By Mary Carr Mayle, Savannah Morning News
Asked to tell his personal story, successful lawyer, CPA, business executive and community leader Don Waters immediately turned it into one of his favorite topics — mentorship.
“The Don Waters story is one that was never meant to be, I promise you that,” the chairman, president and CEO of Brasseler USA told an audience of 125 business people Wednesday at the Business in Savannah quarterly luncheon at the Savannah Morning News.
“It happened only on the shoulders of good people guiding, counseling and mentoring me. And it started with my wonderful parents.”
Waters grew up on Anderson Street in Savannah, “a poor middle-class kid on the wrong side of the railroad tracks.”
“My father had a serious business reversal and lost his job when I was 13, so my mother went to work at the public library,” he said. “Despite my mother bringing home armloads of books and my father’s constant insistence that I get a college education, I was having way too much fun at Savannah High to take it seriously.”
When he graduated, he didn’t even apply to college.
“I had a job, a car and a girlfriend,” he said, laughing. “What more did I need?”
At the “new Kmart” on Montgomery Crossroads, Waters had worked his way up to manager of the lamp department.
“I was sort of rocking and rolling through life, doing things that weren’t necessarily good for me,” he said. “But my dad had this thing about education, and he wouldn’t give up. He finally grabbed me one day and said, ‘Look, I called Armstrong, and you are going out there to apply.’
“From that point on to this day, whether it’s through my service on the board of regents, supporting Armstrong, Savannah State or our K-12 educators, I have had a soft spot for education and doing what we can as a community to collaborate on creating educational opportunity for people.
“It was absolutely my gateway out.”
Today, Waters focuses his extensive community service efforts on three areas — education, redevelopment of the inner city and Union Mission.
Taking his soft spot back to his old neighborhood, Waters is partnering with friend and businessman Reed Dulany to convert the old St. Pius X Catholic School building on Anderson Street into the Savannah Classical Academy Charter School, which opens in August.
“Our goal is both to invest in the Anderson Street corridor and have excellent public education,” he said.
Another passion is Union Mission, where he has served on the board and is currently chairman.
“Our mission is to address homelessness, one life at a time, and I think we’re making real inroads,” he said, adding that the late Curtis Lewis gets the credit for recognizing a need long ago and putting his considerable philanthropy behind it.
“He is truly my hero.”
As for his service on the University System Board of Regents, Waters wants to help in the regents’ goal of adding 250,000 more graduates by 2020.
“We want a more educated Georgia,” he said. “College graduates in Georgia earn significantly more than those without.”
Another important strategy of the university system, he said, is to be an impact player in economic development in Georgia.
“Our colleges and universities need to work collaboratively with their local governments and local leaders to leverage those assets into business opportunities.”
His company is an early example of that, he said.
Brasseler USA came to Savannah from Chicago in 1981 as part of an economic development outreach, founded here with 14 employees, Waters said.
“Today, we have 420 employees. That’s economic impact.”
Waters recalled a recent day spent with County Commission Chairman Al Scott and the new county manager.
“We spent the whole time talking about a strategic plan for Chatham County,” he said.
“The idea that the leadership would really sit and plan and talk about how to bring disparate groups together — the university system assets, county, city, nonprofit and business assets and consciously develop a plan for the future – I give Al Scott great credit for that. He’s hired a strategic planner and we need that.
“We need the kind of strategic planning that, in 1964, brought a group of Atlanta leaders together to say ‘We’re going to be the city too busy to hate. And we’re going to start with a baseball team.’ And they built a stadium on faith and then went to Milwaukee and convinced the Braves to move,” he said.
“We in Savannah have got to have the ability for our people to think like that. And a forum for strategic planning is the way to do it.
“I hope everyone in this room and beyond will get behind this idea of visionary strategic planning, that we support Al Scott and the new county manager and lay out a road map for Savannah’s future.
“That is the kind of strategic collaborative planning that moves communities forward.”