Bill Edwards, CEO, The Edwards Group
Serious business: Bill Edwards on success, soccer, St. Pete and the secrets to creating a brighter future
On this episode of SPx, Joe is joined by Bill Edwards, CEO of the Edwards Group and the Bill Edwards Foundation, and a well-known businessman and philanthropist. Edwards, who arrived in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s, discusses the run away success of his Mortgage Investors Corporation, his contributions to downtown including the renovations of SunDial, Al Lang Stadium and the Mahaffey Theater, his strong work ethic and his unwavering dedication to helping his community.
- In 1993, Edwards arrived in St. Petersburg from the midwest to start a business offering mortgages to veterans. The average loan was $50,000 - $75,000.
- Mortgage Investors Corporation had 45 offices in 45 states, and employed 25,000 people nationwide.
- In the company’s first year, the company financed loans totaling approximately $55 million. In 1998, the figure reached $3.6 billion.
- The company did $57 billion in its initial 20-plus years, become the No. 1 veteran lender in the United States.
- The company’s foreclosure rate was less than 1 percent. “Veterans would rather pay their house bill, and starve, than miss a payment,” Edwards says. “I’m a veteran myself, OK? Former Marine from Vietnam.”
- On what drives him: “I’ve been working since I was 7 years old … I can’t just sit around and not have the stimulation of having a problem, and trying to find a solution for it.”
- One of his first community-building projects was the expansion of All Children’s Hospital, and its expansion to becoming part of the Johns Hopkins system.
- When he purchased BayWalk in 2011, it had been closed for several years. Although Edwards admits the expedient thing would have been to tear it down for condominiums, he decided to make it SunDial, the “town square” for the high-rise residents of the neighborhood.
- He bought the Tampa Bay Rowdies without ever having attended a soccer game. “The first game I went to, I owned the team,” he says. “I was asking the coach, ‘what do we do to win the game? What’s the rules?’”
- By acquiring and promoting the Rowdies, Edwards says, he knew he was bringing people downtown. “The Rowdies game was 90 minutes, starting at 7:30 on a Saturday night. You got 6, 7,000 people in your downtown, then your bars thrive, your restaurants thrive, all the rest of your people thrive. Because they’re done at 9, 9:30 … they’re going out.”
“I’ve always made money by doing things other people aren’t willing to do.”
"You don't find successful people, you create successful people by working with them and training them and teaching them, having the patience, and giving them a decent job, and paying them a decent wage [to] be able to live."
Lifting People Up
Finding What Drives You
Development of St. Petersburg
Meals On Wheels and Helping the Community
Current Community Needs
Transcript begins [00:00:54.11]
Joe: Joining me on SPx is Bill Edwards, welcome sir.
Bill: Thank you for inviting me and it’s nice being available this morning.
Joe: I refer to you affectionately as my white whale that I’ve been wanting to have this conversation with you for over a year now. And you’ve got a few things going on so it’s hard to get ahold of you and I feel good about it finally happening, so thanks for joining me.
Bill: Well, thanks for having me. All right, so what’s on your mind Joe?
Joe: Well, what’s on my mind is what’s in your mind. You know, you do so much in St. Pete and for St. Pete. You’ve built, and owned, and transformed so many different pieces of downtown. You have a lot of different businesses outside of the community building things, but I’m really curious as to what drove you. You know, a lot of times community building things can be less profitable then widget factories or the music business or whatever. What drove you to want to be so active and big in all of the things that you’ve done to transform St. Pete?
Bill: Well, I think I probably have to digress a bit I’ll tell you. Back in somewhere around 1993 or 1994 I brought a division of a small company out of Cincinnati, Ohio to St. Petersburg. And it came to St. Petersburg to visit one of the lenders that I was using to do mortgages. And what we did was we did nothing but veteran mortgages. We decided to focus on something that no one else wanted because veteran homes in those days were, and still are, you know, smaller homes. And, you know, the average loan when I started this thing was about 50 to $75,000 for a veteran who had a home. And so in lenders, the people who are out there doing mortgages and doing all these things, they told me when I used to go to the mortgage bankers association meetings and stuff that I was dealing with blue collar workers and 50 to $75,000 homes. And one $300,000 home is four or five of my loans and I’d never make any money at it and so forth. And I come back and I go guys, we’re going to make a fortune. And do you know why we’re going to make a lot of money and we’re going to be successful is because I’ve always made money by doing things other people aren’t willing to do.
