Category Archives: Uncategorized

Kulture Change


Drs. Julian Maha and Michele Kong at KultureBall 2016

As with many things of value, the genesis of KultureCity arose from a personal challenge.

Dr. Julian Maha, CEO of KultureCity, and his wife, Dr. Michele Kong, were faced with that challenge when their son, Abram, was diagnosed with autism. Their response has led to the growth of a new kind of nonprofit, one that is making waves across the country and having an impact by making life better for people living with disabilities and their families.

The couple founded KultureCity to make a difference. In the process, Maha has envisioned a new kind of nonprofit that is structured more like a business.

Dr. Julian Maha speaking at Sloss Tech 2017 photo by Kenslie McGuire with Telegraph Creative.

“Coming from my background in medicine and being actively involved in startups in the medical field, I really want to approach a nonprofit from a different angle,” he explains. “Not knowing much about nonprofits when I came in, I felt there were a couple of obvious weaknesses. More often than not the scope of the typical nonprofit is pretty small. So for instance if you wanted to start a nonprofit to help feed the homeless, you would follow your mission statement which negates you from doing anything but that. So the first thing we did with KultureCity was create a mission statement that was very broad and would help us generate the most impact and continuously innovate within the sector.”

Dr. Maha with KultureCity Sensory Team Mallory Pritchard and Lara Dean.

“The second thing was to form KultureCity like a startup. When you look at the difference between a startup and a regular business, a business is going to generate revenue but it is always going to have more local impact in its scope. Whereas a startup normally tackles a problem that is transformative, that has potential for national and international impact on a problem that needs to be solved. We took the approach of a nonprofit acting as a startup. We wanted to tackle an issue that could be transformative not only on the local level but that could then be scaled to the national level.”

Accessibility became the issue KultureCity would tackle, breaking down the physical, familial and community barriers.

Sensory Inclusive Boo at the Zoo 2016.

“The third thing was to put together a really good team. We could not provide equity, obviously, but we could provide something called impact equity. People became involved primarily because they believed in what we were trying to do and they were passionate about us. They would not only volunteer their time, but be invested in it from an impact standpoint.

“So those were the three big things that allowed us create our organization,” Maha says.

In Maha’s view the nonprofit industry has almost been pigeonholed by the problems they want to tackle. “A fifth of the population of the United States have a disability. And of that 20 percent, only 18 percent have visible disabilities, so accessability for them is an issue. But accessibility goes way beyond that and must touch the 82 percent of people who do not have visible disabilities, children with autism or veterans with PTSD or people with Parkinson’s or stroke or early onset dementia. Those are the populations that we as a community sometimes leave out when we plan our cities, plan our venues and plan our social impact. That is really where we want to have an impact that can be magnified many times over,” Maha says.

“The big vision for us going forward is that we want to be the accessibility nonprofit startup. Looking at our sensory initiative, when you go into public venues like Urban Cookhouse you will find our KultureCity sign that tells you this is a sensory inclusive location—also the Birmingham Zoo and McWane Science Center. We want to take that and transfer it to the rest of the world. Right now our sensory inclusion symbol is in nine NBA arenas, two football stadiums, three NHL arenas, multiple zoos across the country, a couple of museums,and it is growing on a daily basis.”

Maha has looked at the nonprofit sector with fresh eyes. “We wanted to think big and innovate within the sector. Almost like launching a brand. We knew to effect change we had to get big and we had to get big fast. So we scaled our initiatives,” he says.

After working on some grassroots initiatives, Maha says they wanted to create an initiative that could actually save lives, be trackable and also engage the public. “That was our lifeBOKS initiative that involved a bluetooth tracking bracelet and other things that we give to families with children with autism to prevent wandering. Because for kids with autism under the age of eight, drowning is the leading cause of death. We shipped out about 4,500 kits in the past year and prevented 33 deaths. So that was trackable data. It also enabled us to engage the general public because if you don’t care about autism, you still care about saving a child’s life. That community engagement led to our sensory inclusion initiative which allowed us to work on a whole new level educating people on the guest experience for individuals with non visible disabilities.

KultureCity’s next initiative coming in October is an all-inclusive app that is designed to tie the disability community together. “So if you or a family member has a disability, you download our app and it will give you resources based on what the disability is and plug you into a community of families in your area that you can interact with. It will give, for example, sensory inclusion locations in your area,” Maha says.

“If you have a loved one with a disability or a food allergy and you’re traveling to, let’s say, Birmingham, the first thing you have to do is Google search what places will be accommodating to your loved one’s needs,” Maha said. “But there is always the question on the reliability of the information, and the need to verify it.” The KultureCity app will aim to cut through all the noise on Google and make sure the information you find is reliable. The app will use GPS data to show you spaces inclusive to people with disabilities and restaurants friendly to people with food allergies. Many children, especially those with autism, have food sensitivities, which makes eating out while traveling difficult.

Maha announced the new app at the annual KultureBALL in July. At the event, Scott Simpson, senior partner at Simpson, McMahan, Glick & Burford (SMGB) in Birmingham, announced the firm would commit $50,000 to the nonprofit’s Sensory Inclusion Initiative over the course of five years. Kulture City has gained national acclaim for its efforts. It was one of just 52 non-profits—the only one in Alabama—to receive funding from Tom’s of Maine, through its Good Matters program. It twice was named best-reviewed special needs nonprofit by And in 2015, KultureCity was one of just 10 nonprofits nationwide supported by Microsoft for its Windows 10 Upgrade Your World initiative. Maha was just nominated for a humanitarian award by the NASCAR Foundation.

Screenshots of the new KultureCity app.

“We want to be a household name,” Maha says. “We want to be the new symbol of accessibility and continually innovate. For lack of a better word, we want to market disability so that the general public wants to be engaged and wants to help. This is not a small issue. It is a big issue that affects one in five people. We as a community need to step up because, bottom line, it speaks to who we are as a community.”

