The World, the Red Clay Interactive family and me personally lost a great man and friend yesterday. Looking back over 44 years, I now know you meet only a handful of special people in your life that will have such a profound impact on you that it changes you forever; Gordon Sawyer was one of those for me.
To adequately eulogize Gordon and the influence he had on this world would take a volume of books, but I’d like to at least share a few words about how such an amazing man helped shape my life.
I casually knew “Mr. Sawyer” my entire life, as my Dad’s boss and the owner of Sawyer Advertising. Even as a child I saw how he believed in people, like a poor, inexperienced farm kid like my Dad, and always did everything he could to make them better. He was generous to our family, eventually passing the reins of his agency over to my Dad, and I always admired him for the humbleness and genuineness that his business and financial success never altered. From his kind, inviting smile to his signature bow ties, Gordon was always the perfect southern gentleman.
But my real experience with Gordon started when I was a know-it-all college kid in 1992. He was retired from the ad agency and running for State Senate as a conservative at 66 years old. I first walked into his office in a tie dye tee shirt, jump boots, shorts and my hair all one length down to my shoulders (grunge era). He just smiled, hired me as his campaign manager and then suggested, not required, that I might want to get a haircut!
Gordon and the other WWII vets/retired business titans working on his campaign taught me more about life over that next six months than I’ve probably learned since. From seeing the value in all people, even those you don’t agree with, to being transparent in all situations, the lessons I learned shaped how we do business today. Unfortunately he didn’t win the election, but in hind sight it was a blessing because instead of a second career in politics, Gordon was able to focus his retirement on writing and making our community a better place.
Fast-forward seven years. I’d graduated college. I’d used the connections Gordon had opened for me to have a successful career in Washington, D.C. as a political staffer and was currently the communications lead for a trade association in metro-Atlanta. And although he didn’t know it, Gordon was about to get me back in his life again. But of course when I came out of the blue looking for a favor, he never hesitated and did everything in his power to help.
It was the height of the Internet revolution. The web was going crazy and people were making millions of dollars. My best friend, Red Clay’s very own Scott Atkinson, came to me with an idea for a news and information web site that we thought would make us millions on advertising revenue and selling web sites to the advertisers that didn’t have a site at the time. We wrote a business plan, had a lot of passion, but didn’t have $10 between the two of us! So naturally, what did we do? Go see Gordon.
As usual, even though he thought we were crazy, Gordon was positive and made us believe in ourselves. He then connected us with serial entrepreneurs and local media giants, Mr. John and Jay Jacobs; who saw our vision and passion, trusted Gordon’s endorsement of the idea, and decided to take a chance on us. AccessNorthGa.com was born. We spent the next year learning how to build a successful development/creative team, creating an amazing web product and having the time of our lives.
But in the end we decided it would be more fun and impactful to create web sites for all kinds of companies instead of just one, and the Jacobs were gracious in encouraging us to start a new, independent company. But there was just one big problem, none of us knew how to run a business. So again we visited the antebellum office building on Green Street and after years of retirement, Gordon Sawyer was once again in the agency business and Red Clay Interactive was founded.
Gordon graciously agreed to serve as our board chairman, become a shareholder and met with us twice a week to teach us how to build and grow a successful company. And in perfect Gordon style, he never took a dime in salary and always had hot biscuits or burgers waiting for us. Class would start, advice would flow and meticulous notes were taken. Over those working sessions the first few years we didn’t realize we’d gotten a better business education than most MBA’s ever provided by a college.
From the importance of open, constant communication to always, even at the cost of profits, doing the right thing, Gordon helped craft the culture that is so powerful today. And along the way he made a few payrolls happen, always with an airtight promissory note and a painful interest rate included, refereed a few internal fights, but never once made us feel inferior or indebted. In fact, his encouragement and belief in the Red Clay team, and me personally, were at times the very thing that kept us going through multiple recessions and a rapidly, changing industry.
Over time, Red Clay evolved, added more staff and the business grew. Our meetings with Gordon became less frequent and eventually stopped. To this day that is one of my biggest regrets as a business owner. We drifted at times and had to learn the hard way to come back home to our roots, but the one thing that remained constant over 15 years is the culture that Gordon shaped.
My trash can is full of tissues and my heart aches, but I know Gordon is now with his Lord that he loved so dearly. Gordon will be greatly missed not only by me, but every person whose life he ever touched. And we will honor his legacy here at Red Clay by constantly committing ourselves to live by the principals he taught us and striving to be the best agency and people we can be.
So thank you for allowing me to ramble to just barely touch on the greatness of the man Gordon Sawyer. And in his famous words, “May the wind always be at your back!”