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Top 25 Top 25 Atlantans

Percy Vaugn: Top 25 Extraordinary Atlantans


Written By Norma Stanley

Kia recently celebrated its 25th anniversary and recognized Percy Vaughn, executive director, regional operations for the southern region, as one of the elite members of the company who were there from the start, and who continue to contribute to the company’s current success in the automotive industry.

Vaughn, who oversees a staff of about 50 people working with over 200 dealers in the southeast, continues to work to ensure that Kia remains top of mind when consumers are shopping for new cars, and credits his successful run managing the growth of the southeast region covering 10 states, to his talented team of professionals.

“I have the best team in the industry and their hard work and dedication is the reason we’ve been the number one region out of five regions, for 23 out of 24 years,” says Vaughn. “We make it a point to treat not only our dealers as customers, but also our team members.”

Working in excellence and treating others with respect and compassion are staples in Vaughn’s successful management arsenal, characteristics which had been ingrained in him since his early childhood. Vaughn’s parents were both keenly focused on education for themselves and their children as the best path to a more secure future. As a result, Vaughn excelled in school. Born in Atlanta, his family moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana when he was four years-old and Lubbock, TX when he was 15 and despite receiving a full scholarship to Texas Tech, he returned to Baton Rouge to attend Southern University. He graduated college at age 19 by taking 18-21 hours per semester and another 12 during summer breaks, because he was ready to get out of school and make money. Armed with a business marketing degree and graduating among the top of his class, Vaughn had many companies pursuing him, and landed a position at Ford, which was a dream come true for him, and at 20 was the youngest employee in the Atlanta District Office in consumer affairs. He credits his training in consumer affairs and addressing consumer concerns with top executives at Ford’s corporate office in Detroit, where he’d relocated for a time, as an asset which has carried him throughout his career.

“I saw that the executives at Ford were genuinely interested in the voice of the customer, took their input seriously, and wanted to clearly understand where their frustrations were coming from, that early training has been invaluable to me in my career,” said Vaughn.
It wasn’t long before Vaughn accepted a position with the Korean company Hyundai, where he was a big fish in a very small pond. He fast tracked quickly to District Manager, Distribution Manager, Regional Sales Manager and Regional General Manager, as the company’s brands and vehicles, including Kia, began to become sought after products in the automotive industry.

Now 24 years later, Vaughn is continuing in the vein of putting the needs and wants of the customer at the, forefront of everything Kia does, which includes creating and manufacturing popular vehicles like the Telluride out of its plant in West Point, GA.

“We produce about 360,000 per year from out West Point plant and are proud that we’ve been instrumental in rejuvenating that part of the state by bringing in about 3,600 jobs,” said Vaughn. “I want Kia to be known as a home-grown product like The Home Depot and Delta Airlines,” he said.

Partnering with the community is also a major part of Kia’s commitment to its customers and the company recently formed a relationship with The King Center to support what they’re doing with the younger generation, in addition to the Atlanta Hawks, Chik Fil A Kick Off Classic, College Football Hall of Fame, etc.

The proud father of a daughter, Kristin who is a mom to seven children and a son, Kory, who is an emergency room doctor, with one child, Vaughn and his wife, Audree, are enjoying this chapter of being grandparents.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Vaughn is looking forward to a profitable 2020 for his region and in reflecting on where he is right now as a business and community leader, Vaughn says he is very thankful.

“As I shared earlier, I could not have done this without having an exceptional team, who saw the vision and executed it,” shared Vaughn. “I believe it’s important to stay humble and as a leader you cannot ever forget where you came from. You must be willing to help others who may not be as fortunate, and I try to do that every day. I very much appreciate what the good Lord has offered me in my own journey and give him all the glory,” he said.


“We make it a point to treat not only our dealers
as customers, but also our team members.”