Live and Local

Jox, WJOX sports talk

Cumulus Radio’s David Walls looks at it as a simple equation. Live radio with a local orientation and commitment equals success. That’s not written down in an algebra book, but, as far as Walls is concerned, it plays out every day over the airwaves of Birmingham.

“I’ve lived here my whole life,” he says, “and I can’t think of any station that has been able to cover the city 100 percent of the time, and that is what we are trying to do. We have had people come in at midnight when something big breaks in the news.

“Live and local is the key,” Walls continues. “We just keep pounding on that. We want to be able to cover something that breaks in Trussville. We can be there in 20 minutes and report on it in our newsroom.


“Our goal is twofold: to dominate the spoken word in the city with Jox  94.5 and Talk 99.5. The other is to provide an excellent choice to reach the African-American community in Hot 107.7, a station that does that very well.”

Approximately 245 million people  are reached each week through Cumulus’ 447 owned-and-operated stations broadcasting in 90 U.S. media markets (including eight of the top 10), 8,000 broadcast radio stations affiliated with its Westwood One network and numerous digital channels. Together, the Cumulus/Westwood One platforms make Cumulus Media one of the few media companies that can provide advertisers with national reach and local impact. Cumulus/Westwood One is the exclusive radio broadcast partner to some of the largest brands in sports, entertainment, news, and talk, including the NFL, the NCAA, the Masters, the Olympics, the GRAMMYs, the Academy of Country Music Awards, the American Music Awards, the Billboard Music Awards, Westwood One News, and more.

WZRR, Talk 99.5 FM

Additionally, it is the nation’s leading provider of country music and lifestyle content through its NASH brand, which serves country fans nationwide through radio programming, exclusive digital content, and live events.

“I am honored and grateful to have the opportunity to work for a company that combines great stations with great people,” Walls says. “I look forward to building on the success and the tremendous work already happening in the building. Together, we can win big and have fun getting it done.



  • Core Demo – Men 25-54
  • Format – sports talk
  • The station is 75% male
  •  25% female
  • 31% of their audience has HHI of $100,000+
  • 45% has a college degree or higher

WUHT FM Hot 107.7

  • Core Demo – Women 25-54
  • Format – Urban Adult Contemporary
  • The station is 60% female and 40% male
  • 56% has some college or a college degree

WZRR, Talk 99.5 FM

  • Format – news talk
  • Live personalities from 6 a.m  to 7 p.m.
  • Core demo – Adults 25-54
  • 44% of the audience is in the 35-44 age range
  • The station is 55% male and
  • 45% female
  • 33% of their audience has HHI of $100,000 +
  • 31% has a college degree or higher

Every Picture Tells a Story

With Portraits, Inc.’s dynamic ownership, a nationwide network of sales associates, and its roster of the world’s foremost portrait painters and sculptors, there is a particularly bright future for this unique American company based here in Birmingham.

Art has been a part of Beverly McNeil’s life for as long as she can remember. The president of Portraits, Inc., as well as the Beverly McNeil Gallery, she has steered a traditional company through changing times, making a classic product relevant for today. There are two other owners in addition to McNeil, Julia Boffman of Ohio and Ruth Reeves of North Carolina.

“Portraiture has such a strong tradition,” McNeil says. “It is a fun process, too. But without help, it can be very overwhelming. We know the artists and what they are like, and how they interact with subjects. Portraits, Inc. is part of the process with clients from beginning to end, down to the framing and hanging on the wall.”

At 75 years old, Portraits, Inc. is the oldest company of its kind in the country. Essentially an agency that connects artists and portrait subjects, Portraits, Inc. works with 165 portrait artists all over the U.S. Fifty-five associates work for the company and are located in various regions of the country. Portraits, Inc. serves as the central source, connecting customers and artists.

Prior to purchasing Portraits, Inc., McNeil owned Portrait Brokers, which she merged into the new company back in 1997. From the time Portraits, Inc. was started in 1942, the goal has been to help clients find the ideal artist to create the fine art portraits they desire. Sales associates, located in communities across the country, have been trained as experts in fine portraiture.

Portraits, Inc., was founded in 1942 by Lois Shaw, an art and antiques dealer and socialite. In the early 1940s, Shaw partnered with the USO to give weekly studio parties in her Park Avenue gallery that often centered on portraiture. She contacted a number of portrait artists and asked them to contribute their services by doing life drawings of the military men and women in uniform who attended the parties. These fine portraits were then nicely matted and mailed as gifts to the families of the subjects. Mrs. Shaw received a special citation for her efforts from the U.S. government.

As she was hosting these events, Shaw quickly realized that portrait artists really had no special gallery to exhibit their work. Dedicating a room in her gallery exclusively to fine portraiture, she announced a new service called “The Portrait Painters’ Clearing House.” That marked the official launch of Portraits, Inc.

A true pioneer in the exclusive representation of fine portrait artists, Portraits, Inc., firmly established its position as the world’s most esteemed portrait company in the ensuing decades. With a roster that includes virtually every major portrait painter and portrait sculptor in the world, the company’s mission from the outset has been to restore fine portraiture to its historic position in the fine arts. For more than 70 years, clientele have included the foremost names in the worlds of business, the professions, the arts, academia, and society.

The product itself seems timeless. “We are finding artists who are adjusting styles to meet current appeal. It is very personal, and with the artists we work with we can find something  for any client because of range of styles we represent,” McNeil says.

Prices vary according to the medium and the artist.

“Oil portraits start at $3,500; charcoal starts at $1,200. You can afford a portrait,” she says.

