Dean Barber

Mike’s Paradise

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on October 10, 2015 at 9:42 pm

In life’s journey, we meet people who affect us in ways that we may not fully understand or appreciate until years later.

But sometimes, we chance upon those whom we quickly recognize could have a huge impact on our life. It is usually because of their talent, integrity or resourcefulness.

And it is those people, the influencers, whom we remember forever.

The email came to me on a Sunday night and it was a kick to the gut.

“Dean, my friend, I am terminally ill … and I wanted you to hear this from me before anyone else.”

Two weeks later, my friend, my mentor, Mike McCain, the finest economic developer that I ever knew, but more importantly a kind and decent man, had died.

Mike was the executive director of the Gadsden-Etowah County Industrial Development Authority in Gadsden, Ala. To say that he was good at his job would be an understatement.

We Had Made Our Plans

I’m still having a tough time with this, as this was not the way it was supposed to be. We had made our plans. Let me explain.

It was Sunday night, Sept. 13, when I got Mike’s devastating email.

The next morning, Mike and I were on the phone, and he was his old cheerful self, as if all were well. He told me that he had maybe three or four months to live.

It was cancer, to which he had refused treatment. Mike said that it was too far advanced and the odds were way too stacked against him to put up a fight.

He said he broke the news to his board and community, and continued to work half days in the office. The pain was not bad with medication, and he said he kept his legs elevated in a recliner when he got home.

What Could Be Better?

A man of faith, he told me that he was looking forward to moving on to that other shore, which he called “Paradise.”

“What could be better than that?!,” he asked rhetorically.

He said he had a good life and that he was thankful. And then he thanked me, which left me grasping for words.

Finally, I blurted out, “I really would like to come see you, Mike. But I don’t want to impose.”

I remember him saying that he would welcome seeing “my old pal Dean one last time.” He always called me pal.

Later that afternoon, I emailed him my travel plans. I was to fly into Birmingham on Friday, Oct. 30th, and drive up to Gadsden that afternoon.

“Now if you are too sick to see me, I will understand. I don’t want to do anything that taxes your strength or for that matter intrudes on your privacy,” I wrote.

Mike’s response was classic Mike, as it showed he was foremost thinking of others: “Whoopee!  I get to see Dean again! This is an expensive imposition on you, and a pleasure for me, pal. … I can’t wait!”

Mike died in his recliner at home on the morning of Sept. 28th.

I cannot help but feel that I failed Mike. Mind you, he would never have thought so, but I should have made my way to Alabama immediately upon learning of his illness.

I only learned of his death this past week, four days after his memorial service, which saddens me even more.

Saving a City

The last time I saw Mike was about a year and half ago. I was in his office and he pulled out a newspaper clipping from 1987, two years after he took the job in Gadsden.

It was a story that I wrote about him when I was a business reporter for The Birmingham News. I had completely forgotten about it.

The story centered on what can only be described as Mike’s valiant efforts to save his city. The two largest employers, Goodyear Gadsden, and Gulf States Steel, were on the brink of shutting down, which would have meant the loss of thousands of jobs.

Mike, a veteran economic developer who had previously worked as assistant director of the Alabama Development Office, kept his head about him. He worked tirelessly with both companies, crafting incentive plans that lowered operating costs and kept the doors open.

Gulf States Steel eventually did close in 1999, but by then Gadsden was on a much better footing and could absorb the blow. And that is largely because of Mike’s success at recruiting other companies to his community and development of the Bevill Center at Gadsden State Community College.

I wrote about Gadsden’s response to the crisis and Mike’s leadership in a 2013 blog called Walking the Walk: How Vo-Tech Ed Saved a Town.

The Fit Must Be Right

I transitioned from the newspaper to the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama in 1998.  Mike, more than anyone else, taught me the ins and outs of industrial recruitment and the wants and needs of a company.

He was one of the few economic developers that I know who would actually turn down a project because it would not be the right fit for the company.

He would say something to the effect, “This is a great project, but they need more welders than we in all good conscience can supply. So we’re going to have to pass on this one.”

I did bring him a project that he would hit a home run with. Prince Metal Stamping, a division of The Narmco Group, a Canadian concern, operates a 132,000 square-foot plant and a 247,000 square-foot plant at the airport industrial park in Gadsden.

Teacher, Colleague, Friend

Mike’s success was due to the fact that he knew his community like the back of his hand, and he knew how to craft deals. He seldom traveled for business development, but he was the most effective closer that I have ever met.

In later years as a consultant, I could run ideas, some of which were not so good, by Mike. He would always make the time to give me valuable advice.

He was truly selfless in that regard and made me feel valued and important. In a world where we are all too busy, that is a rarity. So he was a teacher, a colleague, a friend, and a good man. One of my great influencers.

In in our last telephone conversation, I mentioned that we hadn’t spent much time together in recent years.

“But it’s been quality time,” Mike replied. And so it was.

A man is but a man, an outgrowth of his thoughts and actions, for good and bad.

In the tradition of Christianity, we are all flawed creatures, broken by the Original Sin, but through God’s grace are accepted into His Kingdom, this place that some call heaven.

Mike McCain called it Paradise, and I am sure he is there. I just hope that one day that I will get to see my old pal again.

In the meantime, I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm based in Dallas.  If you liked what you read here, invite him to speak at your next meeting. Dean can be reached at dbarber@barberadvisors.com or at 972-767-9518.

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  1. Dean, my condolences on your loss. Sounds like Mike was quite a guy, someone worthy of that other shore.

  2. Beautiful tribute.

    Sent using OWA for iPad ________________________________

  3. Dean,
    Thanks for posting this as I had not heard the news. Mike and I started in the business close to the same time, or at least started crossing paths through SEDC in the ’80s. I have honestly not seen him in some time, but the last time I did he went out of his way to make it happen. A small group was in the process of creating a unique workforce center before I left Tennessee (which came together just after I moved on; and maybe a small chapter in the book i will write some day) and visited his Community College. He was busy that day but made a special effort to meet us and spend some time with me catching up with economic development and life.
    I had the opportunity to see a friend of mine in Norfolk four or five months before he died last year. A friend asked me to check on Mark because he and his family were going out of the country for a couple weeks. It was the last time I saw him so I was glad I made it happen. Lesson learned. If at all possible, don’t miss an opportunity to see an old friend when the diagnosis isn’t good.
    I’ll offer my prayers for Mike’s family today.
    Frank

  4. Dean – Great tribute to an incredible man! Like you, I learned some of my most important economic development (and life) lessons from Mike. He was simply the best!

    Greg

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