My professional career began in manufacturing. As janitor and errand-runner for a machine shop in Smyrna, Tennessee, I experienced the innovation as well as the intensity of the booming automotive industry. Undoubtedly, the automobile has fueled and accounted for more economic growth and expansion than any other invention of mankind. Climbing into purchasing leadership and later leading sales, I was afforded the privilege to travel to Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, Michigan and of course, all parts of Tennessee.
Diamonds tucked away in southeast places like Greenville, Athens and Lawrenceburg, Tennessee; Piedmont and Anderson, South Carolina; Leesburg and Muscle Shoals, Alabama; and Dalton Georgia. These diamonds were the level-one and level-two suppliers to Nissan, Honda, Mercedes, BMW, Toyota, Subaru, Saturn, Volkswagen, Ford, GM and Chrysler. These giant manufacturers grew here in North America or were attracted here. Some may argue that shear economic demand brought plants like these to the Southeast; but history – especially that of Tennessee – proves human vision and leadership play a key role as well. After all, why choose a certain state and city to break ground and build a manufacturing plant?
Take Detroit, Michigan. This city boomed in its hay-day! Yes, the height of industrialization, the excitement of innovation, and the promise of a good and bountiful life was found in Motor City. The early 1900’s and Michigan united to tell America and the world an exciting saga of the American dream, indomitable spirit, pride of excellence and revolutionized industry. Supporting industries flourished and economic conditions soared. The inventors, city-governments, manpower and resources had to be ready and the fertile field was Detroit. As Counts, Ronson, & Spenser point out in their Sanford University article, “Steel, the Great Lakes shipping industries, and a large and growing workforce all contributed … and, the unique collection of inventors, dreamers, and designers that made the Detroit area their home.” Ransom Olds, Henry Ford, the Dodge brothers, David Buick and Walter Chrysler all started right there in Michigan. They write that even the French explorer who founded Detroit was named Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac.
Southern Automotive Corridor:
Similarly, the late 1900’s and early 2000’s joined the United States’ southeast region to tell a similar saga. Editor of Southern Business Development, Michael Randle writes, “For about three decades now, state and local governments in the American South have positioned themselves to become outstanding locations for both the aerospace and automotive industries … the fact that the South has captured two of the three full assembly airliner facilities operating in the United States … and twelve major automotive assembly plants in the last twenty-five years is simply astounding!” These accomplishments have established the Southeast Automotive Corridor as a huge, worldwide manufacturing leader. The south has attracted and become the popular destination in North America for “large domestic and foreign direct investment projects,” Randle states. He further points out that one “Big-Kahuna” project can single-handedly transform the economic course of a community and even a state.
Just thirty-six years ago, news articles like the New York Times, Nissan Takes A Stand In Dixie called automotive plants in Tennessee “bets” and “gambles.” When did the Southern Automotive Corridor start and how did Tennessee play a key role? Tennessee’s Department of Economic and Community Development states, “The southeast has emerged as the driving force in automotive manufacturing in the United States, and Tennessee is its engine.” Tennessee hosts three major assembly plants and the supplier footprint spans 86 of its 95 counties. Nissan North American headquarters in Franklin, and manufactures in Smyrna. This is the most productive manufacturing plant in all of North America! Touring the plant is awe inspiring – miles and miles of robots and workers churning out 640,000 annually. General Motors has infused Spring Hill with economic life, and most recently, Volkswagen has transformed Chattanooga’s economy. TDECD continues, “Tennessee’s committed to invest in training for the state’s high concentration of automotive employment, a number that’s 3.34 times the national average.” So, when did Tennessee become this engine of automotive manufacturing? Enter the founder of Southern Detroit, former Tennessee State Representative, John T. Bragg.
John T. Bragg:
Bragg’s thirty-year political career spanned 1965 to 1996. Three key ingredients can be found in everything he did, how he thought, how he acted and how he left an impact so notable in Tennessee that highways, buildings and I’m sure children will be named after him. These three key ingredients are the very keys of an energizer. Yes, his perspective, ownership and accountability laid the foundation for the Southern Automotive Corridor.
According to Dr. Louis Kyriakoudes who serves as the Director of Middle Tennessee State University’s Albert Gore Research Center and Professor of History, “Rutherford County’s connection to the global economy was John Bragg.” While former Gov. Lamar Alexander and other leaders deserve praise for economic growth that automotive manufacturing brought to Tennessee under their administrations, it was the vision of men like Bragg to set the stage many years earlier. Bragg was the energy in government to transform Tennessee into the global manufacturing leader and example to other states that it is today.
Bragg grew up in Woodbury, Tennessee, later moving to Murfreesboro as a teenager. He enrolled at MTSU when it was still called Middle Tennessee State Teachers College. He served as student body president. He also loved communications serving as editor of Sidelines, the student newspaper. He went to graduate school at UT Knoxville and worked as executive director of the Tennessee Press Association.
After school and a fine and growing record of accomplishment and achievement, Bragg went on to serve his country in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1941-1946. Soon after, he’d join his father in the family business – the Rutherford Courier. Then, selling this to his son, Tommy, who’d later become Murfreesboro’s mayor, John Bragg began his political career in 1964. But why call him the founder of Southern Detroit?
