Ann Florie starts an interview about retiring as executive director of Leadership Birmingham by talking about her predecessors and how much they meant to the organization.
“We’re the beneficiaries of what they did,” Florie says of Leadership Birmingham’s first two directors, Sheila Blair and Elise Penfield.
Those who know her well say that is the essence of Florie: deflecting attention from herself, even as she has been the face of the leadership program for the past 14 years.
“She personally and symbolically is Leadership Birmingham in the eyes and minds of those who have been through the class with her,” says Mike Warren, CEO of Children’s of Alabama and chairman of Leadership Birmingham’s board of trustees.
“To talk about her predecessors and their importance to the organization, that does sound like Ann. It is my great hope that in the recesses of her mind that Ann knows she’s done an extraordinary job and we are most grateful for it,” he says.
Florie this week announced her retirement, effective Sept. 1.
“I will be 65 in September,” she says. “I think it’s a good time.”
Florie offers no concrete plans for life after Leadership Birmingham other than to say, “I think I’ll be involved in something.”
Her role as the leadership program’s director has allowed her “to be involved in a whole lot of things in the community. I’ll miss being in the mix.”
To those who know her, it’s impossible to imagine Florie not in the mix.
She has been deeply involved in the Birmingham community for decades – as a Mountain Brook school board member, in Junior League, the Downtown Kiwanis Club, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, the Women’s Fund, Region 2020, the Birmingham Business Alliance, the Freshwater Land Trust, the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, United Way of Central Alabama, McWane Science Center, the Jefferson County Personnel Board, the Birmingham Water Works Board and, of course, Leadership Birmingham.
“Ann is civically obsessed,” says Guin Robinson, who is a graduate of Florie’s first class in 2005 and a longtime friend. “To people who are civically obsessed, it’s almost impossible for them to sit down.
“As long as there’s a mix, Ann Florie will be in it,” he says.
Florie entered the mix soon after she and her husband, Mike, moved to Birmingham in 1978. The Arkansas native grew up in the tiny town of Weldon and went to school at Newcomb College at Tulane University in New Orleans. She met her future husband in law school there and moved with him to Birmingham for his new job.
Florie began to volunteer, becoming involved in PTA and Junior League and the Mountain Brook school board. She credits growing up in a small town with fueling her passion for community work.
“I literally grew up in a town of 100 people. You operate at a grassroots level. You get to know people,” she says, noting that her parents were “very engaged” in the community.
“Growing up in a small town sitting on the sidelines isn’t an option,” Florie says. “Everyone has to be engaged and everyone has to work together, so I guess I gravitated to what I knew – projects that involved understanding who people are and how they can work together to get things done.”
Florie looks back on her career and says she could have been smarter about her career path, but has no regrets for how it turned out.
“It’s been incredible. I think working with people around issues I cared about, it’s been great, fascinating, interesting – all the things one hopes,” she says, adding with a laugh, “I didn’t make a lot of money.
“But I got to meet people I would never have known and be involved in things. It was a great gift.”
Robinson, the director of community outreach for Jefferson State Community College, chairs the committee tasked with hiring Florie’s replacement. Doing so will be a tall order, he says.
“We have to look at what has happened and we have to look at where we are now, and build on the history and the work of Ann Florie and so many others, including the other executive directors,” he says. “Let’s just say this. I think everyone got it right to this point. We’ve got to get it right going forward.”
Sharon Blackburn, a senior U.S. district judge and a member of the hiring committee, says of Florie: “It’s impossible to overstate the impact Ann has had on Leadership Birmingham and our city. During my year in Leadership Birmingham (2011), I was amazed by her enthusiasm and knowledge. I can’t imagine it without Ann.”
Leadership Birmingham has had few transitions in its own leadership in its three-and-a-half-decade existence. The result of the Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce’s effort in 1981 to start a community leadership program, the first class was selected in 1983. Every year since, Leadership Birmingham has brought together a diverse group of 50 to 60 leaders in the Birmingham area to explore issues including education, government, health care, criminal justice, economic development and quality of life.
“What we hope, what the program is designed to do, is have people leave here having found different perspectives, a broader knowledge about the community, and be able to do whatever they do in a more informed way,” Florie says. “We hope we give you the tools to do what you do differently and more effectively, and that it works to the benefit of the community.”
She believes Leadership Birmingham works in ways small and large. She has seen the effect the intense, day-long meetings each month can have on the class.
“I’ve watched people change over the course of a year where they have a better understanding of the community and can apply what they have learned to what they do,” she says. “It changes your perspective on what you do. It empowers people to make a difference.”
That difference can show up on a large scale. For example, graduates of Leadership Birmingham’s 1997 class – including Florie – began Region 2020, which led efforts to promote regional cooperation and citizen involvement across 12 central Alabama counties. Florie was its executive director until she assumed the same role for Leadership Birmingham.
Graduates fill seats on many nonprofit and corporate boards. They have run for, and won, public office. They have played key roles in launching organizations working to improve the Birmingham area. A few examples: Youth Leadership Forum, a community leadership program for high school students; the Birmingham Education Foundation, which works to increase the number of students in Birmingham City Schools who are ready for college and careers; and Heart to Table, which provides food to warming stations at Boutwell Auditorium on winter’s coldest nights.
“This program works, in my opinion,” Florie says.
Part of the reason it does is because of the connections each class makes – among themselves, but also with graduates of other classes. “That’s really the most important thing about this,” she says.
Florie’s friends say she is the master at connections. Those connections allow Florie to choose from among hundreds of graduates and other subject-matter experts to fill agendas for each new class, Warren says. Florie uses her connections beyond Leadership Birmingham, along with her vast knowledge of the area, to bring people together on projects for the good of the community, Robinson says.
Robert Kelly, president of Kelly Road Builders and a graduate of the 2005 class, says it is Florie’s work in the community, on top of her Leadership Birmingham role, that has allowed her to “truly become iconic.”
“If you know Ann, you know how much she loves this city. She’s been a major cheerleader for the city. She’s going to be sorely missed.”
But only as Leadership Birmingham’s executive director, says Kelly, a search committee member.
“She’s not going anywhere,” he says. “She’s officially retiring, but I guarantee she will be heavily involved in this community. That’s her makeup.”
Bob Blalock is a 2001 graduate of Leadership Birmingham.