Nothing is impossible if you feel the fire; simply fan it and make it happen. So believed Jim Brewer who took a pedestrian power utility and honed it into an essential and significant system.
The Conway Corporation today stands as a first-rate entity serving Conway residents with an array of services from electric power to television, because Brewer fanned the fire.
He was director of the Conway Corp. — its handy abbreviation — from 1965 to 1991, being immensely innovative and successful as one of the most renowned figures in the utility field.
He met every challenge that confronted him with skill and aplomb while managing his employees with grace and rectitude.
He remains today a personage well remembered and well regarded by people who worked for him and for the host of others who rubbed shoulders with him in business and social circles.
"A wonderful boss and a wonderful friend," is the way long-time Conway Corp. employee Roger Mills paints Brewer. "One of the best, a fine human being."
Richie Arnold, the current Conway Corp. CEO, said, "Jim taught me everything I know — he is a great one."
Today, Brewer is enjoying retirement with his wife Bobbye, a teacher in Conway public schools for 32 years, and doting on his two grandchildren and two great grandchildren. When not otherwise occupied with family matters, he is compiling records and data that accrued over the years and are now being readied for inclusion in the archives department of the University of Central Arkansas.
From Jimmy Bryant, director of the UCA archives, comes word that Brewer will be feted during a ceremony at the University of Central Arkansas in the near future, marking the presentation of his papers and other memorabilia.
"Jim Brewer’s collection is a significant and important addition to the UCA archives that gives insight into one of Conway’s and Arkansas’ most innovative and successful leaders," Bryant said.
The Brewer memoirs, chronicles and reports not surprisingly, focus on his years with Conway Corp. and the trials and tribulations that he encountered while fashioning a superior company that aided the city as it grew.
Through it all, Brewer demonstrated innovative entrepreneurship and vision, in addition to his dependence on the deity, to achieve far-reaching goals.
"I never made a decision without first going to God for help to make that decision," he said unabashedly.
Because he was a risk-taker, he was not afraid of failure and he knew that he would persevere. For example, he went to the Arkansas Power and Light Company early on in an attempt to buy power from the giant utility.
"They said no. But they said they would buy Conway Corp." Brewer remembers.
He refused the offer, quite assured that he could make his company work despite competition and challenges from the outside.
So it was apparent that Brewer’s business instincts would steer his company. He sought out the most influential people in and outside of the state to push his agenda. Before long he was on good terms with the likes of Arkansas governors and Arkansas representatives in Washington. For example, it helped to have a first name connection with Rep. Wilbur Mills, admittedly one of the most dynamic and effective men in the nation’s capital, who gave him entree into Washington circles.
Brewer had the ability to attract politicians and strong businessmen to his design that produced in Conway Corp. an enduring and important entity.
He can go to his book of memorabilia and pull out letters of approbation and good wishes from the top figures in many walks of life in the middle and late 20th century.
However, Brewer’s intellect and business sensibilities were not the only focus of his successes. It was his heart that put him in good stead. He treated people humanely. The people who knew him best attest to his fairness and compassion.
There were few indications early on that Brewer would prevail in business. He would agree. "I was a terrible salesman," he smiled recalling his days when he tried without much success to sell Ford automobiles.
Brewer hails from Fort Smith but spent most of his younger days in McGehee and Pine Bluff. After high school, he attended the University of Central Arkansas, previously State Teacher College. He tried a variety of jobs after college and even took on some courses that AP&L offered. He might not have been an expert in any scientific field but he believed wholeheartedly in the idea of science, particularly when it came to the government of human beings.
Brewer joined Conway Corp. in 1954 after working as a customer service rep for AP&L ("actually it was a lobbying job") and became head of the utility in 1965. He noted that obsolete was the frame of reference for the company then.
"When I joined the company, I found it to be a self-contained power generating and distributing entity that also ran the water department," Brewer said. "In a word, everything was obsolete. I wanted to get my hands on it and do something about it. I had learned enough about power systems while working for AP&L. We had a little more than 1,000 customers at the time. The city’s population was between 7,000 and 8,000.
"We had one ‘big’ truck, one line truck that was obsolete, two pickup trucks and one automobile that the manager drove. We didn’t have much equipment. I think we had about a dozen employees — four ladies in the office."
In the decade that followed, Brewer orchestrated considerable construction and enlargements in all departments, especially in sewage facilities. In effect, Brewer had learned the art of making critical decisions.
In 1961, the corporation began purchasing some electricity from AP&L. Up to that time, the power plant had provided the total amount of electrical power required by its customers.
He recalls mirthfully one episode when the sewer department was merged with the street department. A 10-inch line had become obstructed and Mayor Edgar Parker had the bright idea to blow out the line. Unfortunately, the pressure was such that water gushed into homes with unforeseen consequences including damage to bathrooms that were being occupied at the time.
Customers of Conway Corp. had the option of signing for cable television under a plan devised in 1980 by the company’s CEO who dealt with people like Ted Turner to make television a viable fixture in Conway. Cable TV became a fact of life for Conway people in 1981.
The water supply — or lack of it — was a vexatious problem for Brewer who noted that for 20 years the need for an adequate supply was aired to no avail by the City CCouncil. To get things done, Brewer worked with the Arkansas congressional delegation to urge Congress to appropriate money for the U. S. Engineers to construct a new reservoir for Conway on Cypress Creek in Conway County. The completion in 1983 of Lake Brewer, named for Conway Corp.’s boss, helped eliminate the problem of water.
The awards heaped on Brewer for his work with Conway Corp. range from a service to humanity award to being honored with a proclamation of Jim Brewer day in Conway in 1991. He was hailed for his work with industrial and power developments, was president of the Arkansas section of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers and with the Conway and state chambers of commerce. He held posts with the city’s planning commission, the Boy Scouts, the Rotary Club, and banks in addition to serving as a long-time trustee, deacon and Sunday School teacher at the First Baptist Church in Conway, to name only a few.
He also was honored by the naming of the Brewer-Hegeman Conference Center on the UCA campus in 2001. Hegeman was an employee of the Conway Corp. for many years.