McNeil operated Portrait Brokers of America here in Birmingham prior to the purchase of Portraits, Inc. She was also owner of an art gallery located in Destin for about 15 years. When McNeil moved back to Birmingham, she became excited by the notion of reopening the Beverly McNeil Gallery in the space occupied for decades by the Loretta Goodwin Gallery.

“My goal is to have 10 local, 10 regional and 10 national artists associated with the gallery. There is a lot of physical work to the gallery business. Plus social media is a lot to keep up with. But to me there is nothing like an opening. We do a lot of commissions as well,” McNeil says.

“Art has played a huge part in my life. My mother in law was big art collector. I started collecting 25 years ago. Art is essential. The harder life gets, the more I think we need beauty. The arts round us out. It is one of the most important things that stand the test of time.”

NBA returning to Birmingham for 2018 preseason contest

A Special Sponsored Report from the Alabama News Center


By Michael Tomberlin

The students at Parker High School knew they were gathering in the gym for a pep rally, but it was what they didn’t know that caused them to go wild with excitement.

NBA all-star James Harden made his way onto the court as BBVA Compass and Birmingham Mayor William Bell announced professional basketball will be played in the Magic City next year after more than a decade’s absence.

Harden’s team, the Houston Rockets, will play a preseason game next year against a yet-to-be-named opponent on a yet-to-be-determined date.

While officials want people to get excited about next year’s game, the bearded one was the reason for the enthusiasm at Parker on Aug. 17.

“This is my first time here in Birmingham, Alabama,” Harden told the Parker students. “The energy in this gym is amazing. That’s what I thrive on. Every single day, I wake up with positive energy and so the energy that I’m feeling today, I want to say thank you guys. The love is definitely felt.”

Harden was joined at the announcement by teammate Nenê and Houston Rockets CEO Tad Brown. Harden said he plans to go back to Houston and tell the Rockets that next year’s game in Birmingham will be special.

“The energy that was in that gym today was unbelievable. I’m sure it’s like that around the entire city,” he said. “It’s exciting that you have fans – especially the first time coming here and I know Nenê feels the same way. I’m going to go back and tell my teammates and coaches that we’re excited to come back here next year. It’s going to be fun. We’ve got to put on a show.”

Birmingham Mayor William Bell

Bell said Birmingham has long shown support for the NBA and it’s overdue for having a game played here.

“For the past 10 years, we have not had an NBA game to be played in Birmingham, Alabama,” he said. “You’ve had to go to other cities to see an NBA game and to see some of the top stars.”

Bell said it was BBVA Compass, which is based in Birmingham but has a major presence in Houston, that helped bring the Rockets here.

“One of the commitments that I made a long time ago was to showcase Birmingham as a great sports town,” Bell said. “We love more sports than just – I better not say this, University of Alabama football – but we do. We’re a great sports town. We just need to market it and the opportunity for us to work with the Rockets and BBVA Compass was one that we just couldn’t pass up.”

Brown said Birmingham will get to see some of the best players in professional basketball in person.

“You will see James, Nenê, Chris Paul, all of our players here competing at the highest level at NBA basketball,” Brown said. “It was an opportunity. It made a lot of sense. We’ve got a great partnership with BBVA Compass. We always look for opportunities to go to outer market games that are available to us.”

Brown said the team has played preseason games in China and in Rio Grande Valley where it has a NBA G League Farm team. It was the bank’s relationship with the team that made Birmingham an option.

“The partnership with BBVA Compass and the expression of interest by the mayor and the city is really what led us to the opportunity to bring the game,” he said.

Brown said shortly after training camp, the Rockets should be able to announce the team Houston will play in Birmingham next year.

BBVA Compass had been working with Birmingham students through its Summer of Opportunity initiative and the Parker kids thought the assembly was part of that until Harden raised the roof with his presence.

Harden said that’s what it’s all about.

“Kids are everything. They’re the future,” he said. “I’m obviously blessed to be in the position that I am today, but these kids are what drives us. It’s what makes me happy.”

That’s why Harden was the last one to leave the gym and head into a planned press conference – instead taking time to go into the bleachers and celebrate with the students.

“When I get an opportunity to be in a position like that with all of those kids in that one gym, I’m going to take full advantage of it,” he said.


Gold-medal winning

A Special Sponsored Report from the Alabama News Center

By Donna Cope

Chef Brian Duffett, 19

Brian Duffett knows that practice makes perfect.

His continuous efforts to be the best – along with his spot-on culinary skills – recently won Duffett the top honors in the National SkillsUSA culinary competition.

In June, Duffett showcased his skills against 26 other state champions to take home the gold medal and bragging rights as the nation’s top culinary student. He is the only Alabama college student to have ever won the culinary competition. Even more important to Duffett, he won a $50,000 culinary scholarship to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

At the tender age of 19, Duffett not only has inner confidence but a solid determination to become one of the nation’s best chefs. While the Jefferson State Community College Culinary student admitted he was well-prepared, Duffett said the 3-hour culinary competition was an experience he’ll never forget.

“I’ve done roasted chicken probably 40 times, so the chicken was no longer fun for me to eat,” said Duffett, who is studying to be savory chef, specializing in the “hot” side of a restaurant. “It was exciting, but nerve-wracking.

“I did a four-course meal: a couscous salad with citrus vinaigrette, lentil soup infused with roasted red bell pepper, braised beef cheek with gnocchetti and the chicken,” he said. “Most people do a basic salad, but I did a compound salad with a cookie – a tuile – on top. I probably practiced the salad nine times.”

Duffett’s classic cookie was “paper-thin,” made with walnuts, lemon zest and apples.

“I like doing the tuile because it gives the salad a crunch and more texture, besides doing the expected croutons,” he said.

If other competitors weren’t nervous about Duffett’s precision execution of the fine-dining experience, they were perhaps a little apprehensive about his sheer size. Towering at 6-ft. 5-in. tall, Duffett easily dominated the kitchen — and the competition.