  • – Percy Vaughn


#abj25 #top25atlantan


View the entire Commemorative Issue online courtesy of ABJ Digital click here


Top 25 Top 25 Atlantans

Michelle Taylor-Willis: Top 25 Extraordinary Atlantans


Written By Ragen Toomer

Michelle Taylor Willis has gotten copious amounts of attention and recognition throughout her entrepreneurial career. She’s been on several “Top 100” and “Top 25” lists, been recognized for her volunteer work with organizations like the United Way of Greater Atlanta, the South Fulton Chamber, and Fulton County Schools, her magazine has been named “Publication of the Year” twice, and she has been called a visionary for the work she’s done to to re-establish South Fulton County as a major economic driver and center of influence in the Metropolitan Atlanta area. After being named as one of Atlanta Business Journal’s Top 25 Extraordinary Atlantans, Willis attributes this recent honor to her life’s work of creating and leaving a legacy. “Recognition is great, but for me it’s about legacy,” she said. “It’s about lives being changed, making them know you were here.”

Well, she is definitely leaving a legacy in Atlanta. The Florida native is an award-winning speaker, media personality, serial entrepreneur, and consultant. She started her career after graduating from the University of Florida as a sales representative in the plumbing industry, but she set her sights on pharmaceutical and medical device sales. “Device sales was like the pinnacle of sales,” Willis remarked. In order to obtain that, she needed business-to-business experience, so she worked her way through several sales positions to land in the medical industry. She believes in starting with the end in mind and reverse engineering to get a plan back to the beginning. Intentionality is the name of her game. Although she had a winning career as a sales leader and trainer, entrepreneurship was ultimately her main goal.

Willis comes from a family of entrepreneurs, including her parents and grandparents. Her paternal grandfather was one of the first black contractors for JCPenney in Minneapolis, while her maternal grandfather owned one of the first black businesses, a car detailing shop, in Mobile, Alabama. Her mother has owned her own successful consulting company for the last thirty years in Jacksonville, FL, and Willis credits much of her drive and spirit to her.

“I come from a long line of people making a way for themselves,” Willis said. “I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart. How could I help it?”

Throughout her time in corporate sales, Willis had several side hustles, including a resume-writing business, a pharmaceutical sales consulting firm, and an online bakery. After the birth of her fourth child, she decided to leave the corporate world and pursue entrepreneurship full-time through her HR and medical consulting firm, HR Synergies, LLC. She believes her entrepreneurial wins point back to her corporate training at companies like Ferguson Enterprises and Johnson and Johnson. She is convinced every entrepreneur could benefit from corporate experience, citing that learning the systems and processes from corporate America can assist greatly as people build entrepreneurial enterprises, large or small. Her company’s success allowed her the opportunity to purchase South Fulton Lifestyle Magazine, a monthly publication created exclusively for and about the residents of South Fulton County (south of Atlanta, Ga).

“I felt like we could use South Fulton Lifestyle Magazine to help create legacy,” Willis said. She recalled that back in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70’s the Southwest part of Atlanta was where some of Atlanta’s Civil Rights leaders and black influencers were bred. It was “an area of pride,” but, like a lot of once-thriving black areas around the US, it fell from grace. Now, South Fulton County is on an uptick. Willis saw the need to share the great stories and things happening in the County that she trademarked “SoFu,” through the magazine. She also highlights the movers and shakers in Atlanta and SoFu through her “According to Michelle” radio talk show, which is broadcast from College Park.

Despite the business ventures Willis juggles, she still makes time to balance work and family. Willis is a wife and proud mother to four sons, and she credits her support system (her husband, caretakers, close family and friends) for the gains in her career. Her work/ life balance even sparked an idea for her to create a conference exclusively for working women executives and entrepreneurs called the Mom’s All In® Conference. Her kids even work for her, from shooting video and photography to proofreading her publication some months.
“My kids absolutely come first,” Willis said. She works from home often, which allows her the flexibility to spend time with her family, cook dinner throughout the week and attend her sons’ school and extracurriculars.

Whether it’s balancing work from home, or continuing to develop her own personal life (she’s an amateur triathlete), Willis has built a life around entrepreneurship, and she speaks nationally on the topic, as well as leadership, sales, significance, motivation and parenting. She also emcees events around the metro Atlanta area.

“A client of mine once said that he hustles for time, not money. He said if he had enough time to do whatever he wanted, then he’d have all the money he’d need. I’ve adopted that philosophy. My time is so much more valuable than my money. I try to keep as much of it as I can for the things most important.”

