Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Hibbett Neel, President and CEO of Neel-Schaffer, and learn about his long business success, the company, and some of Mississippi’s infrastructure needs.
Born in Smyrna, Tenn., Hibbett defined himself as “the black sheep of the family,” as he chose a career path that was somewhat different than what his family might have expected. As it turned out, he made a very wise choice. He was attracted to engineering, math, and science, and thought that “civil engineering would be pretty cool.” After a stint serving in the Army in Germany, he wound up working for a consulting firm, doing traffic studies for big cities. Ultimately, through a former Army acquaintance, he wound up coming to Mississippi in 1974, and ultimately, Neel-Schaffer was born.
“We started out putting up street name signs in Jackson,” he recalled. “There weren’t many in those days, and from there, we went on to many other infrastructure projects, including water treatment and others.”
Today, the company has grown from 20 employees in 1983 to more than 450, and has 38 offices spread around the United States, serving the needs of many cities and states, and emerging as one of Mississippi’s premier companies. The firm provides engineering services of all kinds across 28 different service and product lines. Still, it’s clear that Hibbett’s heart is where his home is … in Mississippi, and equally clear that he really cares about our state and its people.
“We really do have great people in this state,” he said. “I’m very confident that we’re positioned for long-term growth and prosperity, and as a state, we definitely have great resources that we can capitalize on for the future.”
He pointed to agriculture, the Gulf Coast, a great manufacturing environment, supportive government, and adequate water resources to sustain our growth down the road.
That doesn’t mean that he isn’t keenly aware of some of the pressing infrastructure needs in Mississippi.
“We see other states working hard to keep up with their infrastructure needs,” he said. “After all, we’re only as good as our infrastructure.”
Among other things, he pointed out that Jackson has over 1,100 miles of streets, and that it would take $70 million to “fix those streets, and another $7 million a year to maintain them.”
He also pointed out that Jackson’s water woes will require “hundreds of millions” to correct.
“You know, the pipes in Jackson are 100 years old, and today, they’re losing more than than 40 percent of all the water that goes through the system.”
He joins other senior executives in a conviction that improving the economic and social health of Jackson is essential to Mississippi’s overall prosperity.
“I guess we can conclude that the can has been kicked down the road for too long in Jackson,” he said. “But in some ways, the can has gone about as far down the road as it can go.”
He believes that ultimately, the Legislature is going to have to “kick in some money for capital improvement in Jackson.”
Despite those challenges, he sees many encouraging signs.
“I really like the street changes in downtown Jackson,” he said. “I see it as an improvement in safety and functionality.”
He joins others in believing that one of the keys to improving Jackson is getting “young folks to move downtown, and that will help to revitalize the whole community.” As he sees it, this is beginning to happen, “and the more attractive we can make it for those new residents, the better.”
What was behind the business philosophy that built Neel-Schaffer to its current size?
“In my thinking, you can never be satisfied,” he said. “You have to constantly innovate and be alert for great new opportunities, and that’s what helped to carry our success to other states.”
As he sees it, the key is always in “finding the best people, and placing them in the right jobs.”
Looking back through the years, he recalled that “I was really scared when we were in the early stages of building our company.
Today, I see the young folks as being more fearless and that’s going to mean some great companies and opportunities for Mississippi in the long term.”
Those young folks can certainly take heart from the success of Neel-Schaffer.
A brief video interview with Hibbett can be seen on our website, MSBusiness.com, or on our YouTube channel, mbjournal.
Contact Mississippi Business Journal publisher Alan Turner at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 364-1021.
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