Flashback: What Can Bill Mays Do For You?

He can give you money, connections and a name to drop. And though his status as the most powerful black businessman in the city has not shielded him from the glare of controversy — especially surrounding his investment adventures in nightclubs and bars — if you’re an up-and-coming entrepreneur, he’s the man to know. Just ask him.

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Bill Mayes

Photo by Tony Valainis

Editor’s Note: This profile appeared in the May 2007 issue of IM. Mays, a well-known Indianapolis businessman, passed away this week, on his birthday, at age 69.

The young man looks nervous. His pressed shirt, tie, slacks, the flip-phone clipped to his leather belt were all assembled to exude confidence and business savvy, as were the legal pad and pen on the boardroom table before him. But his stiff posture and fidgeting fingers give him away. The yellow pad is blank.

By contrast, the older man seated across from him is the picture of cool. His leather chair creaks as he leans back, elbow resting on the chair’s arm to support the hand that cups his chin, fingers stroking a graying black mustache. The top two buttons of his cream-colored shirt are undone. This is his company. This is his boardroom. On the shirt’s right breast is stitched the corporate logo of Mays Chemical Company. On the left, in bold caps, are the words BILL MAYS.

“Well, Henry, what can Bill Mays do for you?” asks Bill Mays.

“Open doors up,” says Henry. “I sent in some general info to look for financing. I haven’t heard back.”

Mays stands up and walks to the phone in the center of the long table. He picks up the receiver and starts dialing. “Who did you give it to?”

Mays stops him before he can start as voicemail picks up on the other end. “Matt, Bill Mays. I was wondering if you wouldn’t follow up with the application of Sherrod’s Garage Doors.”

He hangs up and sits backdown. “Now, Henry, let’s talk about minority certification. Why is there a hold-up?”

“I’ve submitted stuff,” says Henry, “but…”

The dialogue continues like this for 20 minutes: Mays laying out possible solutions and plans of attack as fast as Henry can explain why those plans won’t work. Finally, Henry comes out with what he wants.

“But it’s not what you know,” he says. “It’s who you know.”

Mays grins, round cheeks almost lifting the spectacles off his nose. He shifts in his chair, drapes his right leg over the arm and rests his elbow on his knee. “Okay,” he says, “so Bill Mays calls some people and says, ‘Give Sherrod’s a chance.’ They say Bill Mays is an influential person. How many people would like to have Bill Mays as a salesperson? But I want you to leave here with some direction as to what YOU can do to help your business.”

“I know,” Henry says, frustrated.

“Listen,” Mays says. “How many garage doors do you think car dealers have? Hit up one dealer a day, in person. And if you want to name-drop, go ahead. They all know Bill Mays.”

Everyone knows Bill Mays. If you don’t, you probably know little about Indianapolis business. The city’s most prominent black businessman, he is founder and president of Mays Chemical Company, the 15th-largest chemical distributor in North America. The company provides chemical procurement, blending, packaging and storage to corporations like Eli Lilly and Company, Kellogg’s Company, and General Mills and pulls in more than $150 million in annual gross revenue.

But Mays is probably better known for what he does outside of Mays Chemical. His spacious office in the company’s northeastside headquarters, lined wall-to-wall with plaques, shelves and display cases, looks more like a trophy room than a workspace. Here, Mays keeps tokens of his community contributions: certificates commemorating his service as United Way of Central Indiana chair and donations to the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, the Boy Scouts of America and the United Negro College Fund. He routinely gives more than $100,000 a year in personal funds to charity, in addition to the $150,000-plus he gives through the company. A cabinet contains the keys to several cities, including Indianapolis and his hometown of Evansville. “When they don’t give you money, they give you a key,” he says. “But the keys don’t open anything.”

The money does. One wall is covered with plaques and photos of Mays shaking hands with various politicians: Senator Evan Bayh, Senator Richard Lugar, Congresswoman Julia Carson, former Governor Frank O’Bannon, Mays makes thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and over the past two decades has served on a number of government commissions, including the Indiana University Foundation, the Indiana Hoosier Lottery Commission and the Indiana Economic Development Commission.

“I’ve always sensed that he sees it as his mission to help other small and minority-owned businesses,” says Indy mayor Bart Peterson. “It’s like a personal duty.”

But for all these achievements, connections and commendations, Bill Mays doesn’t consider himself a philanthropist or a politician. He doesn’t see himself as a stuffed-shirt executive or a high-minded civic crusader. When Bill Mays looks in a mirror, he sees a businessman. And despite being a member of three boards of directors—WellPoint, First Indiana Bank and Evansville-based Vectren Corporation—it’s not all about big business. Mays dubs himself a “classical entrepreneur.” “I’m a risk-taker who’s willing to invest in other companies. There are a lot of businesses that Bill Mays has been able to launch, help and promote,” Mays says. “That’s how I’d sum up Bill Mays.”

