One of four sons of a Cuban mother and engineer father, Stephenson spent most of his childhood in Texas. He received a scholarship to Yale University, then obtained a law degree from Duke University.
In 1975, he came to Atlanta to work as a clerk at the Smith Curry and Hancock law firm, where he remained for 18 years practicing construction litigation. Early in his law career, he met and married his wife, Donna, whose father was the principal owner of Yancey Brothers.
“He asked me to come to work for the company, but I did not,” Stephenson said. “Four years later, he sold it to his younger brother, Goodloe Yancey.”
Fifteen years later, in his mid 40s, Stephenson bought the company from Goodloe Yancey.
“The law practice was good, but what you build in a law practice retires when you do,” he said. “You can’t pass it on or sell it. There is satisfaction in building something that goes on.”
He and the other board members have continued to elect his uncle — now in his early 80s — as chairman.
Stephenson says he purchased the company as the country was coming out of a recession.
“We had a great run through the ’90s and through most of the first decade (of the 2000s),” he said.
In 2002, Yancey Brothers acquired Carlton Company, the Caterpillar dealership in south Georgia, expanding the company’s territory to include the entire state.
In 2006, when the construction market crashed, “it was almost like a switch turned off,” Stephenson said. Without the need for heavy equipment for the building industry, the company suffered for the next three years.
He says 2009 was the worst year, when new machine sales dropped by 75 percent and parts and service dropped by 50 percent. Through cuts and attrition, the company reduced employees by 40 percent, going from 1,400 employees to 800.
In 2007, Yancey Brothers became the exclusive dealer for sales, parts and service in Georgia and Alabama for Blue Bird Bus Corporation. In 2009, Stephenson joined five other southeastern Caterpillar dealers to purchase Pioneer Machinery, adding forestry and recycling equipment to its catalog.
The same year, the company purchased two commercial truck dealerships in south Georgia and opened seven Yancey Truck Centers. Stephenson also reorganized the company and moved resources into Yancey Machine Division, which sells mission-critical generators to data centers, government entities and health care facilities.
While the recession put many heavy equipment dealers out of business, “We’ve been fortunate to have those other businesses and product lines to help ameliorate the earth-moving business in metro Atlanta,” Stephenson said.
Today, the company has 850 employees and remains headquartered on the 50-acre campus on Lee Industrial Boulevard, visible across from Six Flags over Georgia on Interstate 20 West.
“Our people from top to bottom have been hurt — setting aside the ones that are no longer here — the folks that are still here endured pay and benefit cuts,” he said. “There has been a lot of stress in this company for a long time. We have a group of leaders that now have invaluable experience that will allow them to make good decisions.”
Bill Hammack, Jr., president and CEO of C. W. Matthews Contracting Company, calls Stephenson a recognized leader within Georgia’s transportation community.
“Jim has worked tirelessly over the years to promote and improve all forms of transportation within Georgia,” he said.
As the company looks forward to its 100th anniversary in 2014, Stephenson looks back, saying, “This was a tremendous opportunity to be a big part of Georgia’s growth and history.”