This U of M alumnus went from modest beginnings to building an empire in the financial
world. With a nod to his parents, he has created a way for others to find their own
path to success.
By Greg Russell
Jim Ayers has a unique way of seeing the world and he never has to leave home to do
it. The University of Memphis alumnus owns a condominium on a cruise ship that constantly
navigates the globe to such exotic ports of call as Venice, Kuala Lumpur, Dubai, Barcelona
“It is an apartment building that floats,” says Ayers, who graduated from then-Memphis
State University in 1969 with an accounting degree. “When the ship docks, you can
tour all day long and see all the museums. A year ago, we were above the Arctic Circle.
We’d get out on those islands and tromp around and come back, and you end up back
at home that night. It is a great concept.”
Talk about globetrotting, yes, but Ayers’ journey doesn’t stop there: through a unique
foundation he set up just over a decade ago, he ensures that hundreds of economically
disadvantaged youth are also seeing the world — via the wonders of higher education.
In the rural, west Tennessee county of Decatur, the philanthropist established a bold
new program that assures that any high school student who wants to go to college can
do so, regardless of economic background or needs. The Ayers Foundation Scholars Program
provides up to $4,000 a year to needy high school students and just as importantly,
furnishes counseling sessions that put the student on the right track for higher education
while he or she is still in middle school.
“In Decatur and southern Henderson County, as far as we know, we have never had a
student who wanted to go to college who couldn’t go because of financial reasons,”
says Ayers, a member of the U of M’s advisory group, Board of Visitors, and UMF Board
The program is having a major impact on a region that is economically depressed
and offers few high-paying jobs: it provides a sort of escape for high school students.
Farming, often marginal at best, and factory work are many times the only options
for youth who don’t pursue higher education.
|Jim Ayers’ began a foundation 10 years ago that helps economically strapped high school
students attend the college of their choice.
“Most students coming out of the schools that we serve get very little parental assistance
because people just don’t have the money,” Ayers says. “These are people who probably
have an average family income under $30,000, working people, low to low-middle income
Students have gone on to become directors of college campuses and leaders in business
“It has been very successful with the four-year college student. Our percentage of
students who complete four years is slightly higher than the national average even
though it is first-generation college graduates. You would think that it’d be a smaller
number, but it is a larger percentage.”
The program isn’t small, either. Some 1,250 students have benefited since it was initiated
in 1999, and it currently has a $10 million endowment, with plans to take that to
$100 million. Several U of M students have been able to attend the University via
the program. It has since expanded to southern Henderson County in west Tennessee
and one of the state’s poorest regions, Perry County.
Ayers says the foundation provides two things to economically disadvantaged students
that are just as important as money. “We have at least one counselor and one financial
aid officer — all of whom are foundation employees — who have offices in these schools
we serve. They zero in 100 percent on getting the students taking the right courses,
encouraging them that they can do college work and helping them select a college and
helping them get their admission papers and other papers in order,” says Ayers.
Trista Carrington, a U of M senior psychology major from Scotts Hill High School in
Henderson County, says the program can be a lifeline. “If you fail a class, they offer
you the resources to get you back on track. They round up scholarships for you, help
you with all the paperwork. They help you with just about anything and get you in
Ayers says the financial aid officers work with students to find Pell grants, lottery
scholarship funds from the state and any other form of scholarship money to help offset
expenses. He said that his foundation will then “provide up to $16,000 in their college
career as lastdollar scholarships” to offset any financial shortcomings not covered
The program has few limitations, something Ayers feels strongly about for personal
“We have no restrictions on academics. If they can pass out of high school and graduate
and if they can get admitted to college, we will fund them.
“That came from my record. I was a so-so student. I was in my early 20s before performance
kicked in. I would not want to bar someone from the opportunity to go to college just
because they were immature or not motivated at the time. A lot of super-achievers
don’t kick in until they are in their 20s.”
Which describes Ayers almost perfectly. And if it wasn’t for outside urging, the
native of Parsons, Tenn., might never have gone to college.
|Ayers is an avid outdoorsman and has traveled the world via his "floating condo."