Duffett, a sophomore at Jefferson State, went from serving as an apprentice chef at Todd English Pub at the Westin Hotel in Birmingham to working as a cook at the city’s new Elyton Hotel. Haller Magee, former executive chef at Satterfield’s Restaurant in Cahaba Heights and Sky Castle, is charge of the kitchens for The Yard, Elyton’s restaurant offering Southern progressive cuisine.

Duffett also serves as an apprentice chef, with his work documented for class during his final semester of college. After he completes the fall semester, Duffett will continue his studies at the Culinary Institute of America.

Gold medal chef’s training began at home

Many young chefs get their start in a professional kitchen. Duffett’s cooking chops were honed at home, under the tutelage of his Dad.

“My Dad always cook at home for us,” Duffett said. “One day he announced that I would go to the store and buy the food for a meal, and each of us – my brother and sister – would cook a meal. I have a meatball sub that I like to fix. We have a family recipe, and it’s the thing my Dad likes to eat.”

In 2015, during his senior year at Hewitt-Trussville High School, Duffett enrolled in the culinary program.

“That’s where I met chef Anna Hallman,” Duffett said. “She really encouraged me in this career, to work hard.” Before taking the culinary teaching position in Trussville, Hallman served as a sous chef for 10 years at Kathy G and Co. in Birmingham.

Hallman advised Duffett to learn at several professional kitchens. He has since served under chef John Rolen at Bottega Restaurant in Birmingham, owned by noted Southern chef Frank Stitt. For nine consecutive years, Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill has been nominated for Outstanding Restaurant in America by the James Beard Foundation.

“Going to work in Bottega, I realized I liked a fine-dining type of kitchen,” Duffett said. “My specialty is sautéing, the stovetop is where I like to work. I like to work at a kitchen, which we call staging, that lets me learn and be exposed to new techniques and cuisines. I like to learn the ways of the cook.”

This winter, Duffett looks forward to starting at the Culinary Institute of America, a private college and culinary school that, for more than 70 years, has set the standard for excellence in culinary, baking, and pastry arts education.


Reaching for the high mark of success

Joe Mitchell, program director of the Culinary and Hospitality Institute at Jefferson State Community College, said that Duffett has what it takes to excel as a chef.

“Brian has the skills to be successful,” said Mitchell, who was a chef at the Opryland Hotel and at Mario’s Ristorante in Nashville, Tennessee. “At this point, he will grow and become a professional chef – we expect him to do well.

“You’ve got to be talented, persevere and put the work in,” Mitchell said. “Brian has all of that. You have to strive to be the best.”

Mitchell is thrilled that Duffett won the SkillsUSA competition. While he pulled off the big win, Duffett is the second Jefferson State Community College student in two years to receive honors. In 2016, Crystal Rogers took third place in the national event.

Like other Jefferson State culinary students, Duffett has taken his turn working in the college’s Bistro proVare restaurant at the Hoover-Shelby campus on Valleydale Road. Students operate the Bistro, which is open to the public and offers classic fare.

Fresh grilled salmon with rice pilaf, asparagus and beurre blanc, and mascarpone cheesecake are among the student chefs’ offerings.

“It’s a classroom, but the guests never know,” said Mitchell, who has led Jefferson State’s culinary program for 15 years. “The restaurant is an opportunity for students in advanced class to get real-life experience.”

The Bistro is open for lunch Monday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. during the fall and spring semesters.


Magic City’s future ‘Iron Chef’ to train in the Big Apple

Alabama folks are well accustomed to winning national football championships and other sports titles.

Mitchell sees Duffett’s success as a crowning glory, as well, for the state.

“Brian’s win is a jewel for Jefferson State, for Alabama and for the greater Birmingham area,” said Mitchell, who noted that Jefferson State’s program, whose curriculum was accredited in 1991, is the state’s longest running.

“Some culinary programs are three times as expensive, but when you look at our track record and the partnerships, Jefferson State Community College is such a good value,” he said.

After his big gold-medal win, Duffett knows he has no place to go but up.

“I want to have my own kitchen one day,” Duffett said. “I’m excited about starting the Culinary Institute and seeing what the future holds for me.”


and then this happened…

Written by Carolanne Roberts



Raised in Racine, WI, by doctor parents; undergraduate degree St. Olaf College, MN in psychology; M.H.A. and M.B.A. in health care administration and business management respectively, Washington University, St. Louis.



Working with emotionally disturbed children and teens in Tucson; after grad school: Methodist Hospital System, Houston; Hospital Corporation of America, Nashville (President-Eastern Group); HealthSouth, Birmingham (President and CEO)



“I found my career because of a non-degree class in health care administration I took while I was, in a sense, searching after I’d graduated. It was taught by Professor Johnson who took an interest and motivated me.”



That same professor was “very prescient, in my opinion—he told me the health care industry was moving at a very fast rate toward being more business-oriented than not-for-profit. This was in the ’70s and was huge to consider.”



“I was involved in social movements in the late ’60s and early ’70s and wanted a career where I could make a difference in society, where I could make a difference with my life—and I did what I set out to do.”



“Starting at HealthSouth immediately following the 2003 discovery of fraud; clean-up and repositioning of the company as its first CEO after the headlines.”



“I came with a high degree of confidence that we could be successful in keeping the company from bankruptcy and position it for ultimate growth. I did not believe that the Medicare system or the Department of Justice wanted to see HealthSouth disappear.”



The Grinneys travel for fly fishing in fresh water (Argentina/Kamchatka, Russia, where Melanie landed a 27-inch rainbow trout) and salt water (Bahamas/coastal Yucatan); he shoots quail, pheasant, partridges and more in South Georgia, South Dakota and Oregon. Add golf to the list too.



