A great city manager who pushes its city forward brings innovation at the forefront of what they do. Greg McClainCity Manager for the City of Maryville, Tennessee, is nothing short of being innovative. When he was at the City of Alcoa, he got rid of a T1 line and strung up the first fiber optic cable in the county, keeping it from being left behind. 

In this episode, Greg joins Abhijit Verekar to tell us more about what innovation means to a city manager and how it gets translated into the citizens’ daily lives. He takes us back from the beginning of that fiber transformation in Alcoa to looking beyond and translating a bigger vision to the citizens, partners, teams, and more. He also shares how he cuts through the noise of vendors, how he keeps his teams accountable, and what his most impactful project is in terms of technology. 

Ultimately, innovation is all about doing what is beneficial for the community, and Greg shows us why it should be the driver of any public servant.

RelatedHow Blount County, TN is Making Internet Access More Affordable

 AV: My guest on this episode is Greg McClain, the City Manager for the City of Maryville, Tennessee. Greg, welcome to the show.

GM: Thanks for having me here.

 AV: We’ve worked together for the last few years, and I feel like I’ve known you forever. Tell us about your journey. How did you find yourself in this position as the city manager of the City of Maryville?

GM: My route to city management is very strange. I started as a bricklayer and a block mason as a young kid. My dad was very blue-collar. My family is that way. I learned how to build early on and learned enough that that’s not what I wanted to do the rest of my life because it’s hard work. I took drafting in high school. I wound up getting an architectural degree. I moved over into civil engineering and worked for the Aluminum Company of America for 15 years. Through friends and some family, I got pushed into the idea of going into service. I got into the City of Alcoa as their landfill manager.

I had some environmental background and experience with the Aluminum Company. They hired me to build their landfill. They then moved me to the electric system to manage it for about six years of the nine years at Alcoa City. The city manager at Maryville called me over to follow him in his retirement to become the city manager. It’s a strange route. I’m not classically trained in it at all. It’s like a jack of all trades, master of nothing, but it served me well. It’s given me a broad spectrum of understanding about things and bringing that private sector into public is always a good thing.

 AV: You’ve been with the City of Maryville as a city manager since 2006. Since I’ve known you, and I’ve heard these stories before, you’re quite innovative. When you were at the City of Alcoa, you strung up the first fiber-optic cable in the county.

GM: I terminated it myself.

 AV: Did you make the fiber yourself?

GM: No, but I did terminate it. We ran it from the municipal building in Alcoa to the electric building where I was sitting and got rid of a T1 line. I said, “Here’s how this works within this grade and here’s how much it costs.” It’s history after that. We put a lot there since then.

 AV: In general, what are your thoughts on innovation, what it means to a city manager and how that gets translated into the daily lives of the citizens?

GM: Having been exposed to the private sector with the Aluminum Company of America which is an international company. We had a lot of people coming in and out of this area from all over the world, spending a little time as engineers do in big companies like that, moving from place to place depending on what the needs are. I got exposed to a whole lot of innovative thinking. It wasn’t innate in me, but I got exposed to that. Coming to a public entity, which typically is a little further behind than the rest of the world, I was able to take those things I had learned there and offered the idea and those thoughts.

I remember going to city commission over there the first time talking about fiber. They didn’t understand what it was all about. We got their attention by saying, “At one point in time in the Old West, there were cities where the railroad approached them, so we want to bring a railroad through here.” They said no. Those are the ghost towns. This new interstate for data and information and all that, we didn’t need to be left behind. I was very fortunate to have been able to bring that to them.

 AV: What year was this?

GM: It would have been about 1996. We had a problem with keeping the T1 line-up. Every time lightning would strike, it’d be down. I asked the question, “How often does this happen?” They said, “Every week,” for one reason or the other. 

I did a little homework and we put the fiber up. From the day we put it up there, it never failed, not one time. That made a real pilot say, “We can do this everywhere for every building, for every pump station, substation, and everything that we own. We can connect it this way and control our destiny.”

