Sam Shugart is using his skills and resources to bring bigger and better music and arts entertainment to Southwest Georgia.
ALBANY, Ga. -- Sam Shugart's used to being doubted.
Whether it's the contrast between his seemingly contradictory playboy/humanitarian images, the idea that he has fashioned an overwhelmingly successful career at such a young age, or the fact that he's likely the only business CEO who'll show up for board meetings in shorts, T-shirt and flip-flops, there's something about Shugart that makes people question his motives.
Like the guy who insisted that Shugart was some kind of trust-fund baby who'd done little to earn his success.
"This guy kept pushing me," Shugart said, smiling wryly at the memory. "He wanted to know how I really got where I am. Finally I just told him, 'If you really want to know, come by my office at 4 o'clock Saturday morning and we'll talk about it.' The guy just said, 'Four o'clock Saturday morning? ...' and that was that."
Shugart, perhaps one of the most low-key good guys you'll ever meet -- the kind of guy who gives lots of money and time to a charity and tells organizers if they publicly acknowledge his contributions in any way he'll quit giving -- stepped into the white-hot spotlight in a big way on June 12 when he announced plans to put together a three-day music and arts festival in Albany.
Since that day, his phone has blown up with calls, texts and emails from just about every segment of the population ... artists who want to perform at the festival, groups that want a piece of the action, businessmen who want to make a sponsorship deal, pitchman after pitchman who's angling for a piece of what could be a very significant pie.
Shugart, whose name is on the sign of one of the most successful insurance agencies in the region and who built and owned (until recently) an upscale pool hall, who is partners in a large cabinet shop, who owns two real estate investment companies and who owns "two other little companies," sighs as he contemplates all those calls and all the requests that have come pouring in.
"What people don't get about me is that this thing is not about the money," he says. "Don't get me wrong; I'd love to pull this off, take it to the point where we're making $150 to $200 million. I'd keep a couple of million and give the rest away.
"But for me this is completely about the greater good. I want people to look at it and say it's a 'can't-be-what-it-is' thing, but it is."
That, according to the people who know and work closest with him, is the essence of Sam Shugart. In a world steeped in cynicism and filled with phonies, Shugart is the genuine article.
"The main thing you need to know about Sam is that he is the real deal," local restaurateur/musician Bo Henry, who is one of the guiding forces behind what is initially being called the Southwest Georgia Music and Arts Festival, said. "He's just one of those local good guys who works hard at what he does every day.
"When he gets excited about something, he just puts blinders on and goes after it."
A quick look at Shugart's history blows that "trust-fund baby" idea all out of the water. He was born in Altoona, Penn., but moved "home" to Albany when he was 2 years old. He attended the local public school system and eventually earned a business degree from the University of Georgia.
But Shugart's trip to Athens was a long, rocky and often painful one.
"I was poorer than most but never knew it," he said. "My mom worked three or four jobs most of her life, and she and my dad divorced when I was 12. The juvenile justice system then pretty much took over the role of father figure in my life. ... Let's just say I was a habitual violator. Nothing big, just petty things. That's why I'm a big supporter of the local juvenile justice system today.
"I started work when I was 13, started my first two companies -- lawn maintenance and car detailing -- when I was 14, and I became my own legal guardian when I was 16. Most of the guys my age I knew spent their time sitting in front of the TV dreaming of a better life. I made mine."
With the help of neighbors who often fed him when he had little at home to eat, Shugart developed a work ethic that still drives him. And he developed a simplistic but effective approach to work.
"People always want to know how to get rich," he said. "It's really quite simple: Work hard and spend less money than you make. There are people who say Bill Gates makes too much money, and if you feel that way you should get out there and invent a system better than his and go get him. We want to criticize people for being successful, but I don't get that.
"I believe in working for what you get; 40 hours a week is part-time to me. And I live well below my means. I'm not impressed by cars or fancy clothes or things like that. I have no desire to keep up with the Joneses; I'm just fine being a Shugart."
Before entering and paying his way through Darton College in Albany, Shugart worked any number of jobs to raise spending money and living expenses. He poached Christmas trees off other people's property, picked up refundable soft drink bottles, managed his lawn and car-washing businesses, worked at Lowe's, Long John Silver's, Picnic Pizza and any other place that needed part-time help.
He also took up the game of pool, got very good at it, and hustled people out of enough money to pay his way through Darton.
"I later took an aptitude test at Georgia, and the guidance counselor who gave me the test said I spiked off the page in risk management," Shugart said. "She asked me how I developed those skills, and it was really quite simple. If I was in a situation that determined whether I was going to eat or pay the rent, I made sure the risk was so much in my favor it was a sure thing."
After earning an associate's degree at Darton, Shugart decided he'd finish requirements for a Business degree in Athens. It took him six years -- work a quarter, take classes a quarter -- but he finished. Not, of course, without some help along the way.