So, we decided that we would just focus on, and the only thing that we did for almost 25 years was veteran loans. And in our first year we did about $55 million worth of veteran loans. And I can still remember the first party we bought our own food, a Christmas party, we bought our own foods and I had a DJ I could afford in those days. And he said he had 800 songs and he brought about two or three CDs and I went well, where are the 800 songs? Well, you didn’t pay for the 800 songs that I have. [Chuckle] So, I remember in those days in four years of working hard, a lot of people working hard, we took the company from $55 million to in 1998, that was 1994, 1998, we did $3.6 billion. Nothing but veteran loans. And again, we were under the radar, no one paid attention to us. And all the great guys [unclear 00:03:58] and Bank America and all of those guys were doing every other loan but veteran loans.
And so , you know, and we were re-financing veteran loans. And so, with that in mind, we grew. And as we grew we went from state to state. And over the 20+ years that we were involved we did about $57 billion worth of business in veteran loans, just nothing but veteran loans. And the reason we succeeded is because first of all I opened my office here on central avenue, where I’m still setting by the way. Not in the same building, but bus street. And we opened it up here because this is the bus route. And in those days we made a lot of phone calls that’s how we would reach out to our customers. And so, we had a lot of people working here and a lot of loan officers. And we would travel, we went to the veteran’s home, we sat at their kitchen table and petted their doggy, and you know and so forth. And I’m a veteran myself so it bothered me that they called them veterans, blue collar workers, low class people, low class citizens, you know, and so forth when I was getting into the business.
So, we decided that we would hire people. And how I hired people was we would talk to them on the telephone and if they could speak good English and they could, you know, and so forth, we brought people in that basically I think we probably employed over 20,000 people in St. Petersburg over the years. So, anybody that reached out and knew the company’s mortgage investors corporation in this city, you know, I know that there’s a person on the city council that once worked in my company and now they’re on the city council. So, we reached out to a lot of different people. And what happened was by reaching out to the people in the community we hired people that considered themselves pretty much unemployable because they didn’t have a car, they didn’t have the education they needed. But we trained them and we took the time with them, and we built them into successful people, many of which are still working and doing well today.
You know, there’s people in our company today that have been here 24 or 25 years, that’s how long this has gone on. So, what we did was we built a company that in its heyday had about 3,000 employees nationwide. We had 45 offices in 45 states and we did this all over the country. And what happened was in 2006 I decided that the subprime loan market was scary and I couldn’t compete with veteran loans. I stopped doing it, I had to lay the people off. And in August of 2007, 350 or more big companies, banks, GMAC, Bank of America, Country Wide, everybody they all collapsed. And they collapsed and there was a website called mortgageemployed.com and every day you would check to see who was going out of business. And I watched that for a while. And in August of 2007 I decided, you know what? There’s nobody loaning money to anybody, I think I’ll go back and do my veteran loans again. And we were probably the only lender in the United States that was lending money for homes in 2007. And if you recall back to 2007 it was horrible, everybody was closed, everybody was collapsed, the economy was destroyed and we were thriving.
Going into 2008 it really cranked up and until 2013 we just went to work and we provided a ton of mortgages. We had a year we did $7 billion, $7.5 billion, but mostly every year we were doing two, three, four billion worth of mortgages out of this little place down on the corner of central avenue. Again, the people here had a job for 20, 25 years, we paid them above average pay. When I first started we would have five, six buses pull up and the people would get out of the buses and they would go to work. And if you came to work on time for two weeks in a row we would increase your pay by $2.00 an hour and we would also give you a bus pass. And pretty soon somewhere along the line I realized that I had this wicked parking issue. And I said how the hell do I have a parking issue? And what happened was the people were coming to work on the bus.