After leaving HealthSouth in December 2016, next step is role as non-executive chairman of the merging American Medical Response (largest ambulance company in the U.S.) and Air Medical Group Holdings.



Met and married wife Melanie. And fell in love with

Birmingham. “My most positive first impression was the great people here.”



Between jobs just out of college, the future CEO received food stamps for a short period. “It helped me appreciate that hard times can happen to anyone and that we should never take anything for granted.”


FOR THE FIRST TIME “I feel at home. I’ve lived in a lot of other cities and never felt the way I do here. Birmingham is home.”

Cool Spaces . . . . Open work space


Photography by Daniel Breland

For Birmingham general contractor Stewart Perry, environmental responsibility is no longer an option. It’s a mission. That sense of shared responsibility flows from their work projects straight through to their corporate home.

When it was time to relocate Stewart Perry’s corporate campus, they found a special place to build. Located on Overton Road in Birmingham, just off interstate 459, the campus is heavily wooded and home to a lake. The Stewart Perry team was awarded U.S. Green Building Council LEED accreditation, Silver status, for the project. HKW served as architect for the project.

Because of its proximity to coal mines, the building site had seen some abuse. The lake was tested and found to have been polluted in a way that was toxic to the area’s wildlife, so it needed to be rebuilt and restocked. The excavated coal tailings previously dumped there were used to construct a parking area for a nearby church.

Reuse and respect for the land is woven throughout the campus. The doors and ceilings are made from red cypress salvaged from one of the company’s building projects. The oak for the floors and siding came from a demolished tobacco warehouse in Virginia.

The campus is ever evolving. Today, it includes a woodworking barn and year-round vegetable garden. For Stewart Perry, these are constant reminders of who they are, how they think, and what can be accomplished when we respect everything around us.

The garden on the campus, for example, started with a small tomato patch and within a short time had expanded so much that the space needed a gardener. The area is now maintained by Katherine Murray and Matthew Smith of Magic City Gardening. They bring fresh produce into the office a few times a week, and the SP office team takes what they need for their families. Excess produce is shared with others, including customers or local shelters.

The polished concrete floors in the lobby and the quilt woven from willow branches from the property convey a warm welcoming experience. The table was crafted by Stewart Perry employees from maple salvaged from a job, and the stools were fashioned by Thom Moser of Auburn, Maine. Company Founder and President Merrill Stewart shares a special relationship with this craftsman, as he spent a week at their facility as a customer in residence.

In the design process, planners discussed everything from no walls for individual offices to three-sided offices. The resulting design includes 12 offices in the space, all similar and fronted by a large panel of glass to create an open feeling and offering some privacy when needed.

The wood ceilings and doors were fashioned from red bald cypress trees, salvaged from a project in Tampa. The oak flooring was repurposed from a tobacco warehouse in Virginia. Quilts sewn by Birmingham artisans are on rotation in the display case depending on usage and season. The large table in the center is made of cast concrete and is a convenient place for ad hoc meetings throughout the day.

The conference room sits in the middle of the lake with natural light and the reflection of the water among its best features. This, coupled with floor-to-ceiling windows, brings in a wash of light and color. The conference table is a square, so no one sits at the head. It was made by Tennessee artisans, Suzie and Tom Church, from the same red bald cypress as the ceiling. The imperfections in the wood were carefully patched instead of being discarded, and now add to the beauty of this one-of-a-kind piece. The two walnut tables were designed to reflect the work of architect Gordon Russell of Cotswold, England, who was instrumental in putting English craftsmen back to work after the war. The walnut came from a company project in Pennsylvania. Out on the deck, rocking chairs are in place for casual meetings, and the handrails are just the right size to balance a cup of coffee. The entire office, including the deck, has Wi-Fi access, allowing employees to sit outside while conducting business.

The kitchen is one of the most loved spaces in the building. In the warmer months, the garage doors are opened for company-wide cookouts out on the patio, beneath the sail shade. In cooler weather, after-work conversations frequently take place beside the fire pit.

The barn on the property isn’t just for storage. It is also a place for carpenters to experiment and make a variety of smaller millwork projects. A wood-burning stove heats the woodworking area in cooler months. Water silos capture about 40,000 gallons of rainwater annually. The exterior barn quilt was painted by the company’s neighbors, the children of Mitchell’s Place and their families.



Big Daddy Sauces knows how to pour it on

A Special Sponsored Report from the Alabama News Center

By Michael Tomberlin


Dwayne Thompson

His New Orleans roots gave Dwayne Thompson a keen sense for food, but it was his cooking in Alabama that birthed his business.

The Katrina refugee settled in Alabaster, where he catered for friends’ events to earn some extra money. His homemade barbecue sauce started getting noticed and person after person told him he should bottle the stuff.

So, in 2015, Thompson formed Big Daddy Sauces LLC and went through the licensing and other requirements to bring his sauce to market. His signature sauce is Big Daddy Bomb BBQ Sauce.

“It is a definite across-the-board sauce that’s just not stuck at just waiting until you put out your grill,” Thompson said. His family puts it one everything from chicken fingers to fish to pasta.

“I believe that this particular sauce is great,” he said. “I believe, just like Colonel Sanders believed, that I just happened to blend the right herbs and spices at the right blend to make it perfectly robust and very tasty.”

Others seem to agree. Sales of the sauce have taken Big Daddy from a commercial kitchen in Helena to Kyleigh Farm co-packing plant in Chancellor near Enterprise.

While the sauce can be found in Piggly Wiggly and other stores, Thompson still remembers and honors the beginning. 

“We started out at Tannehill Trade Days, so each third week of the month you can find me there because my start was there,” he said.

Thompson would like to offer his own take on mustard-based and white barbecue sauces as well as rubs and spice blends. But he also has hopes of helping others who, like him, are making a great sauce at home with friends telling them they should bottle the stuff.

