From the moment Tom Mullins arrived in Tyler thirty-one years ago to assume the position of President and CEO of the Tyler Economic Development Council, it was obvious to everyone involved with city leadership that a new wind had blown into town. Not a whirlwind, haphazardly scattering everything in its path in a thousand different directions. It was more of a straight-line wind roaring forward, focusing its energy in one direction, never deviating. Unlike the destructive aspects of a storm-borne wind, Tom’s energy was concentrated on a singular, positive goal: help Tyler grow by diversifying its economic base.
In the winter of 1989, Tyler was in the throes of a recession brought about by the oil bust of the mid-80s. Prices began falling in 1978 and continued a steady decline, with crude oil bottoming out at $9.85 per-barrel in July 1986. Since the oil boom of the 1930s, Tyler’s rosy economy depended on the oil industry as its primary financial driver. As the effects of the oil bust dragged on throughout the 80s, city leaders began to consider what their options were. An eight-member committee was formed to determine a solution. The committee was comprised of two factions: the old guard who believed the situation was part of the normal ebb and flow of the oil industry, which would right itself if given time; and a contingent of younger, more aggressive citizens who wanted change, who saw a need for more diversity in Tyler’s economic base.
The committee’s first action was to hire Dr. Ray Perryman to conduct an economic outlook study that projected anticipated growth over the following five to ten years. The next step taken by the committee was to engage Fantus Consulting in Chicago to design a five-year economic development strategy and budget that would require a full-time professional to implement. That led to hiring an executive search firm, New York-based Ward Howell International, Inc., tasked to recruit the right leader to turn the strategy into a reality.
“In mid-December 1988, I received a call from Lincoln Eldredge who identified himself as a recruiter with the search firm’s office in Dallas, Texas,” Tom recalls. “Without identifying the specific location, he asked if I would be interested in a job in the Sun Belt. I looked out the window and saw a Canadian goose landing on an ice-covered pond. I replied, ‘You’ve caught me at a weak moment.’”
The recruiter said the job was in Texas. “Having been to Dallas once, my impression had been it was flat and dusty, the typical West Texas image from the movies. My immediate reaction was ‘No, thank you.’ Eldredge was persistent, and I agreed to go to Tyler for an interview in January. My first look at Tyler was a cold, rainy day. I had to warm up to the idea of Texas, but I noticed that the eastern part of Texas looked a lot like Minnesota, not at all the flat, treeless terrain I imagined.”
The search committee Tom met with was chaired by the late A.W. “Dub” Riter, Jr., head of one of Tyler’s leading banks. Dr. Ray Hawkins, President of Tyler Junior College was also on the committee. One of the committee’s leading voices favoring diversification and change was City Manager, the late Gary Guinn. Tom remembers, “I came prepared with a specific strategy detailing what I considered the best approach for getting the city out of the quagmire it was in—because of its dependence on a single economic driver—which of course was the energy sector. At that time, mortgage foreclosures had reached crisis stage, unemployment was high, and people were forced to leave Tyler. I suggested the need for diversifying the economy; the idea that no city should be dependent on a single economic driver.”
Tom was soon the top candidate for the position. “I always believed there were two things that got me the offer: I had the credentials, a master’s degree in regional development; and I had the experience of three successful Minnesota startups in Duluth, Grand Rapids and Rochester,” says Tom. In March, Tom brought his wife Sharon to Tyler. It was seventy-five degrees and the azaleas were in bloom. “We picked up a USA Today and noticed that a blizzard was going through Rochester that day. That sealed the deal. At the time, our daughter Erin was eleven and our son Sam was a year old. We both agreed that Tyler would be a great place to raise our children. We thought Tyler could give us the quality of life we wanted for our family, coincidentally the same reasons I have been using with business prospects of the TEDC for the past thirty-one years!”
Tom moved his family to Tyler in June 1989, and the community began to feel the wind pick up. Tom began filling the pipeline with business prospects to pitch on the advantages of locating to Tyler. His approach was methodical; his pace was steady and constant; his passion was relentless.
At the recent annual meeting of the Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce, Sharon was the first person Tom thanked from the podium. “She is the one who said we should try this, and it would not have happened without her support and encouragement.” As he continued his remarks, Tom also acknowledged the talented staff at the TEDC, The Chamber and Visit Tyler. Finally, he acknowledged the support he received from community leadership, “When we began the work, the business community was the first to support the direction we were heading. Later, a large part of the community embraced the changes we instigated.”
Reflecting on what his legacy to the city might be, Tom said two things come immediately to mind: a more diverse economy that will aid in future growth; and the TEDC’s strong structure that will continue long into the future. “Perhaps a third is the reputation Tyler now has as a community that is pro-growth.”
Tom is still blowing, no longer a gale force, but strong and steady. He has formed a consulting group, T.G. Mullins Consulting LLC. His first contract is a two-month project to help Scott Martinez get networked and situated in Tyler as he takes over the position Tom is leaving. “Already, Scott is working on four promising projects that have Tyler is on their short list: Two Fortune 100 distribution center projects, a Fortune 500 computer tech company and an electronics equipment manufacturer. Combined, they will create just over 2,000 new jobs and will further diversify the economic base,” Tom says with no hint of slowing down. “I have signed a contract with UT Health East Texas to work on regional projects over a twelvemonth period and I am in discussion with two other major development projects that will impact the region. I have a few other consulting prospects in my pipeline.”
Apparently, when the wind is blowing, retirement does not mean stopping work. Just slowing down. Although, slowing down may not be accurate either. “I can’t stop. I have to be busy. I just won’t be as busy because I can set my own schedule,” Tom rationalizes. “I came here thirty-one years when the area was in a recession caused by the oil bust. Now, I’m leaving in the midst of another recession due to a global pandemic. It’s like Sandburg wrote, ‘I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.’”