POWER & INFLUENCE 50: Alabama’s most powerful & influential business leaders
The Yellowhammer Power & Influence 50 is an annual list of the 50 most powerful and influential players in Alabama politics and business — the men and women who shape the state.
Don’t miss Yellowhammer’s 2nd Annual Power of Service reception honoring the men and women on the Power & Influence 50 list who leverage their stature to make a positive impact on the state. The event is set to take place Friday, May 13th at the Grand Bohemian Hotel in Mountain Brook. Last year’s event attracted a who’s who of Alabama politics and business, including the Governor, Lt. Governor, Speaker of the House, Pro Tem of the Senate, numerous members of Congress, dozens of state legislators and many of the state’s top executives, lobbyists, opinion leaders and political activists. For more information on the event click here and to purchase tickets click here.
Rick Burgess, nationally syndicated talk radio host, Rick & Bubba Show
As the only media personality on the Power & Influence 50, Burgess is a unique fit among the state’s business elite. He and his co-host, Bill “Bubba” Bussey, have built a radio empire that gives them an unmatched platform to entertain listeners across Alabama and beyond, as well as advance their Christian, conservative worldview and political agenda.
Burgess represents the duo on the Power & Influence list because he has shown a greater willingness to throw his weight behind political candidates in recent years, most notably Congressman Gary Palmer, whom Burgess helped propel into office with a giant wave of ads featuring his endorsement. He has also become one of the state’s most outspoken opponents of gambling expansions of any kind.
Candidates will be lining up to garner Burgess’s backing in the years to come, but he’s already proven to be very picky when it comes to supporting politicians. That makes his endorsement even more valuable.
Mark Crosswhite, CEO, Alabama Power Company
Crosswhite is now two years into his tenure atop the Power Company and continues to impress with his exacting approach to both internal company operations and governmental affairs.
APCO’s operation is so vast that almost every state policy has the potential to affect their business in some way. For that reason, the company has been an active player for decades in every nook and cranny of state government — from the county and municipal levels up to the legislative and executive branches.
Crosswhite served as Alabama Power’s Executive Vice President of External Affairs for almost three years; then became CEO and President of Gulf Power, another Southern Company subsidiary. He was then Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President of Southern Company from mid-2012 until March of 2014 when he became CEO of Alabama Power at the age of 50.
With seemingly limitless resources, Crosswhite and Alabama Power wield influence on a level that most others — including many on this list — can only dream of.
Garry Neil Drummond, CEO, Drummond Coal
The Drummond family built a multinational coal juggernaut off of a $300 loan from Walker County Bank in Jasper, Alabama, using three mules as collateral on the note.
As the third generation CEO (he took over the company in 1961 and spurred it on to previously unfathomable heights), Mr. Drummond has endured the Obama administration’s wrath to an extent that few Americans can even imagine.
No other industry in America has been the target of such fierce opposition from the government, but Drummond has thrived by diversifying his company’s holdings and continuing to run one of the most efficient mining operations in the world.
Forbes ranks him as Alabama’s wealthiest individual, which means he is one of the few Alabama businessmen who routinely gets courted by national politicians. Presidential candidates have been known to carve out chunks of entire days to try to get on Mr. Drummond’s calendar for a meeting.
For most businessmen it works the other way around. Drummond’s in a league of his own in the Yellowhammer State. He doesn’t just work for a giant company — he is a giant company.
Joe Espy, President, Melton Espy & Williams PC
Espy is the preeminent criminal defense attorney in Alabama and the first call when almost any top tier political figure needs legal counsel. When it comes to needing the type of representation Espy provides, there are no party lines. He has represented Democrats and Republicans alike. He currently reps the governor, which means he will likely be omnipresent in political circles for the foreseeable future.
On top of his highly successful law practice, Espy is also a University of Alabama Trustee, placing him in rarified air among the state’s business elite.
Grayson Hall, CEO, Regions Bank
Hall has banking in his bloodstream. There was little doubt where he was headed after earning his MBA at the University of Alabama and later graduating from the Stonier School of Banking. He has been working his way up since then and now helms the largest publicly traded company in Alabama.
He is a fierce believer in the concept of “shared value,” which is essentially the idea that all company initiatives should create value in some way for its customers, employees, shareholders and communities. That approach has earned Regions the best reputation among banks nationally, up from No. 19 just a few years ago.
In addition to his enviable position atop Regions, Hall also serves on a handful of other influential boards of directors, including Alabama Power’s.
Every ambitious politician from Alabama or passing through the state — from members of Congress to presidential candidates — has Hall on their call list.
Johnny Johns, Chairman, President and CEO, Protective Life Corporation
The soft-spoken CEO of Protective Life Corporation has an unrivaled rolodex and intense desire to leave the state of Alabama better than he found it. Under Johns’ leadership, Protective has been a philanthropic powerhouse in the Birmingham community. After merging with Tokyo-based Dai-ichi Life Insurance Co. last year, the newly combined companies donated a stunning $4.1 million toward initiatives that will impact medical research, education and culture in Alabama for many years to come. This year the company donated $500,000 toward to the UAB Athletic Foundation’s $15 million goal for a proposed Football Operations Building.