All told, Mays holds financial interest in up to 20 businesses other than Mays Chemical, including construction and real-estate companies. He’s part owner of the nation’s fourth-oldest black newspaper, The Indianapolis Recorder. That’s why he spends half of his time away from the day-to-day operations of the 160-employee company he started 20 years ago, and why he spends five hours a week in his boardroom meeting with people like Henry, who are all looking for a piece of Bill Mays.

“I’ve always sensed that he sees it as his mission to help other small and minority-owned businesses,” says Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson. “It’s like a personal duty.”

That entrepreneurial spirit—specifically his penchant for investing in bars—is also the reason Mays has found himself engulfed in controversy. In fall 2006, The Savoy Restaurant and Ultra Lounge, a nightclub on the northwest side that Mays backed in early 2005, was closed down when the Indianapolis Metropolitan Development Commission denied its request for a zoning variance. Its neighbors, including a nursing home less than 50 feet away, had complained of “intoxicated persons, public urination, vomit in the parking lot.” Of the handful of investors, whom did the media call first? “If the neighborhood doesn’t want it, fine—it’s their loss,” Mays was quoted as saying in The Indianapolis Star. Months later, 300 East the Mays-funded bar and restaurant in the Julia Carson Government Center on East Fall Creek Parkway—met with similar neighborhood opposition before it even opened. And although there are eight investors, Mays was again thrust into the spotlight.

After the trouble at the Savoy—and with all the notorious difficulties of being in the tavern business—it seems surprising that Mays would not just walk away. After all, how can this negative publicity help his charity work or aid him in dealings with the city’s business elite? Why would a well-respected millionaire continue to stake his reputation on a bar that, even if successful, could only slightly nudge his profit margin?

His answer is strikingly simple. “The chemical business is boring,” says Mays. “You have to have something to provide a little excitement. And in the bar business, let me assure you, the people and things you encounter are all the way live.”

Bill Mays looks bored. Seated beside his lawyers at the front of the Marion County public hearings room, he can’t be still. Like a child in the principal’s office, he constantly shifts in his seat, crossing then uncrossing his legs, leaning back, hands behind head, then forward, elbows on the desk, then back to his Godfather pose, gently stroking his mustache. His eyes lack focus, scanning the room as if his mind were miles away, filing through a thousand tasks more important than this hearing.

This meeting of the Marion County Alcoholic Beverage Board is the most recent in a long course of hurdles Mays and his fellow investors have had to clear en route to opening 300 East—the much-discussed would-be bar and restaurant on the ground floor of the Julia Carson Government Center. Since the investment group announced its plans in late August 2006, the project has met with fierce resistance from residents of the Mapleton-Fall Creek neighborhood. Concerns have ranged from outrage that plans initially called for paving over an adjacent playground, to simple concern over having a bar in the neighborhood, to larger ethical and legal questions about selling alcohol in a government building. And at this hearing to discuss a county recommendation that the state approve the transfer of a liquor license, all these concerns are being voiced by the handful of remonstrators present.

When a local reverend decries that “this is an elite group of black investors exploiting this building for profit,” Mays shakes his bead in disbelief.

Meanwhile, even though he has yet to say a word, the television cameras are trained on Mays. Every time he leans in to hear a whisper from his lawyers, the camera shutters click and flashbulbs pop. The well-known millionaire in his double-breasted gray suit and camelhair overcoat has been the unofficial focal point of this assembly since it began almost two hours ago. Mays is the only investor at the front of the room, and, as a result, the dissention often comes off as a personal affront Sometimes it is. Still, Mays takes it in stride, never looking at a remonstrator as they’re speaking, saying nothing, merely rolling his eyes at the accusations.

When a local reverend decries that “this is an elite group of black investors exploiting this building for profit,” Mays shakes his bead in disbelief.

When another remonstrator accuses the investors of “skullduggery” and “chicanery,” claiming that the group used its connections and “power structure” to squelch motions against the bar at neighborhood association meetings, Mays yawns and wipes his eyes.

And when yet another remonstrator brings up the trouble with the Savoy and says he “questions the morality of the investors,” Mays simply grimaces.

