Business Leader of the Year Josh Whitfield kept on the baseball cap he wears to plan and direct work outdoors when he came forward Tuesday to accept the award from the Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce.
“My goodness, I would have gotten my hair done or something if I had known,” he quipped.
More to the point of leadership, Whitfield said he owed any recognition he receives first to his employees and others. Now 35, he was in his 20s when he founded Whitfield Sign Company circa 2011, with his father aboard as a partner for a time. But it is the younger Whitfield who operates the company, which has clients nationally as well as locally, and who has now taken the lead in developing the West District mixed-use complex along South College Street.
“This is a reflection of an amazing team that I get to work with every day through West and Whitfield Signs,” he said. “What you see is very little of me and very much a team that I’m honored to work with... .
“I love this town,” Whitfield continued. “I think we’ve got a great community. As we’ve come downtown, to doing West, I’ve got to see so many ideas that so many people in this community have to make Statesboro even better.”
Outgoing 2019 Chamber of Commerce Chair Bob Mikell had already mentioned Whitfield’s efforts during Mikell’s brief “State of the Business Community” remarks. More than 250 people filled seats for the chamber’s 98th annual meeting, a luncheon in the Nessmith Lane Center on the Georgia Southern University campus.
The West District
The ribbon cutting by Whitfield Signs “on their beautiful facility in downtown Statesboro in the old West Building Supply building” was the first of several grand openings and ceremonial groundbreakings Mikell highlighted from the past 12 months. He noted that Whitfield’s headquarters now forms the anchor of the West District development.
Another chamber member, Ranco Event Rentals, broke ground in May for a new corporate headquarters on neighboring property, which is also part of the West District. Built from the ground up, the building has now taken shape, with Ranco expected to move in early next year.
The building will include loft apartments upstairs, and Whitfield and West District investors plan to break ground on two more buildings in 2020.
“This is an exciting development, the West District,” Mikell said. “This is going to help transform the face of downtown and provide jobs to fuel our economy in the coming years.”
‘Signs of growth’
Incoming 2020 Chamber Chair Chris Gohagan presented the award later in the meeting.
“Today’s honoree and recipient of our Business Leader of the Year award has a familiar name,” Gohagan said. “You can see it in stylish big letters on a building in one of our community’s best examples of current growth, and his name is, in a way, becoming embedded within signs of growth throughout our town.”
The West District headquarters is Whitfield Signs’ third facility. Enclosing 50,000 square feet, it includes space for fabrication of sign components, as well as showroom-like offices and spaces for conferring with clients.
Outside, the complex features a decorative barrel-staved water tower, masonry accents and signage meant to mesh with the historic appearance of downtown.
“Josh, along with his West District partners and investors, have developed the West District at the edge of the Blue Mile, where multiple pad sites have attracted business and are creating jobs,” Gohagan continued.
He said that Whitfield has been described as “creative and intuitive” and “has a reputation for nurturing strengths in his employees, his friends and his family.”
Whitfield has participated as an organizer of the annual Airport Day at the Statesboro-Bulloch County Airport. In 2018 he was one of the “20 Under 40” honorees in the program hosted by the Statesboro Herald to recognize young leaders in the community.
Whitfield attained a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Georgia and then lived and worked in Atlanta for a few years before returning here.
Chamber leaders brought members of his family, including his wife Lauren Whitfield and their daughters, Harper, 9, and Emery, 7, as well as his parents, Michael and Deborah Whitfield, and others quietly into the banquet hall before the award was announced.
Business of Year: AVI
Chamber officers presented two other awards first. Describing the 2019 Business of the Year, Chamber 2020 First Vice Chair Mandy Fortune noted that Advanced Valve and Instrument, or AVI, has not exactly become a household name locally but is better known to a specialized customer base near and far.
Its control valves are used in the pulp and paper, chemical, food production and oil and gas industries, in mining and in waste and water treatment, among other applications.
“Today we recognize an industry that could be located anywhere in the United States but chooses to be Bulloch-based, bringing outside dollars into the community and representing the way Bulloch does business to the world,” Fortune said.
International Paper, Georgia Pacific, Rayonier Advanced Materials, BASF, Westrock, VOPAK Terminals, Kinder Morgan, Starbucks, Savannah Sugar, Southern Nuclear and Georgia Power are some of AVI’s specific customers. Beyond the southeastern United States, others include the Turks and Caicos water system, Sila Nanotechnologies, Alyaska Pipeline and NASA. To date, AVI has sold or shipped to companies in 42 of the 50 states and four provinces in Canada, Fortune said.
Bryce Bunting, who accepted the award on behalf of the company and its employees, opened AVI in Savannah in May 1994 but relocated it to Statesboro, his hometown, in 1999.
This year, AVI’s 25th anniversary year, the company opened a new 12,500-square-foot office and warehouse behind Ogeechee Technical College. This construction doubled the company’s office space and tripled its warehouse space.
The Committee of the Year honor went to the chamber’s Government and Collegiate Relations Committee, chaired by Jonathan Smith and Reggie Simpkins. The award, Mikell said, reflected the committee’s “working on a project that matches the chamber’s mission and has expanded our network so effectively.”
This committee played a decisive role, he said, in bringing Quint Studer, philanthropist and founder of the Studer Group healthcare consulting company and a nationally recognized speaker, to address the Community Leadership Conference in October.
At the end of Tuesday’s luncheon Mikell, who is senior legal counsel for AgSouth Farm Credit, passed the chamber chair’s gavel to Gohagan, an attorney with Taulbee, Rushing, Snipes, Marsh & Hodgin.
The meeting also included some tearful moments. Two longtime Chamber of Commerce staff members, Phyllis Thompson, who has served nine years as chamber president, a full-time executive position, and Membership Manager Roxanne Kibler, who has worked for the chamber 17 years, are both retiring at the end of the month.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.