From his first day in office, Bragg infused the state legislature and his colleagues with a new perspective. Perspective is a learned vision and Bragg helped Tennessee relearn its perspective on the global stage. He was a pioneer willing to change for the better. He had to be. Tennessee’s voting regions were antiquated not progressing with the rural to urban shift that was taking place. Furthermore, the legislature also formed a very weak body meeting only every other year. Bragg knew this must change and cast his new vision for a professional and responsible government. Bragg envisioned a strong economy and society backed by solid infrastructure built and maintained by responsible government. A strong legislature with solid principles and trust could build wide channels through which commerce could flourish. He disliked the term politician calling his work “the art of governing.”
Bragg brought this needed change with passion backed by solid energy! He spoke about the importance of good physical health and solid ethics especially if one wishes to persuade effectively. We’ll see that Tennessee benefited greatly from his skill and trustworthiness in persuasion
He strongly opposed people running for office with no prior business experience. His depth and energy revolutionized the legislature. Tennessee government became more professional thanks to Bragg’s work. From meeting in the General Assembly every year, committees able to meet year round, and creating the Fiscal Review Committee to serve watchdog over the executive branch’s spending and programs, Bragg cast the vision Tennessee government needed to set the stage for Southern Detroit. Bragg carried and breathed a powerful perspective!
Bragg was an ambitious leader. When did this start? As a kid, he watched his dad build a business out of his garage, build a newspaper business, and a grocery store. He also watched each one of these burn to the ground. Each time, his father tenaciously rebuilt. John started early as a floor sweeper for his father. This ambition continued as he put himself through school during the Great Depression.
Bragg took ownership of the state budget and heralded, “Pay as you go.” He watched his father have to live on credit during the depression and Bragg knew fiscal responsibility was the only way to flourish in the long run. President Reagan praised Tennessee for balancing their budget and showing strong fiscal leadership to the nation. With this mindset, creativity is kept alive with gazelle intensity! Fiscal responsibility has a way of setting priorities and keeping your mind sharp. Creativity built value in Tennessee. Wealth and job creation happens when you think big and outside of the box. If you have an income problem, you create more income. For a state, that’s business. Create a flourishing environment and attract businesses. By being fiscally responsible, Bragg and others figured out how to create value in and for Tennessee.
Bragg knew how to cast a vision and get to work on it. He owned his vision and did not stray. Once, as Chairman of the Industrial Committee for the Chamber of Commerce, Bragg had to ask a company who was looking to move to Murfreesboro to go elsewhere simply because of their poor employee-satisfaction record. The company did go elsewhere and sure enough, the workers went on strike six months later.
Most notably, Bragg was influential in persuading Nissan to break ground in Smyrna, Tennessee in 1983. According to historical archives, “Susan Bragg donated nearly 2000 slides documenting John Bragg’s official visits for the state of Tennessee to China and Japan.” Nissan brags, “The opening of the Nissan Smyrna Vehicle Assembly Plant in 1983 was a groundbreaking moment, bringing automotive production to Tennessee for the first time. The plant has become a force for economic development, creating thousands of well-paying jobs and inspiring other auto companies and suppliers to set up operations in the state.” Then Gov. Lamar Alexandar stated that “Nearly ten percent of all Japanese capital investment in North America is in Tennessee.”
In the middle of his political career, Bragg ran for U.S. Congress and lost. The nature of ambition, however, sees even a loss as a gain. I often think of those people who pitch their invention to the TV show “Shark Tank.” Do you think they are any worse off after being rejected? Absolutely not. They not only received valuable coaching from business experts like Kevin O’Leary, Barbara Corcoran, Daymond John, Robert Herjavec, Lori Greiner and Mark Cuban, but they also received the advantage of national coverage and putting together a stellar pitch. Bragg captured many allies and national attention during this time. In fact, he was given a special thanks by president Reagan for “his help working on our Federal initiative to make government work again, to finally get off the our backs and out of our pockets.” I like the quote that says, “No man’s a failure who attempts and in the attempt, attempts uprightly.” Bragg told a television host once, “I never run a negative campaign. Only positive.” Bragg was a mover and shaker who saw life not as a career, but a calling and made big things happen.
Bragg could get along with others. He knew the value of teamwork, trust and loyalty. He proved this in the legislature, and staying socially active after he retired. Bragg shared that clubs help people become well rounded individuals and recommended UGF, civic clubs, Blue Raider Athletic Club, Moose Clubs and American Legion.
He knew how to communicate a vision and communicate it well. Not only is MTSU’s John Bragg mass communications building named for him, his legacy is marked as a great communicator. He served his alma mater’s foundation as president from 1997-1998.
Bragg was an accountable man early on. He drew on the advice of his mentor, Mr. James Cummings. James, aka “Mr. Jim” also served in the state legislature and Bragg described him as intense and enthusiastic. Clearly, from his personal life and actions as political figure, Bragg practiced openness and transparency. This no doubt compelled his constituents to send him to Nashville term after term.
Consider the negotiations Bragg conducted with the Japanese when bringing Nissan to Smyrna, TN. The Japanese culture is very close – a family-like feeling must exist. They must sense a strong level of trust to conduct business. Success rises and falls on trust. Bragg worked his entire life to be trustworthy and Tennessee and the entire Southern Automotive Corridor can be thankful he did. The founder of Southern Detroit, John Bragg, was only one man, but like Andrew Jackson said it, “One man with courage makes a majority!” Are we the kind of leaders who continually seek a higher perspective, courageously take extreme ownership, and accept the tremendous resource of accountability to move ourselves forward and light the way for those coming after us? This was the energizer, John Bragg, the founder of Southern Detroit.
… igniting energy, Tim