Virginia; Marion, Illinois; and Spartanburg and Charleston, South Carolina. Powell’s skilled staff of professional millwrights, ironworkers, welders, pipe fitters, and carpenters, supported by a modern fleet of cranes with capacities up to 300 tons, brings to its customers the latest technology and superior workmanship.
This fall Powell will become chairman of UT’s Development Council. In this volunteer role, he will be responsible for leading a group of some of the most influential individuals in Tennessee and other states to help secure additional financial resources for the University of Tennessee.
This is not the first time Powell has led the charge for UT. In 1994 he chaired the Institute of Agriculture’s steering committee for the university’s bicentennial capital campaign. “Jim Powell is one of the most highly respected businessmen in Tennessee,” says Buddy Mitchell, associate vice-president for agricultural development. “He brings a wealth of experience, energy, and enthusiasm to this appointment and, like the best leaders, he’s a visionary who’s not afraid of change.”
Powell’s connections to UT date back to 1955 when he enrolled as an animal science major (he later switched to business). By 1969 the Nashville native launched his first company with three employees, an old 30-ton crane, $2,000 in cash, a wife, and three small children.
Today the diverse Powell Companies include a crane division, a steel erection branch, a design-and-construction division for all types of mineral processing facilities, a computer network component, and Decanter Machine Inc. The company employs more than 500 people across the Southeast and in Illinois. Powell’s newest project is a multimillion-dollar coal-processing facility in Marion, Illinois, and a second one is in the works.
Its affable leader is a whirlwind of activity who stays connected to multiple projects through e-mail, cellphone, or site visits. If he is in a real hurry, he calls for his plane to whisk him to his destination. But if there is not a sense of urgency, you might see him cruising along the interstate at the wheel of his 45-foot motor home, Almost Heaven. And if you hear the air horn blare out “Rocky Top” or “Country Roads, Take Me Home,” you’ll get a hint of Powell’s sense of humor, which balances the mental toughness required to run a complex business.
Taking a cue from his company’s motto, “The mark of excellence . . . a record of success,” the former chairman of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission will share his goals for the UT Development Council at the fall meeting in Knoxville.
President John Petersen says, “I look forward to working with Jim Powell as he begins his tenure as chair of the Development Council. I know with Jim’s vision for higher education in Tennessee, he will be a strong leader for the council.”
“My first priority is students,” Powell states emphatically. “I want to make sure they’re getting the finest education their hard-earned dollars can buy.”
Just as with business, Powell acknowledges, higher education has a set budget. “We can’t expect state government to bankroll a hundred percent of the cost. That’s just a reality today. So it’s up to the business sector, philanthropic organizations, and others to step up and make things happen.”
And Powell walks the talk. In 2001, he and his wife, Sandy, established the Powell Foundation, which awards scholarships to deserving students.
Scholarships, he says, can often make the difference in whether a student gets a college degree—a credential that, in today’s dollars, is worth around $1 million more than a high-school diploma during an individual’s working life.
Powell is living proof of what a scholarship can do. “My parents couldn’t afford to send me to college,” he reveals. “But my father was a very proud man. So Mr. G. E. Horn, my agriculture teacher at Bellevue High School in Nashville, got my dad’s approval and applied for a two-hundred-dollar hardship scholarship from Sears Roebuck on my behalf.
“I was really surprised to get it, and it opened the door for me to go to UT. Tuition was sixteen dollars per quarter,” he recalls, “plus I had fifty dollars in cash to spend on books and living expenses.”
During his freshman year, Powell lived in the basement of a house on White Avenue. “It had one light bulb and was once used to store coal, but I was glad to be there.”
The next year Powell and three friends moved to an apartment across town. “I had a job paying sixty cents an hour to answer the phone at the UT infirmary in the mornings, and on weekends I was a night watchman for Tucker Steel in Fountain City, which paid eighteen dollars a week.” Fortunately, both jobs allowed the young student to squeeze in some study time.
One evening, Powell met Sandra Pless, who lived across the street. “When my landlady’s daughter didn’t come home from a date one night, she sent me over to the Pless home to get someone to help us find her.” Sandy agreed to go, and the threesome drove around for hours, but to no avail.
“It had a good ending though,” Powell says. “The girl finally came home the next morning from her date, and I met my future wife!”
Married 51 years, the couple has three sons. Jim Jr. and Mike work for their father, while Jeff, a UT agriculture alumnus and former banker, manages a development company in Colorado. Seven grandchildren round out the growing family.
Jennifer Powell, the eldest grandchild, is a 2007 UT Knoxville graduate in communications and works as a page for NBC’s Today show. She wants to become a producer. David Powell, her brother, will enroll this fall.
Still very much in charge of an expanding business portfolio, Jim Powell makes time for the couple’s favorite philanthropic projects. He and Sandy have been especially generous to higher education, although they support other charitable causes, as well. At UT they have funded programs in agriculture, veterinary medicine, 4-H, and the Lady Vols.
“We love to give scholarships,” says Sandy. “We’re not bricks-and-mortar people. We prefer to invest in lives.
“The scholarship Jim received back in 1955 is the main reason we’re in a position to give back today,” she says. “If he hadn’t come to UT, then we wouldn’t have met. All that we have now has come from that two-hundred-dollar award.”
In 2007 when the couple decided to establish a scholarship in women’s athletics, Director Joan Cronan suggested they fund a “roving” scholarship, which can be awarded to a young woman playing on any competitive team in the program.
“Jim and Sandy are completely dedicated to supporting students who strive for both academic and athletic excellence,” Cronan says. “Like the Powells, our focus is always on the student. Their scholarship, named for Sandy, will help us attract the very best student athletes in the nation to our programs.”
Longtime football fans, the pair loads around 40 family members, friends, and employees into their motor home and company vans for the trek from Johnson City to Neyland Stadium for pre-game tailgate parties. “Employees are the most important asset of any company,” he says. “I’m proud of our accomplishments as a team, so it’s my pleasure to entertain them through the tradition of UT football.”
Powell has not forgotten where he came from. “Sometimes you give a kid an inch, and he or she will take a mile. That’s what happened to me with that one scholarship years ago. It gave me an edge, and now it’s a real joy to be able to help young people succeed in life.”
Freelance writer Sharon Littlepage lives in Powell, Tennessee.