by Taylor Kilgore
Former President and CEO of Southwire Stu Thorn spoke to a full house on February 8 on “How to Change the World Without Changing a Thing: Leveraging Capitalism to Create Shared Value,” as the most recent guest speaker in the BB&T Lectures in Free Enterprise Series held at the University of West Georgia’s Townsend Center for the Performing Arts. The focus of his talk was capitalism and how it has improved the world we live in today by incorporating the idea of shared value. In many ways, Stu has implemented this idea into the local community through Southwire Company with exponential success.
“Capitalism has been out there for centuries and even millennia, and it is working
amazingly well,” Stu said. “It is a very simple idea that has a hugely powerful effect.
Rather than looking for the next shiny new object as a way to improve the world, there
is a great opportunity to take the capitalistic system and improve the world in very
dramatic ways, some of which may look like philanthropy.”
Stu explained the benefits of “shared value” in his talk, sharing the success of 12 For Life – a program that helps at-risk high school students stay in school while maintaining a job. This program is a win-win for local schools in the community, who graduate more students, and Southwire, which has a highly trained talent pool from which to hire new employees.
“Shared value uses the capitalistic system to encourage businesses to act in their self interest in a way that is also in the self interest of society,” Stu explained. “Companies make wildly more money doing this because they have more output than input, and they help society improve simultaneously. We help educators solve social problems while Southwire makes more money.”
Southwire implemented the 12 for Life program into their factory seven years ago, and it has yielded stellar results.
“We only hire people with high school degrees,” Stu explained, “but Carroll County had one of the highest dropout rates in the state. Southwire invested $5 million in a factory here, which we staffed at 100 percent with kids that the school system said were about to drop out of high school.”
As a result, Carroll County is graduating more students, and Southwire has a new group of highly trained individuals ready to hire when they leave high school.
Stu and Southwire have continued to expand this model, leading to the creation of Southwire Engineering Academy for students in high school who aspire to study engineering. In this program, students work with Southwire engineers to solve problems within the factory. In addition, Southwire has worked with West Georgia Technical College to achieve their goal of helping local citizens with their trades. UWG was given $1.1 million to establish the Southwire Sustainable Business Honors Program – a rigorous program that allows students to earn their bachelor’s and master’s degrees in four years. Students work with UWG faculty and Southwire employees to implement a long-term curriculum and focus on Southwire’s tenets of building worth, growing green, employee stewardship, community relationship, and ethics. The students also gain an internship opportunity within the Southwire Company.
“When you are thinking about the evils of capitalism, think about the 12 for Life kids, the engineering kids, the technical school, and your fellow peers,” Stu said. “Keep in mind it is all because of capitalism. By doing business in a way of shared value, think of how much more powerful it is because then the ideology becomes scalable.”
Stu was the first non-family member to become CEO of Southwire Company. He served as such for 16 years, during which the company experienced a 300 percent revenue growth to $5.6 billion and pioneered new technologies that helped shape the wire industry. The Copper Club named Stu its “Copper Man of the Year” in 2014, the copper industry’s highest honor.