Johns is on numerous influential boards of directors, including Regions Financial Corporation, Southern Company and the University of Alabama System.
His influence on Alabama’s political landscape extends back to the mid-90s when he and a group of powerful businessmen put together a successful effort to flip Alabama’s courts — which had become known as “tort hell” — to Republican control. He was also a major contributor to the 2010 effort to end 136 years of Democratic control in the Alabama legislature.
Johns is one of the first calls for any aspiring statewide candidate.
Terry Kellogg, CEO, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama
Kellogg has spent three decades with BCBS, rising up through the ranks to become the company’s CEO in 2010. He has earned a reputation for being brilliant and not scared to tell it like it is. BCBS of Alabama maintains the largest market share of any health insurer in the country.
Under Kellogg’s leadership, BCBS has been one of the most politically active companies in Alabama, maintaining a strong presence at the Statehouse and actively engaging in a wide variety of policy issues. He has guided the company well through the tumultuous implementation of ObamaCare.
Kellogg told the Birmingham Business Journal last year that his leadership style is inspired by Dwight Eisenhower.
“Eisenhower was on the ground everywhere,” he said, “present all the time and accessible.”
Thomas M. “Tommy” Lee
Lee is president and CEO of Vulcan, Inc., an aluminum manufacturer based in Foley, and he’s got over four decades of south Alabama business and political connections at his disposal. He is a former Chairman of the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce and a past winner of the Walton M. Vines Free Enterprise Person of the Year.
He is making his first ever appearance on the Power & Influence 50 this year due in large part to his ascendance to the chairmanship of the Business Council of Alabama, a powerful voice representing the statewide business community’s interests before state government.
John McMahon, Chairman, Ligon Industries
McMahon is the kind of industrialist who would fit right in in the pages of an Ayn Rand novel — a legendary investor in the Alabama business community whose holdings span diverse industries and dot the U.S. map. He is also on numerous influential boards of directors, including Protective Life Insurance Corporation, ProAssurance Corporation, National Bank of Commerce, Cooper/T. Smith Corporation and UAB Health Systems.
He keeps his head down and avoids the spotlights, but anyone in the know understands just how influential he has been and continues to be in Alabama politics. He was a key player in the business community’s revolt against “tort hell” in the mid-90s, a movement whose impact continues to ripple across Alabama’s economic landscape. Since then he has been a powerful ally for numerous powerful politicians, including state legislators, members of congress and presidential candidates.
When McMahon calls, everyone answers.
Claude B. Nielsen, CEO, Coca-Cola Bottling Company UNITED, Inc.
Claude Nielsen joined Coca-Cola Bottling Company UNITED, Inc. in 1979 and has been the company’s CEO since 1991. Under his direction, Coca-Cola UNITED has become the largest privately held Coca-Cola Bottler in the United States and is the 7th largest privately held company in Alabama.
He flexed his muscle politically last year by personally making calls to lawmakers in an effort kill a proposed soda tax increase. One legislator who was on the fence about the issue told Yellowhammer, “Once he called, I was a ‘no,’ end of discussion.”
That’s the level of influence that has propelled Nielsen onto this year’s Power & Influence 50.
Craft O’Neal, Chairman and CEO, O’Neal Industries
O’Neal runs Birmingham’s second largest private company, a $2.5 billion per year juggernaut that employs roughly 370 people in the Magic City alone.
The O’Neal name is golden in Alabama business circles. His grandfather founded O’Neal Steel, which is now O’Neal Industries, and his father ran the company for many years as the younger O’Neal worked his way up and ultimately succeeded him as chairman and CEO.
O’Neal flexed his muscle this past year by helping pull together a group of Birmingham heavyweights to resurrect UAB football. With O’Neal playing a key role, the group navigated a labyrinth of political challenges and ultimately succeeded, a result that could have a profound impact on the Birmingham community for decades to come.
Jimmy Parnell, President, CEO and Chairman, Alfa
Simply put: Parnell is a great American.
He was driving a tractor when he was five and managing his family farm’s payroll by age 12. His subsequent success in private business (he’s a partner in his family’s beef cattle farm and timber business) and deep farming background (he’s a fifth generation farmer) prepared him for his current role as CEO of Alfa, an organization whose agriculture and insurance interests make them one of the top players in Alabama’s economic and political landscape.
There isn’t an organization in the state that can touch Alfa’s grassroots capabilities. When their members get engaged on an issue or back a candidate, it matters. Their governmental affairs team is one of the largest and most active on Goat Hill.
It is hard to believe there was a time prior to Parnell’s tenure when Alfa was behind the curve in adjusting to Republican control after the 2010 election cycle. With Parnell at the helm, they’re not behind the curve on anything — ever.
Jimmy Rane, CEO, Great Southern Wood Preserving Incorporated
Alabama’s preeminent entrepreneur built a multinational lumber empire from the tiny town of Abbeville, then devoted his resources to sustaining and developing his hometown’s economy and culture. As a result he is beloved by the local community and revered by his employees.
Rane, who is commonly known as the “Yella Fella” after portraying that character in popular Yellawood TV commercials, now owns and runs the largest lumber treatment company on the planet.