When The Savoy Restaurant and Ultra Lounge first opened on West 86th Street in September 2004, it was without fanfare, controversy or Bill Mays. It was just a restaurant with upscale Cajun cuisine. But by 2006, when Mays tossed in $50,000 to buy out some of the owners, it had expanded to offer banquet facilities, late-night dancing and live entertainment. The move put the club in violation of the location’s zoning—St. Vincent Hospital is across the street—and put the owners at odds with neighbors. “We supported the approval of their liquor license,” says Ruth Hayes, president of the Nora-Northside Community Council. “But they misrepresented it to us. Their success was based on the lounge, not the restaurant.”

Indeed, the nightclub drew large crowds on the weekends and became a hotspot, especially in the African-American community. It hosted posh events like parties for Eli Lilly and The Coalition of 100 Black Women. But the neighbors said it also created late-night noise, trash and debris in front of nearby businesses, public drunkenness, and the resulting police lights and sirens. Administrators at Spring Mill Meadows, a nursing home about 40 feet away, complained that potential residents were going elsewhere because of the Savoy’s disturbance.

The controversy, along with some internal troubles, hurt the Savoy’s bottom line, and in August 2006 Mays gave the other owners a $50,000 loan to help pay off outstanding debt. “I was trying to salvage a potentially successful black-owned business,” Mays says. “And it was, next to the Ice Lounge [part of which Mays also owns], the nicest black bar in town.” But weeks later, when the Metropolitan Development Commission voted unanimously to deny the Savoy’s request for a zoning variance, effectively ending the nightlife aspect of the venture, the majority owners decided to shut down for good. At the time, Mays concluded—and told the media—that the city didn’t want blacks to have upscale establishments. “I don’t get hung up on race,” he says. “But I made those comments because I felt it was appropriate.”

Mays is trying again with 300 East. He’s got $100,000 in it already, which he sees as more than an infusion of capital into a neighborhood lacking investment. To him, it’s an upscale place where young black businesspeople can network and rub elbows with the Bill Mayses of the city. “Young folks need a nice place to go and cut business deals,” he says. “The majority community can cut deals at the Columbia Club or Ruth’s Chris. We don’t have a place.”

Attorney Darla Y. Williams, one of the opposition leaders seated across from Mays at the hearing, thinks that is an insult. “I am African American,” she says, “and I don’t think we need to go back to segregation. There is no shortage of places for black business-people to go.” Williams, also a resident of the Mapleton-Fall Creek neighborhood in question, is very familiar with what happened at the Savoy and is concerned that even though 300 East is supposed to be just a restaurant/bar with no late-hour nightlife, it may follow the path of Mays’ previous investment and attract an unsavory element to the community. “He comes here, and instead of offering something of substance,” she says, “he puts up a slummy bar that attracts nothing but hoods and thugs.”

Attorney Roscoe Stovall Jr., another neighborhood resident, won’t go that far, but he shares Williams’ concern. “I don’t know that it’s a good thing for the community,” he says. “I was hoping it could become a family restaurant.” But unlike Williams, Stovall doesn’t question Mays’ motives. He says the 300 East ordeal gave him an admiration for Mays’ directness and fervor. “He is certainly a man to be reckoned with,” Stovall says.

He’s right. At the end of the meeting, after two hours of taking shots and refusing to respond in kind, Mays and his group prevail. The board unanimously approves the application of 300 East (which, at press time, was scheduled to open this month). And yet, Mays doesn’t step forth as the conquering hero. In fact, he seems almost annoyed at the formality. But the reporters swarm to him, It’s his time to speak.

“I’m always the one who seems to be on Front Street,” he tells a reporter. “There are seven other investors …”

“But you always have the privilege to be the one to step forward,” the reporter replies.

“Privilege? Yes,” Mays says with an ironic tone. “Bill Mays has appeared here many times. And he’s not always treated well.”

Watching Mayes handle the media—always being available for a blunt and witty comment—one might get the idea that he is driven by ego. But for every front-page bar deal there are four deals cut in Mays’ boardroom, investments in small businesses that few will ever know about. As for greed, the fact is that the cash he puts into these bars and other businesses is but a tiny portion of his portfolio.

The true reason why Mays invests so much of his time, money and self in small, minority-owned endeavors lies in his past.

If Mays finds chemistry boring, perhaps it’s because he was immersed in it for the first third of his life. His parents were both teachers in Evansville, where he was born in 1945. His father, Theodore Mays, was a college chemistry professor, and even as a young student attending segregated schools, Bill excelled in the subject.

His academic prowess helped him adapt when he was sent to the integrated Evansville Central High School for his senior year. Mays graduated 10th out of 316 students, the top male. And because his parents went to Indiana University, Bill was going to IU, and he was going to study chemistry.