“My endeavor is to hopefully someday be able to help someone else who might have a sauce and couldn’t get it out there,” he said. “I didn’t just want to have Big Daddy Bomb BBQ and leave it there.”


Big Daddy Sauces, Birmingham

The Maker: Dwayne Thompson

the Product:

Big Daddy Bomb BBQ sauce available in 10-ounce bottles and gallon jugs. Prices vary.

Take home:

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the details:

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Innovate Birmingham details emerge


A Special Sponsored Report from the Alabama News Center

By Michael Tomberlin


Bob Crutchfield, executive director of Innovate Birmingham, said the partnership is rolling out a five-lane strategy to grow the tech-based economy. (Michael Tomberlin / Alabama NewsCenter)

Innovate Birmingham is an initiative backed by some of the largest corporations, institutions and organizations in the city working almost exclusively behind the scenes to develop a strategy for the Magic City’s economy.

Now, Innovate Birmingham is using Birmingham Innovation Week to roll out its plan for shaping the region to grow and recruit the next generation of jobs.

Bob Crutchfield, a longtime venture capitalist and supporter of innovation, is the executive director of Innovate Birmingham.

“It’s very exciting,” he said of Innovate Birmingham moving to make the plan a reality. “One of the things that led me to take the role were great leaders from the community like Alabama Power, Regions Bank, UAB, the Community Foundation and the BBA who stepped forward and said we want to take a hard view of technology-based economic development and really turn it into an economic development strategy that creates predictable, repeatable and sustainable results.”

The BBA is the Birmingham Business Alliance. Other partners in Innovate Birmingham are the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, the city of Birmingham, Jefferson County, Protective Life, McWane Corporation, Southern Research, BBVA Compass, Innovation Depot, Alabama Capital Network, Birmingham Venture Club, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, REV Birmingham, TechBirmingham and Mayer Electric Supply.

Crutchfield said Innovate Birmingham’s strategy will focus on five lanes of activity:

  • Initiating a data project to assess commercial adoption opportunities with corporations of $35 million and above in revenue, along with an inventory of all technology companies in Birmingham and the state to segment them for mapping and matching.
  • Working with companies in startup, accelerator and high-growth phases to help with operational strategies, fundraising, strategic planning, mentoring and matching them with others who can help them grow.
  • Working with the Alabama Department of Commerce and others to look at economic development incentives and how they may be directed at startups to help them grow and remain in the state.
  • Launching a real estate initiative to identify and foster places for companies to locate or relocate.
  • Fostering an environment of economic prosperity and inclusion for innovation- and tech-based companies.

When Innovate Birmingham was formed, there was talk of establishing an Innovation District around Innovation Depot. Crutchfield said companies that graduate from the business incubation programs at Innovation Depot often locate nearby, but the district itself is not so geographically limited.

“The way we look at it is the district is our urban core,” he said. “We have a large urban core in Birmingham from Avondale to Parkside and from Southside to Uptown.”

With UAB, Southern Research, Innovation Depot and other elements, Birmingham is demonstrating its innovation acumen.

Crutchfield said there are other ways to measure innovation.

“Birmingham has 30 Venture for America fellows, the largest cohort of any city in the country, so that’s very exciting,” he said.

Art Tipton, CEO of Southern Research and a fellow in the National Academy of Inventors, noted the innovation of  patent-holding fellows who call the Magic City home.

“The National Academy of Inventors has 757 fellows,” Tipton said. “The population of the United States is about 327 million, so if you traveled around the country and you randomly talked to 420,000 people, you would find one member. The population of the Birmingham metropolitan area is just over 1.1 million, so if you do the same math, we should have between two and three members – and actually the math says we should have 2.6 fellows in the Birmingham area. We actually have eight.”

Crutchfield said with an environment of institutions  aligned unlike Birmingham has had before, Innovate Birmingham is prepared to grow the tech economy.

“The timing is now,” he said.


Start-Up City . . . . . Taking a bite


Written by Jenn Barnett

Has your family ever smiled appreciatively over the dinner table and tried to convince you that your homemade barbecue sauce, marinara, or salad dressing was better than anything you could buy at the store? Have you thought about packaging your brilliant hack for hypoallergenic skincare or eco-friendly laundry detergent?

You’re not alone. About 3,500 new Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) are launched every year, and that doesn’t include the myriad jams, sauces, and soaps you can buy at your local farmers market. Of those, 2,800 will fail within the first two years, while about 70 (2%) will knock it out of the park.

Just getting to launch requires hard work and sacrifice as you perfect your recipe, find manufacturers, and fight for shelf space as an unknown company. Expect to spend tens of thousands of dollars of your own capital and hundreds of hours doling out samples and traveling from store to store.

If you succeed that gauntlet, and if your product has found an audience, you might find yourself ready to scale production for a national rollout. CPG venture capital firms exist to get your product to the next level, with the cash and expertise to make your product a household staple—and maybe even get it ready to sell to a larger firm.

In Birmingham, Fenwick Brands is just such a firm. Founded by financier Benny LaRussa, Jr., son of a former Bruno’s executive who went on to franchise and then buy Jack’s Family Restaurants, the company prides itself on applying operational experience to the brands they invest in.

Notably, the firm boasts a staff of primarily women, a rarity in the financial world. President & CEO Melissa Baker and director of investments Elizabeth Stewart say this gives Fenwick Brands a clear advantage: “Our strong contingent of female employees gives us a hyper-relevant vantage point in CPG. Women drive over 70 percent of purchasing decisions, and in CPG this is very powerful.”

Baker and Stewart are two of the employees who get in the trenches with founders and their management teams. If you’re ready to bottle that barbecue sauce, they have some advice for you. “A brand must be authentic and have a defensible market position. We like to see businesses that have focused and done a few things very well. You don’t need to be everything to everyone.”