Politically, Rane has long been one of the Republican Party’s most influential supporters, even while Democrats held total sway over the state. He was a major financial backer of the GOP’s successful effort to takeover the legislature in 2010, and remains a close ally of legislative leadership.
He is the most influential member of the Auburn University board of trustees, currently serving as president pro tem.
Britt Sexton, CEO, Sexton Inc.
Anyone who can position himself as a vocal leader on the University of Alabama Board of Trustees must have some serious juice. Behind the scenes, Sexton has been a major part of waking the sleeping political giant that is the UA System.
He is one of the state’s most successful investors, with business interests ranging from financial services and private equity to software and real estate.
His financial resources have allowed him to become one of north Alabama’s most significant philanthropists.
And when it comes to politics, any ambitious politician would do well to try to enter his orbit, because while many other power players of his stature are in the twilight of their careers, Sexton has decades ahead of him.
Gary Smith, President & CEO, PowerSouth
Smith has really shepherded a new era at PowerSouth. The company has gone from a small co-op at odds with the state’s largest utility, to a major statewide player in economic development and energy policy and a partner with Alabama Power.
Their influence will continue to grow in the political space with the founding of the The Energy Institute of Alabama, an advocacy group aimed at promoting the state’s energy sector that is being chaired by PowerSouth VP Seth Hammett.
Smith has put together a good team with a mix of veterans and young talent. This is his first year on the Power & Influence 50. Expect him and his company to continue to rise in the years to come.
Zeke Smith, Executive Vice President of External Affairs, Alabama Power Company
There has been a lot of internal shuffling at Alabama Power in recent months, which has actually allowed Smith — a longtime member of the Power & Influence 50 — to consolidate power with regard to the company’s enormous external affairs operation.
He has drawn rave reviews for his leadership on the Alabama Workforce Council, an organization that is leading the effort to redesign the state’s workforce development initiatives and prepare the next generation to compete in the global marketplace. Smith was personally tapped by the governor to spearhead the group, just one example of his stature in the upper echelons of Alabama’s political and business structure.
He is one of the few individuals whose political network and influence is felt in both Montgomery and Washington. Whether you’re a freshman state legislator or a long-time United States senator, you want Smith in your corner.
Finis St. John, IV, Attorney
“Fess,” as he is known, is perhaps the most influential member of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees and currently serves as the System’s Athletic Chair. He has been a fierce proponent of the UA System’s multi-campus setup. Most recently he has been the driving force behind the UA System getting more involved in federal and state governmental affairs, an initiative that could change the state’s political landscape in profound ways.
St. John’s family has a long history in Alabama politics. His father served as president pro tem of the senate in the late 1970s.
Today he and his wife run a highly successful law firm in Cullman. They are the only husband-wife pair who are members of the American College of Trial Lawyers, which is a big deal in the legal community.
St. John is Chairman of the Board of Directors for Southern Community Bankshares and First Community Bank and also is Chairman of the Board of Directors and co-founder of Cullman Environmental.
He has carved out an influential space for himself, in spite of not being based in the traditional power centers of Birmingham or Montgomery.
Lee Styslinger, III, CEO, Altec Inc.
From Birmingham, Styslinger runs an electric and telecommunications equipment manufacturer whose products can be found getting work done in over 100 countries.
His political influence, similar to his business interests, expands outside of Alabama. He is among the first Alabamians any aspiring Republican presidential candidate will try to get on the phone. When Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney came to Alabama, Styslinger was their guy. When Jeb Bush sought an Alabamian to activate his giant fundraising base in the state, Styslinger is the man he tapped to do it.
He is a member of the extremely powerful Business Roundtable, a group of CEOs of major U.S. corporations, and of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Perhaps most impressively in sports crazed Alabama, Styslinger is a member of the Augusta National Golf Club and part of the Masters Tournament Committee.
Mike Thompson, CEO, Thompson Tractor
When it comes to infrastructure projects in the state of Alabama, few people are as engaged as Thompson, whose machines have helped build an unfathomable number of miles of highway in the Yellowhammer State.
He was one of the key financial backers of the Republican takeover of the state legislature in 2010, and on the national level he is a coveted “bundler” for presidential candidates, most notably the Bushes.
Thompson has been known to call state lawmakers into his office to personally persuade them to support legislation he cares about. They usually get on board quickly.
Dr. Robert Witt, Chancellor, University of Alabama System
The UA System is Alabama’s largest employer and the umbrella organization for the state’s most iconic institution. That alone would make Witt one of the most influential individuals in the state, but in the same way he executed an unprecedented growth strategy in his previous post as president of the System’s flagship university, he is now taking the System’s political influence to new heights as well.
With the teachers union crippled, Witt and his allies on the UA Board saw an opportunity to fill the power vacuum with an advocacy group focused on education outcomes, rather than just teacher benefits. Witt now chairs Alabama Unites for Education, and is building out a multi-pronged political operation that includes lobbying, grassroots advocacy and candidate recruitment and support.
Witt is one of the few individuals whose influences touches all of Alabama’s “big three” — politics, business and sports.