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2019 Horatio Alger Award Recipient

James W. Ayers

Executive Chairman of the Board

FirstBank

“You don't have to be the smartest person in the room or born with money. You just have to be willing to put forth the effort.”

James "Jim" Ayers was born in 1943 in a small town in western Tennessee called Parsons. His mother was married and pregnant when her first husband died suddenly. A single mother, she worked as a bank teller to support herself and her young son. Before long, she met and married Jim's father, who made a living from a portable sawmill. The family lived on the worksites, pitching a tent and camping until the lumber work was completed. After that, they broke camp and moved on to the next job.

"My mother thought this would be fun," says Jim. "But after three years of hot summers and cold winters, she was becoming disenchanted with their living situation. Before me, she had a baby that had the Rh blood factor. In those days, they couldn't help him; he died three days after he was born. That's when my mother insisted on having a real home."

Jim's father bought a parcel of land in Parsons and built the house in which Jim was born and where he lived until he left home for college. A few years after Jim's birth, his sister was born. She too had the Rh factor, but she survived.

In those days, the timber business was cyclical. Jim's father and brother still owned the family farm from their youth, and they supplemented their income with what they could raise on the farm. After Jim's sister started school, his mother opened a small flower shop in town, which further helped with their finances.

"We always had food to eat, mostly from the farm, and we had a decent house," says Jim, "but there was never much money. Times were tough for everyone in that region."

Jim's father was known as the hardest working man in the area. "A routine day for him was 12 hours of work, leaving before daylight and getting home after dark. That was something he passed on to his children: the importance of manual labor, working with your hands. If a man didn't have calloused hands, my dad sort of looked down on him. Both my parents believed in hard work. At the same time, they hammered it into my head from an early age that I would get an education so that I would not have to work as hard as they did."

A self-described entrepreneur from the time he was eight years old, Jim's first job was shining shoes for 10 cents a pair. At the age of 10, he was driving a tractor on the family farm, putting in 8 to 10 hours of labor on the weekends. One day, he got the idea that soy beans, one of the crops his father grew, made good ammunition for pea shooters. He got some small cardboard boxes and put a few soybeans into each box. After loading his product onto his bicycle, and he went door to door selling his peashooters for 10 cents a box. Jim explains, "My dad sold 100-pound bags of soybeans for $3, so I figured I was going to make more money than him selling the same thing, but marketing it differently. My business was doing great until I made the mistake of knocking on the door of one of my mother's friends. She called my mother to tell her what I was doing, and before long my mother showed up with the family car, loaded my bike in the back, and took me home. That was the end of my soybean selling."

When Jim's father decided to plant peanuts, he gave Jim the job of operating the peanut sheller for the seeds they needed for replanting. "It was a very dusty process," says Jim. "After school, I would go down to the storage building where we kept the peanut sheller and I would work until my mother would drive down to get me at about 7 or 8 o'clock. She would drive me home, and I would have to take a bath immediately to get all the dust off. After that, she would have my supper ready. That was a job I did all the way until I went to college."

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Jim's other high school job was selling books for the Southwestern Company. At the age of 16, he traveled to McComb, Mississippi, to join the company's summer sales force. He stayed in a boarding house and was paid $10 a week to knock on doors, selling mostly Bibles.

Jim attended the University of Memphis, where the in-state tuition was $82 per semester. His parents helped him during his freshman year. During his sophomore year Jim married and soon thereafter the couple had a baby. "After that," says Jim, "my father sat me down and told me he loved me, but it was up to me to provide for my family. I got a multitude of part-time jobs and never took another dime from my father."

Jim graduated with a degree in accounting in 1965 and joined Ortho Novo, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, as a salesman. He enjoyed the job, but when Jim was 22, his father passed away. "I guess all that hard work he did finally caught up to him," says Jim. "My dad and I had a special relationship. We were very close. He died 50 years ago, and I still get choked up when I think about him."

To be near his widowed mother, Jim moved with his family back to Tennessee. After a few dead-end jobs, he answered an ad to be the controller of a nursing home company in Memphis called Care Inns, which was a publicly traded company. Not long after Jim started there, the corporate office fired everyone but Jim and the two bookkeepers working under him. When the CEO called Jim into his office, he assumed it was his turn to be fired. To his surprise, the CEO offered Jim the presidency of the company. "I was flabbergasted," says Jim. "I had never even come close to dreaming something like this could happen. I had worked hard and was putting in 60 to 70 hours a week, which I guess got me noticed, but I still couldn't believe I was being offered the presidency. I told the CEO I didn't know anything about running nursing homes, but he seemed to have all the confidence in the world in me and told me I would figure it out."