According to Michelle (pun intended), the goal is to be significant, not successful. She maintains it is about empowering people so they can empower people, as that is one of the ways to leave a legacy through others. Willis says a fundamental way to being a significant entrepreneur is discovering your purpose and finding a way to monetize it. That way, it never feels like work.
“When I’m working, I’m having fun,” Willis said. “My work is fun.”

To see all the fun that Willis has while she’s empowering and leaving legacy, follow her on FB, IG and LI@ michelletaylorwillis, or visit her website at michelletaylorwillis.com. You can find the magazine at southfultonlifestyle. com.


“Recognition is great, but for me it’s about legacy,” she said. “It’s about
lives being changed, making them know you were here.”

– Michelle Taylor-Willis



#abj25 #top25atlantan


View the entire Commemorative Issue online courtesy of ABJ Digital click here


Top 25 Top 25 Atlantans

Micheal Thurmond: Top 25 Extraordinary Atlantans


Written By LaKeisha Fleming

Michael Thurmond has never met a challenge he couldn’t tame. Widely regarded as a “turnaround expert”, he has made a transformative difference in a number of organizations. Raised as a sharecropper’s son, Thurmond inherited a strong work ethic and the ability to see negative situations in a positive light. His solution-oriented style of leadership has left a thumbprint on the DeKalb County school system, Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services, and the Georgia Labor Department. In his current role as Chief Executive Officer of DeKalb County, Thurmond is determined to continue this trend, turning every liability into an asset.

Thurmond took the helm of one of the most diverse counties in the southeast in 2017. His paramount focus was to restore trust in local county government. It was a challenge he tackled from day one. “It’s no secret that our county went through some difficult times over the last decade or so, that had the impact of undermining our trust and credibility with the people we’ve been called to serve,” Thurmond explains. Aware of the issue, he and his team set a plan in motion. “First of all, we focus on service. And second, (we do not) lose sight of our mission, which is to ensure that every citizen has access to a quality of life where they can grow and prosper.”

His visionary goals are yielding positive results. “My vision … is becoming a reality. After three years on the job I’m seeing tremendous progress made throughout our county,” he tells. Property values are up by 11 percent, more than 40-million dollars is being invested in local area parks, and 300-million dollars are earmarked to resurface roads and highways. “Just recently our library system was designated as the library system of the year in the state of Georgia,” he notes. Thurmond says some other priorities include offering summer youth employment, adopting a balanced budget, and fulfilling the federal/state sewer consent agreement. These ambitious goals show the ability to mount a positive campaign in the wake of negativity and turn the county in the right direction. “We’re trying to build a spirit of pride in DeKalb County, a spirit of cooperation and just helping people know that we love DeKalb and are committed to making DeKalb a better place,’ explains Thurmond.

Thurmond’s distinction of turning around hard situations began as early as the eighties. While serving in the Georgia General Assembly, he authored legislation that brought about more than 250-million dollars in tax relief to seniors and families. He went on to receive a gubernatorial appointment to lead the state Division of Family and Children’s Services. During that time, Thurmond created the innovative Work First program, making a mark in welfare reform. “You can’t victimize the victim,” he notes. “They just need a hand up, not a hand out.” And that is exactly what Thurmond insured they were provided. He continued that level of service during his three terms as Georgia Labor Commissioner.

Another significant opportunity to turn around a daunting situation came when Thurmond served as superintendent of DeKalb County schools. He is credited with stabilizing the system during a governance crisis, and tackling a multi-million-dollar deficit. More importantly, Thurmond moved to upgrade the school system’s threatened accreditation. He also saw improvements in graduation rates, and students’ overall academic performance.

In each professional foray, Thurmond was able to deal with hard problems and difficult situations. The attitude of learning from mistakes has served him well, and stems from his philosophy and approach to life. “Oftentimes in life we only focus on liabilities. Whether it’s in our personal life, our professional life, or our religious life.” He continues, “One of the first things I’ve learned is .. don’t just look at the liabilities, but you also have to weigh the assets,” Thurmond states. “That’s how you solve the problems in your life. You take what you have, your blessings. And the way you make your blessings count, is you leverage your blessings against your challenges.”

