After more than a half century of helping manage many of Chattanooga's pioneering ventures in manufacturing, transportation, energy and telecommunications, Joe Ferguson is still looking for new ways to improve the economy of his adopted hometown.
The 83-year-old EPB chairman, who was saluted Wednesday as the 2018 Chattanooga Area Manager of the Year, helped expand one of the biggest glass bottling companies, build the world's biggest stove and oven burner manufacturer and pioneer a new type of electric bus during his manufacturing careers with the Chattanooga Glass Co., Burner Systems International and Advanced Vehicle Systems. Later, as head of the city's Enterprise Center and chair of Chattanooga's Electric Power Board, Ferguson has worked to promote development of a smart electric grid and fiber optic system that created Chattanooga as "Gig City" with the fastest citywide internet service anywhere in the Western Hemisphere.
Fifteen area business and management groups help support and select a top manager in Chattanooga every year. Previous receipients include:
Julie Baumgardner - 2017
Emerson Russell - 2016
Nick Decosimo - 2015
Keith Sanford - 2014
Harold E. Depriest - 2013
Craig Holley - 2012
Robert P. Main - 2011
Grady P. Williams - 2010
Charles L. Arant - 2009
Harshad C. Shah - 2008
Ruth W. Brinkley - 2007
Tom Edd Wilson - 2006
Vickie B. Gregg – 2005
Joe Guthrie - 2004
Claude Ramsey - 2003
Bill W. Stacy - 2002
Fletcher Bright - 2001
J. Harold Chandler - 2000
Patsy Hazlewood - 1999
Carolyn Jones - 1998
Zan Guerry - 1997
Kenneth S. Baxter - 1996
James D. Kennedy Jr. - 1995
James C. Berry - 1994
James C. Pickle - 1993
Paul K. (Pat) Brock - 1992
Dalton Roberts - 1991
Daniel K. Frierson - 1990
Joseph F. Decosimo - 1989
Olan Mills - 1988
O.D. McKee - 1987
H. Carey Hanlin - 1986
But after receiving accolades for his achievements during an awards luncheon Wednesday, Ferguson said he is most excited about the future and developing even more innovative technologies with the aid of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Ferguson said the Chattanooga of today is far different and improved from the town he moved to in 1964 with his wife, Virginia, and his then 4-year-old son Scott and his 2-year-old daughter Lisa.
"Today, we are the envy of many cities — not just nationally but internationally as well," the Memphis native said of his adopted hometown. "People still come to Chattanooga from all over the world to see how we did what we did to pull ourselves from the floor to be a city that is world-acclaimed."
Ferguson credited Chattanooga's "exceptional leadership — and help from Coca-Cola money" for the turnaround.
But for all of his own success and that of Chattanooga, Ferguson stressed more must be done to keep moving ahead, or risk falling behind.
"We are in a very fast-moving environment — a blink of the eye and you are behind," Ferguson said. "It's such a challenge today to stay ahead and stay in the ballgame from a scientific and technical viewpoint."
In his own career, plastic and metal cans replaced the glass containers he first produced at Chattanooga Glass and shifting economic and technical markets eventually led to end of Burner Systems and Advanced Vehicle Systems in Chattanooga.
That's why Ferguson said EPB is investing in new fiber optic, smart grid and greener energy technologies to adapt to new energy demands. And that's why he said the city-owned utility worked to form a partnership with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to not only study EPB's energy systems but to offer technical advice for other local companies.
"I would argue that this is the No. 1 energy and research lab anywhere in the world and it's only two hours up the road," Ferguson said. "This is a huge asset for our region and I'm excited about what ORNL can bring to this community."
ORNL Director Thomas Zacharia came to Chattanooga Wednesday for the luncheon to honor Ferguson along with more than a hundred other community leaders.
Chattanooga's high-speed internet and culture of entrepreneurship and innovation has positioned Chattanooga to achieve the lowest jobless rate in nearly two decades, down to only 3 percent in May.
The low unemployment rate may be good for those looking for work, but Ferguson said it is also a challenge for businesses and community leaders eager to grow the local economy with the available workforce already nearly fully employed.
Chattanooga faces more challenges in workforce and needs to do more to improve education, Ferguson said.
"We're fortunate to have UTC and Chattanooga State with relatively new leaders to help us try to catch up on the workforce development side," he said.
Ferguson stressed that people are key to the success of any organization and in his speech he personally recognized nearly a dozen workers who have helped his own success.
"One of the things that I know is that I didn't get here by myself, not by any means," Ferguson said.
Julie Baumgardner, the president of First Things First who won the 2017 Chattanooga Manager of the Year award, described Ferguson as "compassionate, consummate professional, wise, visionary, relentless, kind, ethical and fair." She said Ferguson's success has come from his team-based approach in all of his ventures.
Other community leaders echoed those praises for Ferguson as a connector and supporter of other people.
But Maria Noel, a former colleague at the Enterprise Center who now works that the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, credited Ferguson's larger-than-life presence in a room to his distinctive walk.
"He's got swagger," she said.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 757-6340.