RelatedHow an IT Strategic Plan Optimized the City of Maryville’s IT Landscape 

AV: How did you come up with the idea? Were you being asked to do this, or did you go to a conference and found out that this is something you’d do?

GM: We got a problem with this T1 line being failed. The connection between us and you. We talked to our linemen and the partnership was wonderful. I was able to approach these linemen and say, “I’m thinking about stringing fiber. Do you know anything about that?” They said, “No.” I said, “Let’s find out if you feel comfortable stringing this fiber.” They read a little bit, “Of course, we can do that.” 

In one day, we bought the fiber, strung it, terminate it, and they’re all in place. One is being asked to do it. I can’t honestly sit here and say, “I had the master plan of connecting Alcoa, Maryville, Blount County, the hospital, and everything.” At that moment, I knew we could do better than what we were doing right then.

 AV: In your position, you probably get 10,000 emails a day from vendors selling you something that may or may not be useful to the city and the citizens, but it’s a lot of noise. How do you cut through this?

GM: I hate to say it, but I ignore it most times. You’re right on not just fiber but everything that we do. We have a tremendous number of people trying to come in and help us out. I have no doubt that every one of them could bring something to us. Sometimes it just by feel and sometimes it’s by chance. 

You see somebody at a conference, they catch you at a good moment. Probably, the strongest relationships we have now didn’t start on the technical issue because there are a lot of people that can touch that technical issue. 

A lot of times it starts with the relationship that you build with people and then it comes back into, “I can help you here.” A lot of times that’s using more local people than the people far away. In all honesty, it’s my preference to use people closer to home.

 AV: That’s going to get accentuated with what we’re dealing with COVID. No one’s flying. We’re trying to do software demos for your team. We got an email from this vendor in Canada saying, “You guys won’t let us in. How do we do this?” It’s going to lead to more hyper localization of business, but at the same time, leave some room for remote stuff. Having said that, the City of Maryville came up with a long-term IT strategy. What do you think the foundations for a viable long-term strategy are? Do you think those foundations have changed given what we’ve gone through?

GM: If you indulge me to go back a little bit and say, “How we got to be where we are now?” There was a conscious decision when we started branching out from just Alcoa Electric and the City of Alcoa started looking beyond and that came big. Within a year of us putting that first fiber in the air, we realized, “This is good.” If we’re going to connect all of Alcoa’s buildings to do that, we’re going to be going by all these county buildings, public service, and the City of Alcoa, whether it’s schools or substation.

The idea was if we’re going to run it, let’s run it beside all those and maybe they can jump in with us. Maryville at that time was excited to jump in with us. We knew that if we were going to be successful in this thing, we were going to have to grow it at grassroots because we tried to start in the macro and say, “Here’s the big system we are going to grow.” That concept was scary to people. The costs were scary to people. We built this thing strand by strand, mile by mile, slowly as it came up.

We found ourselves in grassroots growing with three entities partnering and no centralized management of it. You had these three different entities of different ideas, conflicting ideas, and poor fiber management. We would keep telling our self. We didn’t have a good strategy of how to use that fiber. We cut it up a little bit, which we should not have done. Then, in walk you guys and we needed somebody to help us look at it on the macro.

Now that we have 100 miles roughly, we needed somebody to help us become the traffic cop of the light running through it and making smart business decisions for our own uses, and then looking out and saying, “What can we bring to it that may even be revenue-enhancing, but they would offset the cost?” That’s where we are. We’re beginning to see there are opportunities outside of our three entities that are low hanging fruit that gets help us cover our internal costs for the fiber. It was a very exciting time.

 AV: You’ve gotten into some public-private partnerships to provide a limited service in Downtown Maryville. I remember when we were looking at office space in Maryville, rent was less expensive than reliable internet. That’s changed with some partnerships that you’ve put together and that’s commendable. When you say revenue-enhancing, a lot of cities and a lot of our clients across the country, are in the business of broadband to the home or the business. Is that the direction you want to take this?

