In high school Joe Max Higgins lived with his father. This was the mid-70s. They lived in Paragould, Ark., a place 90 miles northwest of Memphis, and the old man was sheriff.
Home was downtown, tight to the county jail, and most nights, after young Higgins made his 11 p.m. curfew, he would slip over to the jail and sit with the dispatch guys. Around midnight, one of them would make popcorn and share with the kid. So for a handful of years, there sat Joe Max Higgins, eating popcorn, listening and watching as every walk of life filtered in and out of the jail.
A few years later, at Arkansas State University, his grades got so bad his father finally said, “You know, son, college isn’t for everybody,” and Higgins got a blue-collar, offshore gig. He made good money for a couple of years and had good times, but there were layoffs now and again and the repetition of manual labor left him unfulfilled, so he decided to go back to Arkansas State. With a transcript as bad as his, he had to go before the college admissions board. Whatever he told them, it worked. They let him back in to study geography and urban and regional development. He graduated at 27 and set off on a career that in 2003 brought him to Columbus as CEO of what is now the Golden Triangle Development Link.
EXPECT TO WIN
Bring up his name around Columbus today and you get half smiles and heads slowly shaking. It’s not disapproval. It’s this: People don’t know where to begin.
In a decade, as the driving force behind economic development, Higgins has lured about $4.5 billion worth of industry investments to the area. With that have come thousands of jobs. Those numbers are important, but they only tell half the story. Before Higgins came to town, the approach to development, according to one longtime elected official, was “let’s just keep getting by.” Higgins showed up, noticed the available infrastructure — railroads, waterways and highways — and turned the area into a player. Now, when industries are looking to relocate or open shop in the Southeast, the people of the Golden Triangle feel they are capable of landing them. This change of outlook Higgins fostered is best summed up by J. Gordon Flowers, a local attorney who currently chairs the Link’s board of directors.
“We expect to win,” Flowers said from behind his office desk in downtown Columbus. “He showed us we can be winners.”
And people are grateful.
It’s when you ask — “How?” — that shoulders shrug in bewilderment. People struggle to explain how this short, rural Arkansas-bred 54-year-old with a Falstaff belly, brusque manner and penchant for salty language has worked so many successful deals.
Asking him is no good. A person’s own gifts are often as unknowable to him as the sound of his own voice. But dealmaking, stripped to the bone, is about understanding the person across the desk and then getting him to believe.
Joe Max Higgins’ first course in understanding people came while hanging around his daddy’s jail in the middle of the night. His first taste of making someone believe came when he stood shaking in front of that admissions board wanting a second chance.
He’s been a natural dealmaker ever since.
I met Higgins for the first time this past August at the Link’s offices on Main Street in Columbus. It was to be an hour interview. Nearly two hours later I staggered out to my truck. The man can talk. Words to describe his energy level: high and endless. To keep up with himself during 70-hour workweeks, he used to drink two six-packs of Diet Coke a day. He quit that habit, though, and now stays fueled with Spark, an energy powder in a pouch he mixes in bottled water. He does two a day. His head hurts if he doesn’t. His coworkers know where he keeps the pouches.
Civic leaders and elected officials around the Golden Triangle adore Higgins. (“Smartest guy I’ve ever been around,” said Harry Sanders, president of the Lowndes County board of supervisors.) Helping bring more than 5,300 jobs to an area and expanding the tax base will do that. But it hasn’t always been the case. Six months after he got to town — he came from his hometown in Arkansas, where he was director of economic development for Greene County — there were subtle rumblings about it not working out. His up-front nature rubbed some the wrong way.
“If you don’t want to hear the truth, you’re going to get your feelings hurt around the guy,” Thomas Lee Sr., the owner of Lee-Sykes Funeral Home, said. “People around here were used to it being sugarcoated. Joe’s not a sugarcoater.”
Lee was on the search committee that brought Higgins to the Link. He cannot remember a word Higgins said during his initial interviews. What he can remember is his demeanor and confidence. That is what impressed Lee.
“He sold himself,” Lee said. “To sell anything, you’ve got to be able to sell yourself. If you can’t do that, it’s a lost cause.”
Lee is fond of football analogies. Explaining Higgins’ manner, he compared him to a coach and said, “If you’re going to win national championships, you can’t be meek and in the corner. If you’re going to win, you’ve got to get out and tell people what you think.”
That’s the other thing always driving Higgins: He likes to win. His license plates offer the quickest proof. The one on his F-150 reads “2EQLAST.” The one on his 350Z convertible reads “2ISLAST.”
“Those tags say it all,” Sanders said.
Higgins, as is his nature, was no less blunt when explaining his itch to succeed.
“Winning deals is good,” he said. “That’s fun. That’s exciting.”