I noticed one day that there was only one bus, it wasn’t five anymore, it wasn’t six. You know, and they made enough money that they were able to buy their own cars and now I had this big parking problem across the street from me was a Christian Science reading room or something and there was usually a big parking lot empty and I rented 300 spaces over there. And we had so many people here we had to find ways to get out on this, you know, mirrors so people didn’t get into accidents and we had security that directed traffic and we had spaces between the shifts so that the people who left had time to get out of the spaces so other people that came could get into the spaces. And it turned into a company that lasted for over 20 years. And in that course of time we provided veterans with $57 billion worth of housing. So, that’s how it all started. And during that period of time those same people who were all over the city, I heard every story, you know, we worked in mid-town, we tried to help get – You know, they got a grocery store and then they lost a grocery store. We were involved in trying to get the new grocery store and we did. And we put money into that and we realized that the people in the city who made us all this money were the people that we wanted to help and that’s how this all began.
Joe: Interesting. So, what changed between iteration one and iteration two of the company with regard to the credit profiles or how you were doing business? You know, you stopped the first time and then came back in 2007. How was the company different the second time then the first?
Bill: We were the only ones lending money, so there’s no competition whatsoever.
Joe: All right, that makes life good.
Bill: Well, it does to a point but then it makes you a target because we became the #1 veteran lender in the United States.
Bill: And so everybody keeps records. And so, you know, the rest of Bank of Americas, and the Wells Fargo, and everybody who didn’t do these loans all of a sudden looked and said how can it be that you’re the number 1 Ginnie Mae issuer? Because, again, nobody wanted to buy the loans. And so what I did is I carried the loans, I serviced the loans. And we had billions and billions of dollars’ worth in loans that we turned into securities with Ginnie Mae, and we were servicing them. And by the way, our foreclosure rate was less than 1%. The one thing that I knew about veterans was that they would rather pay their house bill and starve then miss a payment. I’m a veteran myself, I’m a marine from Vietnam, so I understand. And I figured well, you know, if they think we’re second class citizens, we ought to take care of them, and so I did. And then what happened was after 2007 all of the banks got into it. Once they realized that who is this little company in St. Petersburg that is #1 in doing veteran loans? They decided well, we probably ought to figure out what they’re doing and do it ourselves. All of a sudden we went from having no competition to having nothing but competition. When they finally started lending again the majority of every major lender in the United States went for these veteran loans.
Joe: And here by doing what others wouldn’t you showed them how to be successful. And you said earlier that you were successful because you will do the work that others won’t do. And I think that also has to be in part with seeing the things that other people can’t see. Can you dig into that a little bit more about why you think you can see the things that other people won’t see that lead you to do the work that others won’t do?
Bill: There’s a lot of people that are unwilling to do certain things. In my opinion to be successful you have to be able to be willing to do anything it takes to be successful. Anything. So, if they say listen, you know, part of your successes you’ve got a list of things you’re supposed to do to be successful. And it says you gotta go to Nome Alaska for two years on that list and work on the Northern slope with the polar bears. And you say stop, time out, there’s no way I’m ever going to go and do that, I’m not willing to do it, then you’re going to fail because you’re not willing to do something that’s going to make you successful. Now, in the same instance that list that they put together chances are none of those things are going to come to pass, you’re never going to have to go to Alaska. But if you’re not willing to do whatever it takes to be successful, then you’re not going to be successful. And that’s my craziness, that’s how I feel about it, and that’s what I taught my people, and the people that worked here. And they were willing to go out and work, and drive, and work hard every day. And because of that they were successful. And we spawned in this company, the company that we had, probably over the 20+ years that we were there I think we spawned probably 350 millionaires that worked here who made over a million dollars.
Joe: And when we reflect on your success, and things that you’ve just said, it’s just half of the financial success that you have had and half the people that you have been able to lift up. And ultimately that ended up playing a big role in the work that you did later in St. Pete. So, when you think about your drive to work tirelessly, and you still do, even now you’re still working huge days. How much of that drive is the money or how does the money play a role in that drive? And how much of it is justice for lifting people up that are getting a raw deal? And how much of it is community? Can you sort of break down what drives you?
