PROFILE: Person of the Year: Yvonne Murray
By Emily Sparacino
Photos by Keith McCoy and Contributed
Clad in a sleek blazer, a pearl necklace and snakeskin kitten heels, Yvonne Murray sits in the lobby of McLeod Software Corporation’s building in Meadow Brook Corporate Park early one morning in October. When she’s not posing for photos she’s talking about where her busy work schedule has taken her lately. “We’ve had four trips in the last month,” she says. The “we” includes Yvonne’s colleague, Melody Whitten. The women make up the two-person leadership team behind Shelby County’s economic development organization, 58 Inc.
“I do enjoy traveling,” Yvonne, 33, continues. Car rides with Melody—like the one they just took to Atlanta for work—often turn into two-hour sessions of talking and laughing. It’s not all business all the time for the duo, but Yvonne, 58 Inc.’s managing director, and Melody, the director of development, certainly get things done. “We’re different, but we complement each other.”
As the photo shoot wraps up at McLeod—the first big project Yvonne was involved with when she came on board at 58 Inc.—Yvonne suggests a quick visit to the former Valley Elementary School in Pelham, a site the city plans to redevelop into something more useful for the community, she says. She has about an hour before she needs to be at the Pelham Civic Complex for a Greater Shelby County Chamber of Commerce luncheon—an opportunity to network with people and to support the chamber, which shares office space with 58 Inc.
It’s another busy day for Yvonne, albeit another day she’s clearly embracing just as much as her other days not-so-much at the office. (She travels a lot, remember?) But how did Yvonne find herself at the helm of Shelby County’s economic development? Like the local projects that consume her working hours now, it was all about preparation and timing.
Setting the Stage
When Yvonne was a child, she started watching the news almost every morning. She’s not sure why. How many children sit down and watch the news unless they’re required to as part of a school assignment? For reasons she didn’t give much thought to as a 12-year-old, she valued listening to the daily reports about what was happening around the world.
When she was in the seventh grade, she traveled to the Philippines, her mother’s homeland. The eye-opening experience stuck with her. “I observed children who were my peers in age at that time struggling on the streets of Manila, and I began to ask a lot of questions,” she says. “I eventually found that the impact of politics on an economy was a passionate subject for me, and that was pervasive to all scales from the economy of an entire country down to the economy of a small business or a family.”
After turning the tassel on her mortarboard at Oak Mountain High School’s graduation ceremony in 2003, Yvonne started her college career at UAB, earning a Bachelor of Arts in political science and her master’s degree in public administration. “I think back then my perception was that I would end up going to law school and then head to Washington, D.C., to serve in some capacity,” she says. She interned for the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham as an undergraduate at a time when the agency was experiencing a “pivotal and positive cultural shift,” as she calls it. “During my internship I actually supported a transportation planner and a Geographic Information Systems manager. I found that I liked the tie of technical, numbers-based work into public service.”
Her internship got her foot in the door at RPCGB, but her work got her a full-time position. She started as a community planner, a new concept to her, but one she embraced. “Within six months, I was working economic development projects and loved it,” she says. “I had been previously exposed to it in a couple of ways: I spent some time at the Bessemer incubator, and I conducted some economic development research as a graduate assistant at UAB.” Ten years later, Yvonne came face-to-face with an opportunity in Shelby County that was too exciting to pass up.
Yvonne was content enough at RPCGB to picture herself reaching retirement age there. But something—maybe the same unknown compulsion that glued her young eyes to the television set every morning for the news—urged her to strongly consider this potential career move to a new economic development entity in Shelby County called 58 Inc. “There was just something in my gut that told me to chase this position,” she says. “I’m from Shelby County, and I live in Helena. There was a lot of draw to the fact that I would be able to work where I lived, and it didn’t hurt that the Helena-to-downtown-Birmingham commute is a challenge.”
