The dictionary defines a wake as “A track, course, or condition left behind something that has passed.” Like a boat on the water, our lives leave a wake, as well. The question is whether we are intentional about the ripple effect of our lives. I enjoy studying the lives of leaders who have not just “talked the talked, but have walked the walk” over a long period of time. The wake of their lives demonstrates a legacy of leadership and service. Anyone can have brief periods of excellence; however, my greatest respect is for those who have demonstrated effectiveness over a lifetime.
W. Hibbett Neel, co-founder and CEO of Neel Schaffer, Inc., is one of those leaders who has made a real difference through a lifetime of leadership. A native of Smyrna, Tenn., he graduated from Vanderbilt University with a bachelor of engineering and earned his master of science in civil engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology. He served in the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers as a company commander and rose to the rank of captain. After his military service, he served as assistant state traffic engineer for the Tennessee State Highway Department. He went on to work with Hensley Schmidt Inc. where he served in a number of leadership roles. In 1983, Neel co-founded Neel Schaffer Inc., a multi-disciplinary engineering firm, with Gorman Schaffer and a total of 20 employees. They formed the firm with four guiding principles: Serve the community in which we live and work, provide multi-disciplined services of the highest quality, give back to the community and pledge to be employee-owned. They have stuck true to their principles and the firm recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. Today, the firm has over 400 employees and has regional offices in nine states from South Carolina to Texas.
Neel learned the value of hard work and discipline early on. He had a paper route from the 5th-11th grade and is an Eagle Scout. He was in the ROTC while at Vanderbilt, and he shared that his time in the military taught him the value of discipline. As a business leader, he believes, “It’s not about the money – it is about giving employees an opportunity to become better leaders themselves.” Neel follows the philosophy of Sir Winston Churchill who said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”He shared, “Your leadership is all about leaving a legacy.” He encourages business leaders to have a core set of values to live by, and “encourage others to live by that set of values as well.”
Neel noted that, “People and societies are constantly changing.” He is a champion of the entrepreneurial spirit, and encourages others to “find where opportunities are and develop vision, an action plan, and persistence.” He places a strong emphasis on execution. Neel shared the quote, “Having vision only, without action, is just a daydream. Having action only, without vision, is just spinning wheels. Having vision, alongside action, is you can accomplish anything.”
One of Neel’s most significant accomplishments is his legacy of leadership in his community and profession. He has committed significant time to community organizations such the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership, Jackson 2000, Catholic Charities, Mississippi Economic Council and Mississippi Blood Services. A strong believer in diversity, Neel created scholarships for disadvantaged minorities at various universities and began a mentoring program for upcoming minority firms at Neel-Schaffer. Neel is also president-elect of the Institute of Transportation Engineers, an international educational and scientific association of transportation professionals with over 17,000 members.
Neel’s early career caused him to move around a great deal. After moving seven times in six years, he and his wife planted their roots in Jackson. Our community and state have been a beneficiary of that decision ever since.
» Martin Willoughby is a business consultant and regular contributing columnist for the Mississippi Business Journal. He serves as Chief Operating Officer of Butler Snow Advisory Services, LLC and can be reached at martin.willoughby@ butlersnow.com.
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