Bill: Well, what drives me is the fact that I’ve been working since I was seven years old. So, I need the mental capacity to do things, I can’t just sit around and not have the stimulation of having that problem and finding a solution for it or trying to find a solution for it. The other things is I love employing people. I love having – There is so many people that need employment, and there is a lot of people that people won’t hire for whatever reasons. And we’ve had people that are disabled, we have people that – You know, again, the people that we hired that came to work, they didn’t have enough money to buy a car. And you know, we’ve got tons of success stories of people who are now very, very successful in business and other businesses who have been here and they get their start here. They get their start, they get their ambition, they’ve got their drive, they’ve got everything from the things that we believed. And again, I’m a former marine, so I’m OCD, so everything has got to be perfect. So, I’m very detailed. And again, you know, for every action there is a reaction, so as long as you know that. It’s amazing how people discount people because of the way they look or where they come from or where they live for whatever. And me I totally do not discount people. And I have this affliction for feeling responsibility that if I can help some people, I can find something that is good for the community, I made my money here, why wouldn’t I share it here?
Joe: How has that drive evolved over time? How has it evolved or what new wisdom do you have now that you didn’t have say 20, 30 years ago?
Bill: Oh god, I don’t know, there’s going to be a ton of it. You can be learning every day. I learned yesterday, I learned today, I learn every single day. And that’s the whole thing, I’ve got an open mind and I realize wow, you know, I’m at an age now where you think well, gee, you wouldn’t learn. You’re going to learn something every day if you pick it up and do something. But if you don’t do anything, you’re not going to learn nothing. So, I’d rather be up and doing things and get things accomplished. I would rather do something wrong then do nothing at all. And by the way, you have the right to do something wrong sometimes and make mistakes and still be successful. You can’t be right all of the time, you never can.
Joe: You can only aspire to. So, we talked about then the seeds of where you dug into the community, you saw that folks were able to buy their cars, you bought the parking lot, you realized that the money that you were making and the people that helped you build that successful company were here and that sort of set you down the road of bettering the community and making that cycle of prosperity even bigger. So then what were some of the early things that you were able to do, or saw, or tried to do then in the community building realm?
Bill: We built the all children’s hospital, you know, we’re very involved in that. We were involved in getting it going, getting it up and running and getting the things that you needed and so forth. You know, it wasn’t an easy task. And then of course we were involved in getting John Hopkins medicine in there which was very important to get John Hopkins into St. Petersburg and having one of the top hospitals in the country be involved in our children’s hospital. I think that’s an amazing thing. The big thing was we wanted that medicine. And it took a while for that to happen because even though John Hopkins name was on the hospital it didn’t mean that John Hopkins doctors had come here. And so I was very involved, and a lot of people were, but I was as well in trying to go into Baltimore and trying to get doctors to come here and tell them how beautiful the place was and so forth. And there are many doctors that live here today that I know, their children go to school with my children, that you know, are from Baltimore from John Hopkins.
And so we wouldn’t have been able to get a lot of people from John Hopkins to come in and actually finally make that a hospital that has got John Hopkins medicine and cutting edge technology. Of course then a laboratory was built across the way and so forth, teaching. And so I think that’s a big home run for the city. I believe if I’m not mistaken I’m still probably the largest single donor of that hospital. And so what I did with the money that I made was I gave back to the community as best as I could and I tried to help build a community. That takes you to, for instance, the shopping center and the Rowdies and the McNulty Station garage that I bought, and all of the different things that we did to try to expand the city. I was the first guy in 2011, I bought a shopping center in downtown, and I had been developing the beach, you know, condo, hotels, and things like that. So, we had a good experience in development and sales. And so I saw that shopping center and I said well, isn’t that terrible?