The interviews were lengthy and in-depth, but Yvonne felt like she connected with her interviewers. “They were challenging, but in a fun way. It was refreshing to see panels of board members and community leaders so passionate about a position.” And then, she was offered the job. “It felt right,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong – I was completely shocked.” She officially started as managing director of 58 Inc. in November 2017.
For the few months Yvonne spent her time getting to know the lay of the land and making sure people knew who she was and 58 Inc.’s purpose in fostering industrial, commercial and retail recruitment and retention efforts and workforce readiness initiatives. “We were really fortunate to come in at a time where local leadership is cohesive and local companies are growing,” she says. “We have helped quite a few companies grow this first year.”
Perhaps her most important task when she started with 58 Inc. was to help close the deal with McLeod Software Corporation on relocating its headquarters to a larger facility to consolidate its 300-plus employees into one location. Mission accomplished: McLeod has made its new home in Meadow Brook Corporate Park off U.S. 280. “Their new space in Meadow Brook is going to a catalyst for reinvigoration of that corridor,” she says. “There’s a vision for that park to become a technology park that is supported by a lot of groups, and I personally love it. I grew up right there and have walked that trail in Meadow Brook many times. To see and help that park revitalized and turned into something cutting edge would be a big deal for me.”
The next item on the 58 Inc. agenda was to tackle the existing the business community by establishing a schedule of Business Retention and Expansion visits. “We go in and meet with on average three businesses each week to discuss what they’ve got going on and what they need,” Yvonne says. “We use that information collected to drive what programming and responsive activity we implement.”
58 Inc. has successfully partnered with the city of Columbiana on a hiring fair and helped establish an apprenticeship program with employers ready to hire and train needed workforce members. “This model is really exciting because it allows a recent high school graduate, unemployed person or existing employee looking to grow to work and go to school at no cost,” she says. “The company gets to train an employee while they’re learning and scale the wage as their skills increase. In addition to all of this, we’ve been working closely with our municipalities on a variety of projects around recruitment. We’ve made some promising progress on developments and sites around the county that we hope to share as we are able.”
Although it was scary for her to leave her first work family at RPCGB, Yvonne’s ties to Shelby County helped ease her transition. “I see friends from high school or their parents constantly, and having that connection to people helps,” she says. “Economic development is about people. We want the communities to know who we are and trust that we are trying to support them.”
For her, it’s also about setting an example as a successful woman leader to other women and young girls. “I have an aptitude for math and science, and I love data and numbers. In the past, that wasn’t ‘cool,’” she says. “I love that it is now becoming more widely accepted. I embrace that nerdy piece of myself and love it. We get funneled an image of what our lives are supposed to look like and how we are supposed to behave, but this isn’t the day and age of cookie cutter where we all follow a structured recipe. This is the day and age of 3-D print. We have to be flexible and adaptive to change, and there’s no time to worry about ‘the way it’s always been done.’”
Yvonne’s title of managing director of an economic development entity for a county of about 213,000 residents is impressive enough, but she’s also a Certified Economic Development Finance Professional, the result of her completion of courses on economic development funding, deal structuring, credit analysis and project financial analysis. “To this day, I keep those textbooks handy because I find value in them,” she says.
Melody says Yvonne’s thoughtfulness, loyalty, trustworthiness and outgoing personality shine in everything she does. “She also loves her family and friends and truly values genuine relationships,” she adds. “As a colleague, I have found her to be intelligent and insightful, a combination that allows her to communicate effectively and positively impact our processes and program of work.”
Switching Gears and Talking Shop
What you might not guess is that this economic development guru by weekday turns into an automotive junkie with her husband by weekend, testing the limits of their latest Jeep on different off-road courses in the region. Cars are what brought her and Stephen together in the first place. “I grew up watching my dad work on cars, and when I was in high school I found myself surrounded by friends who had an interest in cars,” she says. “The Fast and the Furious movies had just come out, so it was big back then. When I was in undergrad, I had a part-time job as a receptionist/salesperson in an automotive performance shop here in Shelby County. My husband worked at another automotive performance shop at the time, and from there the hobbies have just evolved over time.”