Each opportunity for growth and development is a blessing – a chance to turn what others may view as a stumbling block, into a stepping stone of learning. Those lessons develop into words of wisdom and encouragement that Thurmond shares. “Don’t hide your setbacks. You learn from them,” Thurmond says. “You use it to become a better person and a better self and a more successful person going forward.”
His achievements are numerous and his accolades are impressive. Yet Thurmond maintains humility and optimism on every level, when he speaks of what he’s doing now as well as what is to come in the future.
“We’re not where we need to be, but thank God we’re not where we started.”
He is always seeking the next challenge to turn around.

“We learn from our mistakes.
We don’t dwell on them.”

– Micheal Thurmond

#abj25 #top25atlantan


View the entire Commemorative Issue online courtesy of ABJ Digital click here


Top 25 Top 25 Atlantans

Dr. Kofi Smith: Top 25 Extraordinary Atlantans

SMITH President and CEO Atlanta Airlines Terminal Company (AATC

Written By Lynn Isaac

When it comes to airport operations, no one is running a more well-oiled machine as Dr. Kofi Smith, President and CEO of the Atlanta Airlines Terminal Company. Many may not be aware that AATC is a privately held company that is responsible for operating and maintaining the Central Passenger Terminal Complex (CPTC) at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Since taking the reins of the AATC in 2011, Dr. Smith is leading the organization in achieving surmountable strides in the airport industry.

Dr. Smith has a very impressive background that he incorporates in his role at AATC. At the start of his professional career, he held a position at Milliken & Company. While there, he left an imprint by being named the recipient of the “2002 Manager of Award” for the Floor Covering Division and, in the same year, lead his department in receiving the “2002 Team of the Year Award”. Prior to joining AATC, Dr. Smith worked for Linc Facility Services where he also led his teams in receiving various awards.

In 2011, at the age of 35, Dr. Smith was promoted After a short while in his role as the leader of AATC, Dr. Smith was promoted to Chief Executive Officer of AATC making him the youngest person to hold this role since the corporation’s inception in 1979. He is making great strides within this organization. So much so that their employee base has grown by 114% and has been recognized as one of the Top 20 “Best Places to Work” for medium size companies by the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

One of his most recent and notable achievements at AATC is the implementation of the “Smart Restroom”. AATC is responsible for maintaining the restrooms at the world’s busiest airport, therefore Dr. Smith saw the opportunity to utilize Georgia Pacific’s KOLO Smart Monitoring System to ensure a positive airport traveler’s experience. One of the ways this is accomplished is by making sure that the restrooms are clean, in working order and fully stocked with toilet paper, paper towels and hand sanitizers. Since the introduction of this system, AATC has improved custodian job satisfaction and performance as well as reduce customer complaints yielding increased customer satisfaction. This is a prime example of the commendatory impact that Dr. Smith has had thus far at AATC.

Not only is Dr. Smith’s accomplishments at AATC impressive, so is his educational background and personal accolades. He received his Bachelor of Industrial Engineering degree from Georgia Institute of Technology and an Executive MBA in Global Business from their Scheller College of Business. Most recently, he received his Doctorate in Business Administration from Georgia State University. Some of his acclamations include being named Atlanta Business League’s “2012 Men of Influence”, one of Atlanta Business Chronicle’s ““40 Under 40” in 2014, Georgia Trend’s “40 Under 40” in 2015, and in 2018 was the recipient of 100 Black Men of North Metro’s Image Award, the Atlanta Business League’s Trailblazer Award and the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s Most Admired CEO Award. Dr. Smith also makes time for philanthropic activities. He raised over $140,000 for Children’s Health Care of Atlanta in just six non-consecutive months over the past five years. It is quite evident that Dr. Smith is very dedicated to advancing in his personal life as well as the betterment of others. Dr. Smith is married to his wife Nicole and they have two sons (Kole and Kyler).

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View the entire Commemorative Issue online courtesy of ABJ Digital click here