You know, this is a shopping center that has been closed for seven years, was ahead of its time, and it didn’t work. It didn’t work for a lot of reasons but it didn’t work. It started to work initially and then it fell apart. So, I decided maybe it was timing. I know the people that did that, the Semblers, and they did a great job, and the Bullards, and so forth. And they did a nice job of putting that together and opening it up and they took a big chance. And it just didn’t work for a lot of reasons, okay. But the bottom line to it was I decided that after a long period of time they had been closed down for about seven years, so there was probably about four tenants in it. And so I bought it and I decided let’s remodel it. Now there was a choice there and the wiser choice would have been to just do a high rise and go up and be the first high rise in town and put some nice condominiums in there and sell them and make a bunch of money and walk away.
And certainly if I had been smart I would have done that. But I thought more of if I keep it low because I think there’s going to be high rises, there were high rises on Beach Drive at the time. And of course you had the Ovation that had just opened not too long before that I think. And so, I looked and decided well, I want to make this like an oasis for the people in the high rises to be able to come downstairs out of their places and go and make this the town square. And so, we developed a shopping center that actually did that. I mean, when we do our Christmas lightings for Christmas and we put on our Christmas lights and we have Santa and all of that stuff, you know, we light the tree I mean there are six to seven though thousands people on that block that come out to see the tree lighting and stuff and get pictures with Santa for free and all of that stuff. And so it’s brought the families and a lot of people together that maybe don’t go downtown enough and so forth. And so I think it’s helped the city’s population expansion.
Once we started that, other people started building. But then I went ahead and I bought the old Tropicana block because I said if I’m going to open a shopping center I need more people in this town to come to the shopping center to make it successful. And so I wanted to start growth. And so I bought the Tropicana block purely for the reason of trying to get someone. Initially I was going to build on it and then I decided well, you know, I got way too much on my plate, but I’ll buy it, and Colter bought it, and now you know that block is the ONE Block. And it’s a very successful project and it’s still successful. And it’s got a nice hotel, I insisted as part of the sale that we have some sort of hotel there. We have a beautiful hotel there, 150 rooms I believe. And Colter. You know, before I had closed on it we were able to sell it to Colter, we didn’t know what they were going to do with it. We suggested some things, it turned out they did about what we suggested and they did a beautiful job and that expanded that block.
And you know, somewhere in that period of time the Rowdies were going out of business and the Rays were leaving. And there’s a company, the Edwards Group, we felt that we were downtown and we felt oh wow, if we don’t have a professional team in this town, that’s going to be a real bummer for the population, for everybody, not to have a professional sports team. So, when the Rays were talking about leaving I ended up buying a soccer team. I had never been to a soccer game. And I remember the first game that I ever went to, I owned the team. And I was asking the coach, okay, well what do we do to win the game? What’s the rules?
Joe: And why did they have so many players on the bench?
Bill: Exactly, why did they have 11 guys? How many replacements can you have? Three. Well, we’re doing with elevent, we don’t know which three. And we’re like okay, I get that. So, over the course of five years we took the Rowdies from almost extinction to a well-received team where people came out and we sold out that stadium on many occasions. We put money into the stadium. It wasn’t easy getting started with that thing. We spent a ton of money on it, but it was very valid and is still a valid team. And it’s probably the oldest team in the United States that is still active is the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
Joe: When you talk about these different elements of the city that you bought, and I say this as my own personal experience too is I acquire brands or build brands, or whatever, I see an opportunity. It’s a weird mix where you have this sort of micro benefits of building what ended up becoming the ONE or seeing the vision for having those types of people there to serve your other investment in which is The Sundial, but yet it also serves St. Pete. And in case in point you could have built your own high rise where the shopping center was but you saw that a town square was better for St. Pete, if not better for your pocket book in that specific instance. So, it’s this weird sort of mix between internal business strategy for growing your own businesses, but also external strategy for growing St. Pete and knowing that the two will always benefit each other as well. Is that sort of a fair summation of your process when you look at strategic uses of properties in an overall vision for what you’re doing in St. Pete?