STEEL & HELICOPTERS
After those initial personality clashes were worked out, Higgins settled in and went to work. In 2003, he helped land American Eurocopter. That company built a facility in Lowndes County that employs 125 people and builds helicopters. It was a $10 million investment and, Higgins said, changed the tone. “Now we make shit that flies,” he said. Two years later he helped snag Severstal, a steel mill that employs 450 people and represents a $945 million investment. Two years after that came PACCAR, a manufacturer of diesel engines for trucks that employs 500 people and was a $500 million investment.
He’s whiffed, too, and he’s not shy about sharing those numbers. He defines a loss as having hosted an executive that ultimately chose another location to place their industry. By Higgins’ estimates, the Golden Triangle has missed roughly $10.3 billion worth of investments that could have all together created 22,000-plus jobs. Higgins’ take on the misses is something like a comparison to Babe Ruth, the baseball player who hit more home runs than almost anyone but also struck out the most.
Even in defeat, people notice his efforts. In 2006, when the Golden Triangle was in play to land a KIA facility, Higgins hired a consultant to work the South Korea-based car manufacturer overseas. He wanted daily updates from the consultant. Because of the time difference, Higgins had his staff gather in the Link’s downtown Columbus office each night at midnight for weeks to take part in conference calls with the consultant.
“It’s things like that that most people don’t know about,” Sanders said. “All they see is his energy. And his cussing.”
The deal that best exemplifies Higgins’ approach is also one of his most recent. After three decades of work, it is the one he calls his “signature project.” In September, Yokohama Tire Company broke ground on a facility in Clay County. When the tire-maker’s Mississippi plant is operating at full capacity in 2023, it is expected to represent a $1.2 billion investment, employ 2,000 people and produce a million tires a year.
“Probably, at the end of the day, the reason it is my proudest deal, is where it was and when it was,” he said.
Higgins and his staff lured the Japanese company into a rural Mississippi county with 20,000 residents at a time when Clay County had the highest unemployment rate in the state.
How did they manage? No secrets, Higgins said. Just listening, understanding and reacting.
“This business is not cigars and whiskey in the back room,” he said. “It doesn’t work that way. No, no, no. You’ve got to listen to these guys and figure out what their hot buttons are. Yes, they want something. But what’s the driver on it?”
In preliminary and private meetings with Yokohama’s executives, they stressed the need for an on-site training facility for their human resources department. Higgins caught on and figured how to factor in a $7.5 million deal to help pay for it. That part in the bag, Yokohama officials were worried about the proposed location. Higgins remembers them bringing this up twice in one conversation. The Clay County area isn’t zoned, and the Japanese officials were worried about another industry coming in and hampering their operations. Higgins’ solution: buy a 570-acre buffer around the company’s 1,500-acre site.
“We put restrictive covenants on it that will not allow anybody else to use it, except industry, and we gave them right of first refusal on who gets it and who their neighbor is,” he said. “Problem solved.”
The people on the periphery of the deal say Higgins’ focus on details and ability to adapt at a moment’s notice also helped snare the company. One of the first times Japanese executives visited the proposed site (in terms of size, Flowers likened it to “an army invasion”), Higgins outfitted his F-150 pickup with Yokohama tires to make an impression. Another time, when they flew in on a helicopter and the ground was too wet to land, Higgins helped coordinate a landing spot on a nearby road, which required several powerlines to be temporarily lowered. But Flowers said this detail stood out for him: Higgins had wallet-sized cards displaying everyone’s cell phone numbers printed, laminated and passed around. That way, if something fell through, everyone could communicate seamlessly.
“That’s impressive, Joe Max,” Flowers said.
“That?” Higgins responded. “We do that with everything.”
Days before the Yokohama deal was formally announced, Higgins and a handful of other Golden Triangle representatives were at a dinner at the Governor’s mansion. After a Yokohama official said the company had chosen Mississippi, Flowers asked one of the executives what pulled them toward the Magnolia State.
“He looked at me and said, ‘We could feel the energy in Joe’s skin,’” Flowers said.
THE END RESULT
The Golden Triangle has benefitted from Joe Max Higgins and his work. There are the obvious benefits that come with transformational economic development, and then there are the intangibles: The question people are asking is no longer, “What if?” The question now is, “What’s next?”
For what he gets out of it, let’s end on a scene.
Earlier this year, he was out near the Lowndes County Industrial Park. Alone, he began thinking about something a friend told him in his Arkansas days. In the arena of economic development, people point to dollar investments and jobs created for signs of success. But the friend told Higgins to think about the four-wheelers that had been bought, and the boys who had gone hunting with their daddies because of jobs they had gotten. Think about the prom dresses mommas had bought their daughters. Higgins, watching cars come and go at the industrial park, thought about that.
“We’re not just creating jobs,” he said, “we’re creating changes in lifestyle.”
For a moment, reflecting on the story, it was almost as if he was going to tear up. But he didn’t. He’s Joe Max Higgins, and he said, “That humanizes a lot of shit.”