He finished his undergraduate studies in 1967 but knew that with just a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, “you’re basically a test-tube washer,” he says. So he decided instead to channel his brains and gregariousness toward a career in business. He was hired by consumer-goods behemoth Procter & Gamble, where, far from the stuffy lab, young Bill Mays discovered his passion. “I’d get up every day just motivated to sell this ad, promote that product. It was the excitement of going out and meeting different people and having to sell your product. And yourself.”

While the Mays family was by no means wealthy, his parents’ well paying teaching jobs and Mays’ own academic standing helped alleviate some of the socioeconomic barbs of being black in Southern Indiana in the 1950s and ’60s. Even when he got to the IU School of Chemistry and saw only two other black chemistry students and no African-American teachers, he could chalk it up to the narrow field of interest. But when be entered the business world, Bill Mays encountered institutional racism head on.

Once, during his training at Procter & Gamble, Mays was sent to book a room at an Indianapolis hotel where he and his manager could hold a meeting. But when Mays inquired at the front desk, the white clerk said there were no rooms available. It was mid-morning, and the parking lot was empty. Mays’ manager promptly arrived at the hotel and booked a room without a problem. The manager called his boss in Cincinnati, who called the hotel headquarters in Memphis, which in turn called the clerk and told him not only to comp the room, but also to provide Mr. Mays with drinks and whatever else he wanted. When Mays asked his manager why he did it, he said because “it was not only a slap at you as a human being; it was a slap at Procter & Gamble, and we do not tolerate that.”

Mays took two lessons from the experience at the hotel: First, that an individual backed by a large corporation is a lot more powerful than an individual alone, and second, that a phone in the hands of a powerful person can be a potent weapon. They were lessons he would learn over and over again.

In 1971, Mays left Procter & Gamble to go back to IU for an MBA. “Business school was a hostile environment,” he says. “In chemistry, I was isolated because of the discipline. In business, they just didn’t want you there. They teach everybody how to understand investment banking, but there are certain tricks of the trade on how to get into a firm that makes huge dollars. Those aren’t on paper. You’ve got to know somebody. It’s all about contacts.”

Twenty-seven years later, Bill Mays is the man with the phone in his hand.

When he graduated in 1973, Mays turned down offers from Dow Chemical and Procter & Gamble to take a position as assistant to the president of Cummins Engine Company in Columbus, Indiana, because it had three black vice presidents and would give him access to top management. Again, he saw what power could do. When he and his wife were looking for a house in Columbus, the real-estate agent took them through the nicest neighborhoods. Mays stopped him. “Show us where we can really live,” he said. The agent responded, “You can live anywhere you can afford to buy in this city.” It was because J. Irwin Miller, who owned controlling interest in Cummins, had made it very clear that any discrimination against an employee would be taken as a personal affront. “Someone at the top, who has enough power, can just make something like that happen,” says Mays. And when he finally found a home he liked but couldn’t afford, the president of the company simply picked up a phone and called the bank to help set up the loan, which went through immediately.

And in 1980, when Mays decided it was time to start his own company, it was a man he’d met through the IU School of Business Alumni Association, a man who was now an executive at Indiana National Bank, who picked up the phone and got the ball rolling on financing.

Twenty-seven years later, Bill Mays is the man with the phone in his hand. And for all the bad press surrounding the bars, for all the disparaging claims of power abuse and back-room shenanigans, it’s hard to deny that Mays has used his money and influence to help small-business people. He has learned, preached and practiced the idea young Henry invoked in the Mays Chemical Co. boardroom, the sentiment he might as well have jotted down on his blank yellow notepad: Hard work will get you far, but hard work and a powerful friend will get you farther.

 

Back in the boardroom, Mays is ready for his 3:30 appointment. The door opens, and in steps a woman in her early 40s wearing a black suit. She carries a folder and a videotaped biography of George Washington Carver. Flustered, she nearly drops her materials as Mays approaches to shake her hand. She is not a businesswoman.

The two sit down, the woman in the chair formerly occupied by Henry (the aspiring garage-door mogul), Mays in his own. She assumes her predecessor’s nervous upright position and quickly blurts out, “Mr. Mays, as you know, this is Black History Month, and lam looking for someone to partner with me to go to Indianapolis Public Schools and promote the studies and research of George Washington Carver in a curriculum for our schools.”

Mays takes a quick look through the woman’s folder, then leans hack into his familiar pose: elbow up, cupping his chin and stroking his mustache.

“Well,” he says, “what can Bill Mays do for you?”

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