Bill: For St. Petersburg especially, yeah. Because you know when we went to St. Petersburg the whole thing was as the town started to grow, let’s face it in the last eight to 10 years look at the growth of St. Petersburg. I mean, you could bowl through the sidewalks at one point. Beach Drive was really having a tough time, you know, there was a tough situation in downtown and all of a sudden we started building and then other people saw that, you know, they said well Bill Edwards is doing it, damnit, I probably should, you know? So, things started happening and we were very excited. And again, we took the Rowdies, we started bringing that many people downtown. When they were done with the game, let’s face it, the Rowdies game was 90-minutes. It started at 7:30 at night on a Saturday night. So, we had six, seven thousand people in your downtown, then your bars thrive, your restaurant thrive, all your people thrive because they’re done at 9:00 or 9:30 and it’s a Saturday night, they’re going out. They’re already parked, they’re good to go.
And they go out and they bring income into the rest of the businesses and they give a boost to the business in the downtown. That’s what you need, you need something. And we did concerts and we did different things to bring people downtown during the week. Because I knew during the week my business is very slow. So, if I could bring six to seven thousand people downtown early and then have the rest of the night for them to go and do something, they go to dinner, they go have drinks, they go to museums, they go to whatever was open they go to. And so, what we did was we created more people, by creating more people you go around there now across the street from Al Lang there was nothing going on there to speak of. Now you’ve got high rises. I remember going down to the stadium and I ended up going to, there was only one box, the rest of the box was usually for television and sound and so forth. But there was one box and I never used to go to the box. And I’d be behind the bench sitting in my seats.
But the bottom line was the people started coming down there and realizing this is a beautiful place. And all of a sudden I looked out of that box one day and I saw three or four buildings that weren’t there when I started. I went where did all the buildings come from? I didn’t realize that they were built. And they were all new condos and apartments. And people started building. And I think the Rowdies had a lot to do with that section of town’s growth because, you know, people were going there and they said well, people go there and they started looking for places to go to eat and drink and so forth. I remember buying McNulty stations five-stories in McNulty station which has a parking garage right around the corner from the Rowdies so we would have parking on Saturday nights. Now, during the week other people parked there, but Saturday nights it was Rowdies night. And you could park for $5.00, you could go in, and you’d walk half a block and you were at the stadium. And I’ve sold that since then, but still on Saturday nights the Rowdies still have Rowdies signs on it and I sold it with the understanding we’d keep the Rowdies signs on it for a period of time. And, you know, everything that I did, I did when I exited. I exited thinking what implications would happen once I exited to the rest of the town. And so I took precautions on everything that I did to make sure that it was a good final. And when I ended something I made sure it was good for the rest of the people.
Joe: Right. You mentioned that St. Pete has grown immensely, and it has, and your work and your brand has grown accordingly. And obviously being in the music business you understand the importance of Image brand, and you have the Bill Edwards Group, the Bill Edwards Foundation, but at the same time I think there are aspects of being one of the wealthier folks in town where everybody always wants something from you. And you’re putting yourself out there with the foundation and with your public good mindset that that’s a reasonable thought that they would have. So, how have you felt about your personal brand and trying to sculpt it and using it to benefit the things that you’re doing. And then sort of off of that, what are sort of some of the time consuming pieces of being so well known and so demanded?
Bill: First of all, I would never try to do anything about my personal brand. My brand is my businesses and the things I get involved in. And I branded the Rowdies, we branded The Sundial, all those things were huge jobs to brand them. You know, you take a team that had no spectators to speak of, and turned it into something where we had sold out games. Over a period of time that took a lot of branding, a lot of time, and a lot of energy. A lot of social media, a lot of talking, putting a good team together. You know, we brought in Joe Cole out of England out of Premiere League, used to play with Beckham Okay, we brought in Marcel Schafer, we brought in serious players to play in the soccer game and that made the Rowdies so much more valid as a team that people wanted to come because there was an amazing soccer game played.
