A class act: Uly Ford

Editor’s Note: This month’s Member Profile features Ulysses “Uly” Grant Ford III, President of SDC Consulting, Inc., Macon, Georgia, and past recipient of the Charles Walter Nichols Award.

How did you get involved in public works? Okay, this is a little interesting. I basically responded to a newspaper article in the Charlotte Observer in the late summer of 1972. In the article the Director of Public Works was being questioned by the Department of Labor as to why there weren’t any African-Americans in management and administrative positions in Charlotte’s Public Works Department; there were only labor positions. Evidently, during the previous year the Department of Labor had come in, made that observation, and was now back again a year later saying, “Hey, you haven’t made any progress.”

The director was Robert Hopson, who was a very well-respected public works official and former APWA President, and who became one of my mentors. So I wrote Hopson a letter, saying, “I read with interest your story in the newspaper. Attached is my résumé, I’m black and I’m qualified.” They called me in for an interview, and in a week I was hired. I didn’t have a clue of what public administration was all about. The only thing I knew about local government was policemen, firemen, and garbage men.

But that was the beginning of the twenty years I spent in the public sector. I started in Charlotte as the Administrative Assistant to the Public Works Director, and then went to Ann Arbor, Michigan, for a couple of years as the Solid Waste Director. Then I moved on to Fort Worth, Texas, as the City Services Director, and then to the City of Houston for five years where I was Public Works Director. In 1992 I went to work for Waste Management, Inc. in Oak Brook, Illinois, spending most of my six years there as Vice President of Public Sector Services. So I had that opportunity of working on both the public and private side, which is what gave me an itch to form my own company. I must give special appreciation to my wife of 38 years, Beverly. Every move we made was for my career.

Education: I’ve got a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama. I also attended very intensive public works training courses at the University of North Carolina and the University of Georgia. The courses lasted a year, and I completed two different courses at each university.

Favorite Book: Well, I don’t have one favorite, but there are a number of books that I pick up and read again. These are all non-fiction: A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn; Roots by Alex Haley; Parting the Waters and Pillar of Fire by Taylor Branch; Walking With the Wind by John Lewis; Forced Into Glory by Lerone Bennett; and Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism by John Shelby Spong. I also read quite a bit of fiction—Walter Moseley, Robert B. Parker, Molly Ivins (political satire, actually), Valerie Wilson Wesley and Sue Grafton are among my favorites.

Hobbies/Interests: I like to travel. Beverly and I have had the good fortune to go to several places around the globe. I enjoy reading, as you probably picked up on; I read a lot. But the biggest hobby I have nowadays is spoiling my grandchildren—I really love that. They left here after the Christmas holidays. We have five now, and we get them by ourselves for the month of July—which really turns into about six to eight weeks, because they don’t want to go home (we love that). The biggest compliment is their parents telling us that it takes three months to straighten them back out.

Role Model: You know, at different points in your life you have different role models. But the main ones are Nelson Mandela, Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Georgia congressman John Lewis. But throughout my life there have been individuals who have meant an awful lot to me and helped shape my life. Family, like my grandfather, my aunt and my mother; a high school math teacher named Dr. Julius W. Pyles (my wife and I do a scholarship in his name at West Charlotte High School, where he taught and I graduated from); and on and on. In my career there have been individuals like Robert Hopson and Pressly Beaver in Charlotte; Sylvester Murray, City Administrator, who gave me my first big chance in Ann Arbor and became a mentor, and is currently one of my best friends; and Vernell Sturns in Fort Worth and Kathy Whitmire in Houston are important to my family and me. And that list goes on and on—all the good people who have impacted my life tremendously. I know that whatever I’ve been able to achieve in life, it’s largely because of others taking an interest in me, and I really appreciate that.

Tell us about SDC Consulting, Inc.: We do a couple of things primarily. We represent private companies desiring to do business with local governments throughout the country. SDC also offers its services to local governments to do management studies, productivity improvement, and program coordination between the governmental entity and its constituency.

Career Accomplishments: As I mentioned, I’ve been very fortunate—a number of people have decided, for whatever reason, to give me a shot at various opportunities. I served as President of the Texas Chapter of the Solid Waste Association of North America in 1982-83; I served as the President of the Municipal Waste Management Association of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 1992; I was a member of the Education Foundation of APWA for eight years during the 1980s; I also served as Chairman of the Council on Equal Opportunity for APWA and was one of the founding members of that council, which has since become the Diversity Committee. Currently, I serve on the Editorial Board of the Public Works Management & Policy journal, and I am on the Board of Directors of the National Forum for Black Public Administrators.

Awards Received: Well, in 1986 I was chosen as one of three Public Works Men of the Year in Texas; in 1990 I received APWA’s Charles Walter Nichols Award for solid waste management; in 1996 I was given the Outstanding Leadership Award from the National Organization of Black County Officials; and in 1997 I was given the Distinguished Corporate Community Service Award by the National Urban League. Just last year I received the Ken Smith Achievement Award from Texas SWANA.

Why do you like being a member of APWA? That too has evolved over time. I first became a member in 1977 when I was in Charlotte, and Hopson wanted me to be a member. I was in awe of all the public works officials that I had heard about and read about from around the country, and of course I was fortunate enough to work with one who was considered to be a class act at the time—a former president and board member. So I got to meet all of these individuals and rub shoulders with them, and it was a tremendous learning experience.

I then really became a part of APWA. I got to be on several committees such as the Education Foundation, and there were others like the Solid Waste Institute, the Administrative Services Institute, and the Council on Equal Opportunity. This gave me the opportunity to shape some of what APWA was doing, which was important to me.

The networking, the learning, and going to the conferences to see firsthand the latest technology, the latest equipment, the latest service techniques…I just don’t think there’s a better show on earth than what our organization provides. And now, being in the private sector and on my own, I still do the networking, the learning, go to the sessions, and see my friends that I’ve known for thirty years. But I also use my involvement in APWA as a marketing opportunity, and I have gotten some very good leads in that respect.

Uly, I can’t thank you enough for being so willing to participate in our Member Profile: (laughs) Oh, you know, APWA is a great organization…I consider it an honor to even be considered. How many members are there now, twenty-seven thousand or so? And you call little ol’ Uly Ford? I mean, I appreciate that.