She credits Stephen—a “mechanically-minded person that can work on anything,” she says—with introducing her to motorcycles. “He got me interested in riding, and I love it. I took the MSF motorcycle safety course at the University of Montevallo to learn how to ride. I highly recommend it. We’ve also had four-wheelers, but there’s a much smaller learning curve there.”
Now, they’re on a Jeep kick. Stephen had one before they met, and in 2013, they each bought one and heavily modified them to drive off-road. Fittingly, the they are members of a Jeep group called Bham-JK that had more than 1,500 members at its peak and hosted monthly rides and meet-and-greet events. They’ve sold their Wranglers and taken a hiatus from the rides now, but lately, Yvonne and Stephen have focused on restoring and upgrading her 1983 Jeep “Woody” Wagoneer.
“I have loved those vehicles for quite some time, and in the spring I had the opportunity to purchase one for a great price,” she says. “It was a single-owner vehicle, and I even have the original window sticker and sales books. The body and interior are in great shape. It’s in 100 pieces right now because it’s getting a Chevy LS swap. That motor will modernize the vehicle and make it a little more powerful.”
Fast cars and rock-crawling Jeeps have also given Yvonne and Stephen friends too, including Taylor Lupo, manager at 4 Wheel Parts in Pelham, and his wife. Taylor isn’t surprised when Yvonne stops by the shop before the Greater Shelby County Chamber of Commerce luncheon on the photo shoot day.
“You wouldn’t believe the personal connection she makes with people once they realize that she loves Jeeps and off-roading,” Melody says. “I’m always amazed at how she can talk fluently about lift kits, engines, tires … stuff I know nothing about … but it certainly amps up her ‘cool factor’ and eases the conversation with some folks. It’s one of the unique, fascinating features about her that catches you off guard if you don’t know her. But don’t be fooled; she loves manicures too!”
Ready to Recruit
If Yvonne has learned one thing about economic development since joining 58 Inc., it’s that the field impacts most other fields. “You have to be at least a little bit versed in a lot of things,” she says. “I didn’t anticipate that I would dig so deeply into the operations, culture and science of so many types of companies, but I really love that piece of it.”
And to say she’s well-versed in her field is a gross understatement. Yvonne has completed her Certificate in Public Leadership and the Coach Development Program from the Brookings Executive Education program in Washington, D.C., and she is a Certified Economic Development Finance Professional. Her familiarity with Shelby County from growing up here is one more checked box on the list of reasons she has excelled as an economic development leader here. “It surprises me about how many people are excited about the work we’re doing,” she says. “What’s neat about Shelby County is everybody’s close and familial.”
Her short list of goals for the county in the next decade reads something like this: growth in population and workforce; college graduates returning (and with friends) to live here; new businesses starting and further diversifying the local economy; and new jobs in the region that are closer for Shelby County residents, cutting down on commute times and traffic issues. “The workforce now is our biggest challenge,” she says. “We don’t have enough people to fill new positions. We need to keep hometown people and graduates here.”
For it all, Yvonne pays careful attention to preserving the beauty and character of the county.
Although Melody says Yvonne has too many strengths to list, the running joke between the two is that Yvonne is the data queen. “She is excellent at research and quantitative analysis, but also has tremendous experience with start-ups, financial analysis and grants,” she says. “These skill sets are extremely beneficial as we respond to RFPs, assist entrepreneurs and seek out funding sources.”
Yvonne can spout facts and figures about the area all day long, but she can also tell clients and visitors that Pelham Diner has pancakes the size of hubcaps and the waterfall in Old Town Helena is one of the most scenic spots in the entire county. It’s easier to recruit someone to a place you love, right? “Having grown up in this area, I love being close to my family and raising our daughter here,” she says. “And I love that my friends have come back and are raising their kids here.”