If you’re into football, into soccer, we brought in some great players. And I didn’t know anything about it but I did know who the stars were because I studied it, okay. And like anything else I had great people around me, there was people like Lee Cohen, and just a ton of people, Beth Herendeen, and all these people that helped us build a brand and build a good team. Okay, and through that I just tried to get the best professionals not knowing the soccer business, I had to listen to several different people’s opinions on it and then I had to decide did I agree with their opinion or not based on their performance. And I went through a lot of people over the course of time with the Rowdies. [Chuckle] But in the same instance at the end of the day I think I ended up with a great product, and obviously the Rays thought that too and they bought it from me and now they have it. And the Rays live on and the Rowdies live on.
Joe: No doubt that was an amazing transformation and the Rowdies are one of the strongest brands in St. Pete and I think the Rays saw that as you said. But you still when you do things it makes news and obviously there was the news around the mortgage thing, which congratulations that you finally put behind you last fall. But when you were working with the city and you are working on these big contracts, and doing the concert series and things like that, you know, you can’t just escape it, your presence is just too big to stay under the radar. So, even though your intention is you’re not intentionally, personally trying to work on it, you’re sort of a victim of it to some extent.
Bill: It’s an occupational hazard. [Chuckle]
Joe: You just worked with meals on wheels and supported them in a big way, can you talk about what you saw in that need and why you were drawn to support them?
Bill: We’ve had a foundation that’s been around for about 19 years I think we’ve done it. And every Christmas we go to Midtown at the Jet Center and before that we did it in the parking lot but then we found the Jet Centes are our home for this. And we take under-privileged families and we give them Christmas. We’ll go out with the meals, and toys, and Santa. And celebrities come and they sign baseballs, and footballs, and soccer balls. And we have a little party for them, we have blowups, and we do all of this stuff. And we do it every year we do, you know, 200, 300 families. And we were doing that and they’re all kids, they’re mostly on the school lunch program and that usually means that they may not get breakfast, they may not get dinner, but they’re getting lunch. I hate to say this, you know, all the wonderous building, and we do downtown and everything, but there’s a lot of people in this town that are underprivileged, and they have poor housing, and they have no housing, and they have no food, and they don’t have a grocery store, and they don’t have a bank, and they don’t have a place and go and get healthcare and so forth.
And for some reason they are here, but we’re not talking about them, we’re talking about hey, we got a big high rise downtown, and this here, and that there, through my years of being part of the community I’ve grown to know where all these places are. And so, I realize that the kids can’t get to school because you’ve shutdown the schools, how are they getting food? So, I went to the mayor and I said, “Mayor, how am I going to find all these kids?” And he put me in touch with some people in the city that he thought may help. And I went through and I found the folks, the Meal On Wheels, and they had put together a program for children. And I said well this is great. Okay, so what are you doing for the children? And they said well, what we’re trying to do is give them at least five days’ worth of groceries that are non-perishables that they can have like potatoes, and carrots, and banana, things that don’t go bad and they can be on the shelf and you can eat them, and you can have them, and then give them more meals.
And I saw how that was going and they had a monstrous amount of need, they didn’t have the resources to do it. So, the money that we were going to spend for Christmas this year we decided that we would spend it to do something now. So, my family foundation took the money, in which most of the money comes from us. We have people that donate but most of the money at the end of the year we make up the difference when we do this thing for the kids buying the toys and everything. So, we took that money and we put it into meals on wheels. And then we found that the biggest problem was getting the groceries, one, because we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and two, getting them to where they had to go.
So then my foundation at the theatre, the foundation for the arts, created a group of people who became the labor and we used a lobby at the theater to pack the groceries, pack the boxes, and put them in buses, actually take them out and deliver them. And our goal is to put out 50,000 meals. And I think we’re probably around 20 to 25,000 meals we provided so far. And obviously as people needed these meals they wouldn’t be taking them and eating them. So, I think we’re providing a service that is definitely needed in the city, Meals On Wheels, they’re a great organization, they’re doing a great job with it. And I’ve been able to get volunteers from our foundations and the people that know our foundation to come in and help them and using the money wisely and being able to get it to the people that need it as quick as possible.