In less than two years, Jim had turned the company around and was making a profit. After that, he was offered an opportunity to go into business for himself and a partner, managing the nursing home contract he had just landed in Nashville, Tennessee. Jim accepted the offer and temporarily moved into the nursing home to save money, leaving his family for the time being in Memphis.

Six years later, Jim's company had several national contracts to train nursing technicians and either hired them for his own company or found jobs for them within the industry. At that point, the company divided the business 50/50, and Jim was the sole business owner in Tennessee. He built a nursing home in his hometown of Parsons, which became the first of many.

In the mid-1990s, Jim sold the nursing home business. He partnered with a friend to buy the Farmers State Bank in Scotts Hill, Tennessee. He invested $750,000 and served as the CEO of the bank, which had seven employees and a total of $14 million in assets. Soon thereafter, they began adding branches. Within two years, their total assets were $36 million. At that point, Jim's partner wanted to sell him his half of the business. Jim went on to acquire the First National Bank of Lexington, Tennessee, and changed the name to FirstBank. He quickly merged that bank with the Bank of West Tennessee, then acquired the NationsBank branch in Camden, Tennessee, followed by the purchase of First State Bank in Linden in 1999, and the Bank of Huntingdon in 2001. Today, Jim Ayers is executive chairman of FirstBank, the third-largest Tennessee-based bank, with assets of $5 billion, 66 locations, and 1,500 employees.

When he hears himself described as an entrepreneur, Jim says, "To me, that's just a long word for common sense. When you are developing a business, you spend time trying to figure out what could go wrong and doing all you can to minimize the possibility of that happening. I think I just acted logically, and, as a result, things worked out well."

Jim is most grateful to his father, who told him at an early age he had to be independent and do all he could to take care of his young family. "My parents did me a favor by not helping me too much," he says. "I'm also grateful that they emphasized the importance of education to me. I never would've gotten my first job with Ortho Pharmaceuticals if I didn't have a college degree. I'm not sure my diploma made me a better salesman, but it opened that first door of opportunity for me and I took it from there. I learned how to sell when I sold Bibles door to door, when I sold soybeans as peashooters, when I shined shoes, and when I talked to farmers as I shelled their peanuts. That's how I learned how to sell."

As Jim experienced success in his own career, he was determined to create opportunities for others from a similar background. Over the past 20 years, he has given more than $100 million to remove the barriers that inhibit students in rural areas from going to college. For those who graduate high school with no drug or alcohol offenses on their records, Jim's foundation offers last dollar scholarships to any accredited technical school, community college, or four-year university. Before his program was put into place, the rate for Parsons high school graduates continuing on to college was less than 30 percent. Today it is 85 percent.

Jim Ayers has transformed the lives of thousands of rural students and galvanized change in the educational landscape across Tennessee. He asks that students who take advantage of what he is offering stay away from drugs and alcohol and dedicate themselves to getting as much out of their college experiences as they can. Beyond that, their levels of achievement are up to each individual. "You don't have to be the one with the highest IQ," he says. "But you need to want to succeed more than just about anything else. If you want to be a great golfer, you have to practice every day. If you want to do well in business, you have to give your company a great deal of your focus, your time, and your energy. If you do that, I believe you will have success."

Today, Jim has several challenging health issues. He is legally blind from macular degeneration and has significant hearing loss, but he brushes aside these disabilities as insignificant. "Most people my age have challenges," he says. "Mine aren't any worse than some of them. I could sit around and feel sorry for myself, but I consider myself one of the luckiest people on this planet. I have a loving, supportive wife and my children and friends are very important to me. I'm grateful for all the goodness that has come my way. My handicaps are more of a nuisance than anything else."

Honored by his Horatio Alger Award, Jim says, "I had the greatest parents anybody could ever hope for. On the night I receive this award, I hope my parents are looking down on me. I believe in everything this award stands for. Really, it's doing what your grandmother would tell you to do: don't get into trouble, get higher education, work hard, and persevere through challenges. If you do that, you will succeed. That's really all it takes. You don't have to be the smartest person in the room or born with money. You just have to be willing to put forth the effort."

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James W. Ayers

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