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Top 40 Under 40 leaders in business

Every year, it seems improbable. But the Mississippi Business Journal staff calls every new Top 40 Under 40 class “the best ever.”

It would be difficult to top the Class of 2003, perhaps the most diverse in Top 40’s history. In addition to the usual roundup of accountants, attorneys, bankers, doctors, dentists, educators, and insurance and IT professionals, the roster also includes advertising and recording industry executives, an auto dealer, an interior designer, a general contractor, a commercial broker, two restaurateurs, a few politicians and a coroner who is also a politician (he’s heard all the jokes).

In the last several years, many of the top young professionals switched careers or stepped into another facet of their profession, and quickly became noted as rising stars. Heather Floyd of Jackson was an English teacher at Northwest Rankin High School when, at the age of 30, she joined Mississippi Home Corporation (MHC), where she rose to assistant vice president of development. Before Robby Channell became an award-winning publicist and Kimberly Noel Sweet opened an auto dealership, both were award-winning journalists.

Several members recently returned to school to earn an advanced degree or specialized training to advance their careers. After an eight-year career in the U.S. Air Force, where he served as a member of the Strategic Arms Reduction Team that monitored and negotiated unilateral arms reductions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, John Kehoe earned a college degree in 1999 and an advanced degree in 2002. At Raytheon Aerospace, where he is director of information technology, his idea to make the IT division profitable instead of a merely administrative function has helped make him a respected leader.

Others, like Gail Crick Eaves, made the transition from sports standout to business champ. As a Lady Rebel, Eaves was selected to the Academic All-SEC all four years of college and, as a senior, was chosen NCAA Woman of the Year for Mississippi. Today, the 32-year old CPA is co-owner of Kirkpatrick & Eaves in Louisville.

Some classmates excelled without ever changing jobs. Mary Spring Graham, a former student at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, is now its vice president.

The 2003 class hasn’t been afraid to make changes to reach their goals. Kristi Brown thought she landed her dream job several years ago. When it didn’t pan out, she joined the Greater Starkville Development Partnership, where she has excelled as vice president of community development and chamber executive director. Michelle Pollard had a brief, yet successful, career in fashion merchandising, first in sales, then as a buyer and store consultant, before she switched careers and entered the healthcare profession, where she is now one of three administrators for Jackson-based Gilbert’s Home Health. When Trace Swartzfager was 23, he walked into the office of Charter Hospital CEO Jim Johnson and said his goal was to one day have his job. Impressed with his candor and ambition, Johnson convinced the hospital to pay for Swartzfager’s education and promoted him to assistant administrator. Today, Swartzfager is vice president of St. Dominic-Jackson Memorial Hospital.

“Most observations I’ve been hearing have determined that this may be our strongest group of achievers yet,” said Robbie L. Bell, director of special projects for the Mississippi Business Journal. “Business success is very important, but it is the community involvement record that distinguishes the winners.”

The Top 40 Under 40 Mississippians are seemingly everywhere in the community. They help raise funds and volunteer time for special projects for American Diabetes Foundation, American Heart Association, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America, Community Stewpot, Easter Seals, Habitat for Humanity, HeARTS Against AIDS, Junior Auxiliary and Rotary International, to name a few. You’ll find them front-and-center in professional and trade organizations. They serve as Sunday school teachers, youth sports coaches and Salvation Army bell ringers.

They are movers and shakers in local chambers, art councils, education foundations and community projects that make a difference. Through JBHM, interior designer Wenbren Everhart donated time to turn the interior of Echo Hospice Chapel from “an empty shell of brick and mortar” into “a place of peace and solace,” said a colleague. Australian born Jackson attorney Aileen S. McNeill spent nearly two weeks last summer helping to build a Habitat for Humanity house.

As is customary, MBJ asked the Top 40 winners to complete a probing questionnaire to give us insight into their psyche in preparation for their bios. Some answers are predictable, but there are always surprises. For example, award-winning restaurateur Jeff Good admits he is a “lousy cook.” Tommy Couch Jr. of Malaco Records claims he has no musical talent. Ole Miss professor Brian Reithel rides dirt bikes, and Madison dentist Lance Dillon races motorcycles cross-country. Kristi Brown enjoys turkey hunting with her husband, Steve.

As usual, a common thread among Top 40 recipients was their intense devotion to family. Marjorie Taylor, director of the Greenville Higher Education Center, and her husband traveled to Vladivostok, Russia, in October 1998 to adopt two infants. Mary Graham’s husband, Wayne, resigned from a lucrative pharmaceutical job to be a stay-at-home dad.

Two class members are enduring the most difficult of life challenges: adjusting to life with physically challenged children. In 1997, John Hairston’s youngest daughter, Kennedy, was diagnosed with an untreatable terminal illness, mitochondrial myopathy, at the age of six months. Tim Threadgill’s third child, James, spent 96 days in the neonatal intensive care unit before coming home. Grand Casinos executive Trudy Fountain hopes to soon compete in ESPN’s Ms. Fitness Competition “to show that people with lupus do not have to just give up.”

Top 40 recipients without children of their own have indubitably involved themselves with children in the community. Chris DaQuila co-sponsored a two-week youth trip to Paris and London in 2001, and plans to co-host another trip this summer.

The youngest member of the 2003 class is John C. Cox, 28, municipal court judge for the City of Cleveland, whom colleagues describe as “wise beyond his years.” Eight classmates are 39: Joe Barlow, Michael Dudley, Jeff Good, John Hairston, Diana Mikula, Brian Reithel, Marjorie Taylor and Dorian Turner.

All Top 40 recipients agreed that having a sense of humor was vital to business success. John Hairston said, tongue-in-cheek, that he would love “to detect the gene that causes people to drive slow in the left lane, and eradicate that gene from the face of the earth.” For a day, Jackson attorney James Blackwood, might like to trade places with Elvis — in his heyday. “Fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches in the Jungle Room. Take in some karate, and buzz the Peabody with Lisa Marie. I might also like to be Yoko Ono to get to the bottom of that whole Beatles breakup.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com</a.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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