Joe: That’s wonderful, thank you for doing that. And thank you for your service as well, I know you won a purple heart and I wanted to mention that.
Bill: Thank you, they call that the booby prize, I should have ducked more.
Joe: So, we’re getting close to the end of our time. I wanted to finish up, if you were 40-year-old Bill Edwards looking at St. Pete as it sits today 40 or 50 years of action ahead of you, what do you think you would concentrate on? What do you see from where St. Pete sits today that in other words would drive things with that time rising ahead of them.
Bill: I don’t know, I think more affordable housing for people is definitely a need in the city. I think that dealing with things that people weren’t dealing with in the city that were the most important. You know, there’s a lot of areas in the city that aren’t’ as beautiful as downtown or as grandiose or even acceptable to live in. You know, people living in them. And I think those are the people of the future and their children are the future. And if we don’t take care of them and get them the education, get them the food, and get them the housing, and get them jobs, and make them active parts of the community. And you’re going to have anarchy I’m seeing in this country right now. And that goes for a lot of towns, it’s not just ours, but for a lot of places where everybody has these pockets of towns where they need help and people just shy away from looking, they don’t see it, it’s not brought out, it’s kind of shuffled under the rug.
And it’s time that we realize that there is a lot of people that are very, very nice people, good people, that just don’t have the opportunity that they should have and we should try to provide an opportunity for them. And if I was younger I would be doing the same that I was doing when I was running my mortgage company, giving those people that didn’t have opportunity the chance to have an opportunity. And again, someone at work that started came on a bus and came here and worked for this place are now city council members and people that are successful business people and so on down the line from starting here and coming on the bus. So, you need more people that are willing to take the people on the bus and teach them the things that everybody is high-tech and all this thing. But the bottom line to it is if you took the time to look at the people who aren’t being paid attention to, pay attention to them, you’re going to find it’s going to be a better world for everybody.
Joe: That’s wonderful. We finish most of our programs with a shout out. Who is someone in the community that you’ve seen doing work that you’d like to give a little extra attention to for the work that they’re doing to help St. Pete?
Bill: I tend to so many people in town. There’s just so many people that do a lot of work, there’s the Semblers that do a lot of work. Mark Mahaffey and his family has done a lot of work on this town. Tom James has done a lot of work in this town, the Houghs. I can go on and on about the people, the Wannicks You know, they have been the driving force in getting things done, many of them, by their philanthropy, The Crown motor car company, Dwayne Hawkins, and people like that. Their people of my age or less, you know, but they are people that they have families that have grown up into the business and are still following through their dad’s ideas on how to be a good business person and how to take people and mold them into something that they weren’t and make them useful and active and very successful people.
And that’s what you need to do, you don’t find successful people, you create successful people by working with them and training them and teaching them, having the patience, and giving them a decent job, and paying them a decent wage, and be able to live. And so, those are just some of the people. There’s a lot of them, but those are kind of the people that I look up to for doing that and especially the Houghs, they both passed away, you know, they were great people. When I came to town they were the people that I looked at and go wow, I want to be like them. One day when I came to town I didn’t have a whole bunch of money, believe me, there was something that we grew and we built. We didn’t start with a lot of money, we started – I don’t know if you know this, but we started a company on a $30,000 note, a 90-day note, and we built it into what we built it into from there, by hard work, and long, long hours, and everything.
And again, during the things that I talked about. So, it’s not like something where I was growing, I grew up in a family where there was six kids, my father was a cab driver, and my mother was a waitress, we had no money, we had no food. I started working when I was seven years old and you get a formal education. At 14 I was out of school and I was working as a commercial fisherman. I joined the Marines when I was 17, 18 and the rest is history. And all through my life I worked both kinds of jobs, construction into you name it. And one day God shined down on me and gave me enough intelligence to start a business that made me more successful. And by being more successful I thank God for it and I try to give back.
End of transcription [00:38:34]
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About the host
Joe Hamilton is publisher of the St. Pete Catalyst, co-founder of The St. Petersburg Group, a partner at SeedFunders, fund director at the Catalyst Fund and host of St. Pete X.