“I come from a very modest background. My dad had four brothers and sisters and my
mother had two sisters. All of those brothers and sisters received a college education
except my mother and my father. I think both of them, looking back, felt guilty. I
know they wish they had gotten more education. They had a great appreciation for education.
“They really emphasized to me from my very early age that I was going to get a college
education. They didn’t tell me what to get it in, they didn’t tell me where to go,
but they told me I was going to get a college education. In those days, more so than
now, if you got a college education, you didn’t have to do manual labor. If not, there
was a good likelihood you were either going to be doing manual labor or working in
a garment factory.”
Ayers’ success story is remarkable in itself.
He came to the U of M to pursue predentistry, but soon switched to accounting. His
modest background didn’t exactly make it easy to attend school, especially after he
got married his sophomore year.
“My family encouraged me to get my education, but they said, ‘If you get married,
you are going to have to get a job.’”
During his college days, Ayers worked positions at Forest Hill Dairy (now Turner Dairy)
near Overton Square; at The Commercial Appeal; loading trucks at Red Ball Motor Freight; at two Holiday Inns; and a summer job
at McCormick Spices cleaning up their pepper racks. “I loved it,” Ayers says of McCormick.
“It paid a hundred and a quarter a week, which was big money in those days and I had
a company car at the age of 19 or 20.”
As far as campus life, Ayers says, “I lived on Mynders (near campus) and paid $65
a month rent, which I couldn’t afford. I hung around the Dean of Men’s office until
they got to the point they were tired of me, so they finally found me a student apartment.
My rent went from $65 a month to $23 a month. It was Vet Village: they were long Army
barracks that were cut into four apartments.”
Upon graduation, Ayers had an immediate choice that would shape his future: he interviewed
for something outside his degree.
“When I got out, for college graduates in accounting, the going rate was $500 a month.
I did some interviews for accounting, but I also interviewed with a company called
Ortho Pharmaceuticals for what they called a ‘detail man,’ a person selling pharmaceuticals
to mostly physicians. Basically they paid $500 a month, but you got a new company
car and you had a yearend bonus that was about $1,500 a year, and that $1,500 a year
was going to pay off my school debts. So I picked up and I went to Birmingham and
covered the northwest Alabama region for Ortho.”
Ayers, though, found himself back in Memphis in the early 1970s in a job that eventually
gave him his big break.
“I saw an ad in the newspaper in Memphis for a comptroller position for a nursing
home company here in town called Care Inns. I applied for that job and got it.
“About a year after I was there, they had a huge management blowup, and just about
everybody in the corporate office got dismissed, with the exception of myself and
two bookkeepers who worked under me. We kept our heads down, kept as low of a profile
as possible. Two months later, the president of the company came in and said, ‘We
have to have staff, I think you can run the company.’
“So at the age of 26, I had 1,300 employees, 13 nursing homes, a commercial laundry
and two convalescent nursing hospitals. We got those things making a little money;
they were losing big-time before that.”
Ayers made a personal investment in the nursing home industry, eventually building
an empire of 40 facilities.
He then entered the banking business in 1984 with the purchase of FirstBank, which
has since grown to 46 branches with 509 employees across the state and $2.5 billion
His foundation speaks volumes on his desire to give back.
“I have had a very privileged existence. It is not like I take it for granted. I think
about it every day.
“Here I am, from a small school in rural west Tennessee, just mediocre student at
best. For some reason, I have been extremely successful financially.”
He says only five others in his high school graduating class were able to attend college.
“With those other students who were probably more brilliant than I was, they didn’t
have anyone to encourage them while they were in high school. They didn’t have anyone
to push them to enroll in college. If they had enrolled, they probably didn’t have
anyone who urged them ahead while they were going to school.
“These are good people, people that are just as good or better than me, but haven’t
had the success because they didn’t have the same opportunity at higher education.
“A big part of my success was having that college education that opened doors and
gave me the opportunity to succeed in whatever job I had and to better myself.”
Through his foundation, Ayers is allowing others a way to journey into the world to
discover their own path to success.