  1. What’s your elevator pitch?

We are a Consumer Packaged Goods equity investor and operator that provides expertise equity through growth capital and deep category experience to create brand value. Our team has extensive marketing, operating and management experience in the Consumer Packaged Goods industry. We invest active capital in brands at an inflection point that, beyond capital, need a combination of strategic and operational expertise to deliver maximum shareholder value. We look specifically at CPG companies with the ability to scale that have up to $25M of annual revenue. We target companies in categories where we can add strategic value and can take an active role alongside management teams.


  1. What’s your value proposition?

In addition to optimal capital, we commit strategic leadership to our portfolio companies. From branding, marketing, and merchandising; to operations, sales and distribution strategies, we shepherd entrepreneurial businesses to exit. Our flexible mandate allows us to take an opportunistic approach to investment structure, facilitating a Fenwick fit and an ideal solution for our companies. We are focused on finding the most compelling brands that align with our hands-on style.  We understand the pain points of founders operating with limited resources, and leverage our experience to help brands scale faster.


  1. Tell me about your founders and their experience.

Fenwick’s differentiated approach was born out of our Chairman Benny LaRussa’s appetite for opportunistic investing, his passion for the consumer space, and the idea that operational support for emerging businesses was the key to helping many brands achieve scale. Melissa (launched) Fenwick Brands with Benny and was instrumental in channeling the firm’s prior experience and collective skill sets to deliver “expertise equity” in the consumer market place. Beyond Benny and Melissa, Fenwick has built an robust and effective team with deep experience to support the strategy.


  1. How did you get the idea to launch Fenwick Brands?

We saw a consistent market inefficiency within emerging consumer businesses.   Brands often need not only capital but strategic/operating expertise as well. The Fenwick team is ideally suited to provide not only capital but strategic support for brands. We have coined the Fenwick solution to this inefficiency “expertise equity” which remains the investment thesis for our firm today.


  1. Why now? Why Birmingham?

We have deep roots here, and we always say to start in your own backyard. Fenwick and its principals have strong relationships with Birmingham-based companies, investors, and entrepreneurs. While we look nationwide for potential investments, we are excited about the Birmingham and Southeastern ecosystem.


  1. What are your competitive advantages?

Our team has deep CPG experience which we leverage to support the resource pain point of our brands. Whether it is branding, innovation, or supply chain management, Fenwick can help a founder or management team bridge gaps and create value.


  1. Where do you want the company to be in five years?

We aim to make one to two investments each year over the next five years. As we add value and scale those businesses, we will evaluate potential exit opportunities and execute those that are best for the brand.


  1. Who would you most like to connect with right now?

First and foremost, we’re looking for brands where Fenwick’s operating expertise can play a critical role in scaling the business. We often say we can get creative with terms and structure, but more importantly we need the alignment with the founder/management team on the strategic view of the brand opportunity and path forward. Investments are partnerships and while there is not a typical Fenwick deal, we focus on the inflection point and look to put $3 to 7 million of capital into the business. We take a flexible viewpoint provided the alignment exists.






Building a Bigger Bark

Written by Robert Linscomb

Photography by Edward Badham

The owners of Birmingham-based Southern Veterinary Partners (SVP) have their sights set on rolling up vet practices and animal hospitals throughout the South and beyond, touting the value of a veterinarian-led company that can bring practices under a profitable operational umbrella.

“We started in 2010 and now have 28 veterinary hospitals,” says Jay Price, CEO of Southern Veterinary Partners and also a local veterinarian.

Price, a graduate of Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine, bought his first clinic in suburban Birmingham in 2010 and now his organization is shopping for veterinary clinics all across the country. The company presently operates in 10 states stretching from Virginia to Texas.

“While the most active area for acquisitions is in the Southeast, we think our message resonates relatively well in the Midwest, too,” Price says. “It’s a pretty similar mindset.”

There are over 5,000 veterinary clinics in the Southeast, according to Price and many of those doctors would prefer to concentrate on providing quality healthcare for their patients and are very willing to cede the business related issues to companies like SVP.

There are several very large companies competing with SVP for buying rights to these veterinary clinics, including a household name that might be surprising.

Mars, Inc., one of the largest privately held companies in America announced this year the acquisition of Veterinary Centers of America (VCA) and its 800 hospitals. Mars already owns Banfield Pet Hospitals, BluePearl Veterinary Partners, and the Pedigree and Whiskas pet food labels. Mars, of course, is most famous for candy bars such as Snickers, Milky Way and Twix.

The massive move by companies like Mars into animal healthcare isn’t that daunting to Price, however.

“They don’t have a lot of business in the Southeast and we are still the only veterinarian-led group looking at these clinics,” Price adds.

SVP is backed by private equity investor, Shore Capital Partners, a healthcare focused group that is looking for long term relationships and have successfully developed investments across the healthcare spectrum. Shore Capital, headquartered in Chicago, and its partners have invested in physical therapy, ophthalmology, urgent care and dental practices all across the country. Justin Ishbia, managing partner at Shore Capital, serves as the chairman of SVP’s board of directors.

The majority of the veterinary clinics that SVP is looking to acquire are owned by veterinarians in the Baby Boomer generation, ages 55-75 years of age. These doctors face the same challenges that many other sole practitioners face – there is no legitimate way to capitalize equity.

“In the asset purchase agreement that is generated when we buy a practice, the majority of assets purchased are capitalized goodwill,” Price noted.

In some cases who gets to buy these practices gives SVP a clear advantage in the marketplace. In four states—Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and North Carolina—only doctors can own medical clinics. Price notes that in order to make a recent acquisition in North Carolina, he had to take exams to become licensed in that state.

