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Charles W. Bone Featured in the Nashville Business Journal’s “Lessons from the Great Recession” Series

Community matters: Bone says leadership carries on beyond the bottom line

Nashville Business Journal "Lessons from the Great Recession"
October 29, 2010
By Brian Reisinger

Charles W. Bone started practicing law in a small office in Gallatin’s historic downtown, believed to be where President Andrew Jackson first hung his shingle as a country lawyer.

“I think that’s a lie,” Bone joked, still relishing the thought.

From those beginnings, the 64-year-old has built a career in law and local politics that has fueled change in the region and left him with a clear view of what matters in a battered economy. From a conference room overlooking downtown Nashville at his law firm Bone McAllester Norton – the ninth largest in the Nashville market – Bone took stock of the economy and Middle Tennessee’ future.

Two years out from the severe deepening of the Great Recession, Bone talked about the importance of reaching beyond what’s right in front of you. That can mean brokering a common goal or drawing a line on a controversial issue. The point is to take action.

His lessons:

1.  What’s good for your neighbor is good for you.

It wasn’t always as easy for Bone to make people sit up and listen as it is today.

One of his first prominent gigs was as attorney for Sumner County, a position that left him feeling Middle Tennessee was too fragmented in its thinking about economic development. He aimed to change that.

“What frustrated me ... was the lack of attention we got from Nashville,” Bone said.

He reached out to area leaders, building relationships and pushing common goals. Today, for instance, he’s a major force in the efforts of Mayor Karl Dean and others to pursue regional transit options.

From Bone’s perspective, Nashville isn’t competing with Franklin for corporate relocations or economic development projects. It’s competing with Austin, Texas, or Charlotte, N.C., and trying to make the world notice, he said.

That means moves like Jackson National Life Insurance Co. of Michigan expanding to Franklin or Nashville’s new Music City Center are a boon for everyone.  They provide jobs at the most critical time, he said, even if other parts of Middle Tennessee feel they’d better benefit from their own new company or project.

If that argument seems to have momentum among some leaders, it’s not for lack of players in government and economic development who think their particular area deserves more love. That, after all, is how it started out in Sumner County for Bone.

2.  Diversify your business.

Bone started as the proverbial “country lawyer” taking criminal cases, litigation and whatever else came his way. The high-rise office hasn’t changed his philosophy.

“My practice has been very diversified,” Bone said.

Therein lies a lesson that many business people value: Diversify your products, services or clients so you’ve got several streams of income. If one stumbles because of a change in the market, another may sustain you, even in an environment in which almost everyone is making less money.

From his roots as an attorney and official in Sumner County, Bone joined other firms and eventually started his own with colleagues in 2002. Bone’s practice has served bankers, entrepreneurs and nonprofits, and major clients of the firm include Fisk University.

Of course, many firms in the area pitch their range of services – arguing that they can meet a client’s every need – while others promote specialties. In general, law firms have found litigation and other work is sustaining them while the number and size of deals has languished in the poor economy.

With about 30 lawyers in his firm, Bone argues that his people can meet almost every need at a fair value. The point is to find a blend that works.

3.  Focus on community.

Community outreach may sound like what you do with your spare time, or money.

For Bone, it’s central to bolstering the regional economy – and it’s not always a feel-good pursuit.

He says it’s “amazing” to see all the varied nonprofits that help the area, with clear evidence in the flood response. Helping “people in great turmoil,” he said, improves their lives and in turn benefits everybody else participating in the same regional economy.

The same goes for issues fewer agree on. Bone thinks it’s important to oppose “English-only” workplace laws or Arizona-style immigration reform.

Those are economic development issues,” he said.

Bone joins other business leaders in opposing those proposals, but legislators pursuing such efforts have argued they protect business interests. In a way, Bone is used to a bit of political tumbling; he’s a Democrat, often serving clients who may be wary of his party’s intentions despite the pro-business work of some moderates locally.

Charles Bone
Title: Chairman
Company:  Bone McAllester Norton
Career highlights:  Attorney with various firms; Sumner County attorney; past president, Sumner County Bar Association; past member, Nashville Bar Association board of directors.

About the series
The Nashville Business Journal is talking to some of the most respected business leaders in Nashville about their most valuable business lessons learned from the Great Recession. 

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