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Up close: Jim Shaw

For many people, being first only comes once in a lifetime — if at all. For Jim Shaw, a charismatic septuagenarian who is president and chairman of the board for the Liberty Community Development Corp. in Winston-Salem, being first is second nature. Shaw was the first black franchise tire dealer of BFGoodrich in the U.S., the first black to serve on the board of the Winston-Salem Sports Commission and the first black chair of the Better Business Bureau in Winston-Salem. And those accomplishments are only a fraction of what Shaw has achieved.

Shaw also was the Southeast’s largest Gulf Oil dealer in volume in the 1960s and went into the convenience store and real estate business before retiring. Today, he pours his seemingly endless energy into reinvigorating the Liberty Street corridor in Winston-Salem. “He has really energized that organization and has made significant progress in revitalizing the Liberty Street area,” said Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines. “Jim is very charismatic. He is a person who is hard to say no to. He is very committed to what he is doing.”

After working for R.J. Reynolds in the 1960s, what persuaded you to say, ‘I’m ready to start my own company?’ After working at R.J. Reynolds, I was married. I had four kids. And the superintendent of the factory I was working in on the fourth floor called me over. He was 7-foot tall. I was sweeping floors then in the factory, picking up tobacco. He said ‘how far you want to go in Reynolds?’ I said ‘I’d like to be president.’ He said ‘you’re black, you’ll never be president.’ So I went home that night and I told my wife. I wrote my letter of resignation and I carried it to him the next morning and I gave him 30 days notice. My wife said ‘what are you going to do? I said ‘I don’t know, I’ll find something to do.’

And that was starting your Gulf station. How did that come about? I was sitting on my front porch one day and the phone rang. It was Mr. Hill, (George Edward Hill, president and CEO, Winston Mutual Life Insurance Co.) and he said, ‘I want to offer you a job.’ I said, ‘doing what?’ He said ‘selling life insurance.’ I said, ‘I want to be my own company.’ He called me again because he liked me. He said there’s a service station on Liberty Street for sale. I went up to the service station and talked to the guy. I told him, ‘I’ll buy it.’ We got together and drew up a contract and the next day I was pumping gas.

How would you describe business at first? Business was good when I first started out. I had never been in business before so I had to learn and my staff grew as I grew. If I made money, they made more money. I got up to 150,000 gallons a month. One day three white guys pulled in the lot. One of them walked up and said, ‘we are looking for James Shaw. We are from BFGoodrich. We are looking for a qualified black (businessman) to own the first franchise dealer in the country and everybody said talk to you.’ That’s when I built Shaw Tire right down the street. After we opened, R.J. Reynolds became our biggest customer.

What was the state of Liberty Street then? Liberty Street was one of the busiest streets in Winston-Salem. From the airport all the way down to Ivy Avenue there were eight service stations, B&O Furniture, two dry cleaners, one fire station, two major grocery stores. In the 1980s, it really started going down.

How did you get involved in the CDC? A lady asked me to come to a Liberty Community Development meeting. She convinced me to go to another meeting, so I went. What I realized they were trying to do was get me on the board, and they succeeded. So I did it, and I just surrounded myself with people smarter than I was to serve on the board.

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