According to Price, the market is filled with much larger prospects than they initially anticipated. SVP and its investors originally planned on acquiring practices that were generating $1-1.5 million in revenues. What they found were much larger hospitals, with owners that were willing to listen to the SVP pitch. So, instead of looking at smaller clinics, the group is now actively looking at larger, more profitable clinics.

The options seem murky for the veterinarians looking to sell. They can go the corporate route, changing the name and, potentially the style and nature of the local practice, or they could just sit still and depend on the business for their entire livelihood. Neither option seems particularly enticing to the veterinarians that Price and his team ended up courting. It opened lots of doors for SVP, and lots of opportunity, Price says.

SVP would much rather make a purchase and leave the veterinarian in place, continuing to practice the good medicine that made the acquisition enticing.

It also helps, Price added, to be able to offer great benefits to the staff after an acquisition is made. “We’re able to offer really good benefits, medical, paid time off and even retirement savings plans, and that really helps with the team,” Price says.

With so many veterinary clinics to look at, SVP now has three analysts working on acquisitions throughout the Southeast and into Texas. “We’re not going to buy the ones that don’t practice great medicine,” Price says.

Price says the culture and personality of the animal hospitals may be unique, but the problems never are; they tend to encounter the same problems at every new acquisition.

It helps, too, when the veterinarians become vested in the new ownership structure. Price says that 22 of 25 veterinarians have opted for an ownership stake in SVP. That helps motivate the doctors and helps tremendously with the transition to new ownership, according to Price.

Price and his team are actively recruiting veterinarians to staff the new clinics. His team is forming relationships with several veterinary schools and has hired student representatives at the University of Georgia and Auburn University. These representatives help vet students locate and secure internships and then help SVP focus on recruiting and placement.

SVP clinics are located in states with seven clinics in Tennessee, six in Alabama, three in Florida and Texas, two in Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia, and one in Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina.



Just the facts…

The market for veterinary services has consistently increased in size over the past decade, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, reaching approximately $33 billion in total output in 2014. This expansion might be attributable to multiple factors, including: an increase in the number of pets and other domestic animals; regulations enacted by state and federal governments to enhance animal welfare, prevent animal abuse and ensure that all animals receive the care they deserve; the evolution in the value placed on pets by their owners.

Several current trends account for the faster than average job growth in the veterinary industry. According to a recent survey by the American Pet Products Association, the number of households owning a pet has reached nearly 80 million, or 65 percent of U.S. households, its highest level in two decades. This ownership trend has fueled the need for veterinarians and animal care workers. In 2015, Americans spent more than $15 billion on veterinary care services.

At the 30 U.S. Veterinary Colleges, the average tuition and fees have nearly tripled, from $10,549 in 1999 to $28,845 in 2016.


Coffee with . . . . . . . . .

Kyle Cornelius is a partner of Lakeshore Benefit Alliance (LBA). After graduating from Ole Miss with a BBA in Economics, Cornelius began his career in the financial services industry as a financial advisor with Pittman Financial Partners. In 2008, Cornelius and several other advisors at Pittman Financial founded Lakeshore Benefit Alliance to focus more directly on employee benefits and health insurance consulting.  Since its formation, Lakeshore Benefit Alliance has experienced tremendous growth, particularly in the area of health insurance consulting, where they are a leading expert on this subject.

Haig Wright II serves as president and CEO of Byars|Wright Inc., a family-owned and independent insurance agency with offices in the greater Birmingham area, and has more than 35 years of agency experience. Wright is also the current president of Alabama Independent Insurance Agents and a designated Certified Insurance Counselor (CIC).

A family man and father of four, he is a board member of the Bank of Walker County and actively involved with Rotary Club, Walker Area Community Foundation, and First United Methodist Church of Jasper. He received his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Alabama.


What are the biggest opportunities in your business these days?

Cornelius: Where there is uncertainty there is opportunity, and there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty surrounding the future of health insurance. What we have experienced lately in the employer health insurance market are rapid changes to health insurance options, skyrocketing premiums and increased out-of-pocket costs. In response, all of us at Lakeshore Benefit Alliance are working to develop creative ideas and products that will help our clients lower costs, knowing that their employees need their protection. Going forward, we understand that we operate in a marketplace that is overdue for change and we believe that one of our greatest strengths is our ability to remain nimble and quickly pivot when the marketplace demands it.

Wright: Opportunities in our industry, and specifically for our agency, lie in two areas: Agency mergers/ acquisitions, and producer recruitment. Byars|Wright’s growth over the last several years has come from both of these areas. We feel our agency culture is attractive to owners who are looking for ways to perpetuate their agency. We rely on our core values each day to help us build a company that others like to call home and believe we are a good home for producers to learn and to grow their book of business.

As a loss control partner for our clients, we continually look for ways to enhance our value-added services such as coverage analysis, loss control and claim advocacy. Our basic customer service standard will always be ‘treat others as you would like to be treated,’ and our company motto will always stand true: Relationships Matter.


What are the biggest challenges you are facing?

Cornelius: We have seen the options in the major medical insurance market narrow, and it is my opinion that this is largely due to over regulation. In today’s regulatory environment, major medical insurance companies are increasingly limited in their ability to innovate and create options for consumers.  Ultimately, I think this “one size fits all” approach hurts the consumers, insurance companies, and healthcare providers in the long-run. But rather than sitting back and hoping things will magically improve, Lakeshore Benefits Alliance believes in a proactive approach, which is why we continue to develop solutions for our clients that give them the freedom to make their own choices and not rely on the government for answers.

Wright: As an industry, one of our biggest challenges is in the automobile line. Both commercial and personal automobile insurance is a challenge for insurance companies due to the increasing number of accidents. Unfortunately, this increase can be attributed to distracted driving. This is a challenge our entire country faces, and one that must be addressed to lessen the frequency and severity of automobile accidents. Until then, a rise in automobile liability rates is expected.