"I look on my life, and I can name two dozen families and couples who took me under their wing as pseudo parents," he said. "I'd do little chores for these people, and they ended up bringing me more food and buying me more new clothes than you could imagine.
"The kindness of all these people is what helped me develop one of the mottoes I live by: 'We are not defined so much by the circumstances and events in our lives, but more so how we respond to them'."
Shugart's final big push to finish at UGA came when he went to say farewell to an elderly couple he'd befriended. He was out of money and planned to return home and work for two full quarters before returning to Georgia to finish school.
"I'd done chores for 'Mr. Henry' (I don't want to give his full name), who's passed on now, and he and his wife would feed me," Shugart said. "I wouldn't take money from them. When I went to say goodbye and tell him I was heading back home to work and make enough money to come back and finish school, he convinced me to work for him for 35 hours a week and to stay in an old trailer he had that I fixed up.
"Not long after I graduated, Mr. Henry died. But he became one of those people who had a great impact on my life."
Shugart graduated at the top of his class in UGA's risk management program, and he had job offers from some of the largest firms in the country. He chose, however, to return to Albany, and here he's built his reputation around the work ethic that's become his trademark.
In addition to his various business ventures, Shugart's also been active in, among other organizations, the Sertoma Club, the Food Bank of Southwest Georgia, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, the Lake Park Recreation Club, and he co-founded the Cancer Ties benefit, the Downtown Albany Merchants Association and the downtown Mardi Gras celebration.
"As I've gone from being the young guy to being the 'old man' in these organizations, I've started telling young people who get involved that if they're there to network, they did not come for the right reason," Shugart said. "If you're handing out business cards in the name of charity, you'll fail.
"The community knows who's out there shaking and moving and who's there for selfish reasons."
A few months back, Shugart got involved with helping Evan Barber, Justin Andrews, Jeb Tabb and others start a new music-based business, the Threeforty Creative Group. In talking with the young entrepreneurs, the topic of the BamaJam music festival in Enterprise, Ala., came up.
The discussions piqued Shugart's interest.
"They were talking about the crowds and the artists, so I decided to take a look at the numbers," he said. "What got my attention was that at these festivals they were making $150 million over three days and paying out $10 million to the bands that played. I didn't see a down side.
"I told the guys to get me some real numbers of what it would cost to book bands: the names, stats, prices. We'd talked about this as a hypothetical for several months, but then I told them to find me a weekend in October where there's not an Auburn, Georgia or FSU home football game but that's early enough not to interfere with the (annual Exchange Club) fair."
The group found the perfect weekend -- Oct. 12-14 -- and after quick negotiations with Exchange Club officials to secure the group's 106-acre fairgrounds, the music festival was on. Just like that.
"It intrigued me that no one had ever done this kind of thing where big-name artists were brought in to perform, but charities and the public were invited to come in and make their money, too," Shugart said. "As I planned this, I built it around a concept I call Dynamic Synergy, which I've patented. Dynamic Synergy is the interaction of elements characterized by energy or effective action that, when combined, produce a total effect greater than the sum of the individual elements.
"So I brought in four or five members of a core team, maybe 20 more to serve as a core management team and up to 130 who are part of my core profit-sharing team. Except for the four or five key players, I've not solicited help from anyone. They've come to me. That's Dynamic Synergy."
Cynthia George, well-known in the community for her tireless charitable work, is one of the key members of Shugart's core team. She's serving as his liaison for nonprofit participation at the festival.
"Sam has such a beautiful heart; he's just an incredible, giving person," she said. "He truly wants the nonprofits to come in here and not only make some money, but also to promote their mission. I was thrilled to be a part of his vision."
Now, the three-day festival that seemed so far-fetched to many when first annaounced, is growing by leaps and bounds. Shugart is days away from making significant announcements about the festival and its lineup, and he's created a buzz that has top-level industry executives and some of the top players in the entertaiment industry contacting him.
Doubters and naysayers keep reminding him that Oct. 12 is not that far off, but he keeps adding more and more layers to the festival. He offers doubters a challenge: "Just stay at home and watch," he said. "At the end of the day, when you see that I've done what I said I'd do, then reflect on your own life."
That's the kind of advice you get from a guy who's on the verge of doing something that's never been done in Southwest Georgia. It's the same guy who's not only survived, but thrived, relying on his wits and initiative.
"People want to blame others ... 'I'm a child abuser or a drug addict because of who my parents were'," he says with more than a hint of disgust. "If you want to hide behind a crutch, that's your business. But excuses are nothing but a sign of weakness.
"If you want to piss me off, tell me how lucky I am. I worked to get where I am, and I still believe you make your own luck with hard work. If you're not willing to work, get out of my way."