James E. “Jim” Stephenson tends to give a big-picture answer when people ask him about the Caterpillar equipment he sells across Georgia as chairman and CEO of Austell-based Yancey Bros. Co. “There is nothing in your daily life that hasn’t been touched by a Caterpillar machine or engine,” he said.
As the 67-year-old prepares to take the helm of the most prominent business organization in the country—the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—he is every bit as far-sighted about the role of business in American society.
“American business pays for everything in this country,” Stephenson said. “If you get a paycheck—whether you work for the government, a hospital or a nonprofit like the Boy Scouts or the Red Cross—all of that money comes from either taxes or donations that were made by either American businesses or their employees.”
In June, the U.S. Chamber’s board of directors elected Stephenson to a one-year term as vice chairman. He will lead the chamber as chairman the following year. “As vice chairman I am kind of a chairman-in-training,” Stephenson said. “Right now I’m developing my plan for what to do when I’m chairman. What should my specific, personal priorities be during that chairmanship?”
One item will certainly make his agenda: Sticking up for American businesses against perennial attacks that they “put profits before people,” Stephenson says. “We’ve got a situation where about half the people in the country think business is bad,” he said. “American business really needs defending and promoting.”
In this arena, Stephenson already has some practice. Over the years, he has been a tireless advocate for pro-business policies at the state and federal level, particularly when it comes to improving our nation’s infrastructure, noted Thomas J. Wilson, the current head of the U.S. Chamber, and Chairman and CEO of Allstate Corp., in the press release announcing Stephenson’s election.
Located in Austell since 1969, 103-year-old Yancey Bros. employs about 1,200 people across the state. Stephenson became its fourth owner back in 1994 and has grown the privately owned, family business by starting new ventures such as the Cat Rental Store, Yancey Engineered Solutions and Yancey Bus Sales & Service, which sells Blue Bird school buses across Georgia. The former construction attorney has also made strategic acquisitions such as buying a dealership that enabled Yancey Bros. to cover all of South Georgia, giving the company reach across the entire state. “Part of building a good team is being able to show them growth opportunities,” Stephenson said. “As a company, we need to grow. It’s more fun to be part of something that is growing than it is to be part of something that is shrinking.”
He knows the truth of that statement firsthand. In the aftermath of the Wall Street meltdown, construction in Georgia largely ground to a halt, and the demand for Caterpillar equipment plummeted right along with it. Confronting the need to dramatically slash expenses and lay off valued personnel was Stephenson’s greatest challenge in two decades of running Yancey Bros., he says. “Our new-machine sales declined by almost 90 percent, and we saw a 50 percent drop in parts-and-service sales,” he recalled. “It was very hard on everybody on our team. You’d have to go back to the 1930s to find something that hit our customer base as hard as that Great Recession.”
Yancey Bros. managed to stay in the black throughout the crisis, but seeing people’s lives directly affected by the downturn strengthened one of Stephenson’s core beliefs—what is good for business is good for America. “We need to protect the strength and flexibility and innovative capacity of American business,” he said. “We do not need to shackle it, cripple it or overtax it. We need to unshackle it and enjoy the benefits.”
Today, thanks to the ongoing economic recovery, business at Yancey Bros. is booming again, and the company is in hiring mode.
In bringing new people aboard, Stephenson tries to spend at least an hour with new employees to personally explain how to carry out the company’s mission (“Serve, Solve and Succeed”). The new hires can expect to work with any of about 5,000 Yancey Bros. customers hailing from sectors such as forestry, construction, energy and agriculture. Many of them face the challenge of learning both the detailed technical specs of diverse equipment by Caterpillar and other manufacturers, as well as staying abreast of the rapidly evolving needs of the company’s customers.
“I also explain the difference to them between a private company and a public company,” Stephenson said. “And that is, the buck stops with me. We don’t have to go to a board of directors or worry about shareholders and Wall Street. I just do what I think is right. If they see something that isn’t right, they can tell me and I will do my best to fix it.”