GM: You’d never say never about anything but up to this point, the commission in the City of Alcoa and the Council in the City of Maryville will both have had a general sense that the government shouldn’t be competing with the private sector. If you’ve got private sector people that can do the services that are needed in the community, then why would you compete with them? With that said, there are times it’s monopolistic and there might be reasons why you have to, but around here, we’ve gotten relative service that we need.

I doubt that anytime soon we’re going to jump into actual providing cable services. To do that, the telecommunications laws were changed many years ago and said only electric systems can get in that business. If you do, it’s got to be a performer. You’ve got to start a whole new utility and that’s a big bite to take. In the middle of that, not going that far, we can just get into the fiber business. We’re able to provide the pipe and the glass and the light that anybody wants to ride across that.

It’s like us on the interstate, we are not driving the cars. Somebody else is delivering those products. That’s where we’re finding it a great niche for us. We have all this additional capacity in fiber. It’s sitting there dark, lets light that up, and get some money from that. We know it’s not going to be this huge profit, big business, but it will offset the cost that we have to our citizens and customers in our jurisdictions.

 AV: That’s a great way of putting it. Build the highways, buy your car, drive it yourself, we’ll maintain the highway. Your vision is broad in terms of how you provide not just technology services but services to the citizens. When it comes to tech specifically, you have to translate that to the techies. You have to take this broad vision and make this happen. What would your thoughts be on translating that vision to somebody who doesn’t understand the big picture or only gets the bits and pieces of it?

GM: I feel like I’m one of those. I have this vision that’s in the general context, but I don’t understand how it all works. We are very dependent on those people that are in the world of making it happen. We have our own IT department. We have consultants like Avèro partnering with us. We have these other jurisdictions, the Blount County and Alcoa with their tech staff. We’re becoming more and more a group with a common vision. Your question is, how do you communicate that to other people or help others understand that vision?

It goes back to what I’ve said before. We almost had to grow it grassroots and do something real-time to say, “Here was our experience and now it’s better.” We were down every week with this type of connection. With this new connection we’ve put up, we’ve never been down since. It’s less about, “How did you make it happen?” other than, “Here are the results.” We’ve got a good track record behind us to be able to bring to council and our community if there’s an outlay of money or there’s a continued need for capital to point back and say, “This is a continuation of all these great things that we’ve done up to this point.”

I will mention that at the same time we built the fiber system out the way we have for our jurisdictions, we brought in Ray Boswell who in a tri-jurisdictional agreement, we all employ him in Alcoa, Maryville, Blount County so that we’re not being redundant in map-making. Back then, it was all about mapping originally and now it’s all about data and everything else. There’s a lot we can point to this partnering and looking at it way different than the government used to look at things is beneficial to all of us. It easily pulls those people along.

 AV: It’s unique. I’m not saying this because I’m talking to you. I’ve said this before. To my knowledge, I don’t think there’s anything like the MACnet that exists in a community like ours where three governments came together. They’re on a single protocol and one point of entry and exit to the network. It’s commendable. You set the vision, you communicate, and then somebody has to be accountable for delivering that. How do you keep your tech team, your consultants, and your internal teams accountable? I’m asking you these questions, but I want success stories to be out there as examples for others to follow. What are your pearls of wisdom on that?

GM: Whether you’re talking about the question you’ve asked or the statement of, “It’s unique that you have a government people that can come together, lay the turf aside, and work together.” I would say that first and foremost if you got somebody unwilling to do that, they’ve got to go. That may sound harsh. Some people, you can do that, but with other people who are elected, you can’t. Sometimes it’s luck of the draw. In our community, it has always been wonderful to elect people who are progressive, forward-thinking, conservative fiscally but the expectation they send them to a government with is we want things to be as good or better going forward. We’re fortunate on the one hand to have the elected officials and were deliberate in hiring, maintaining, and demanding of all of us in the government sector to work together and try to lay that aside.

I’d be lying if I said, we do that in every case all the time. We’re human beings, it’s going to falter from time to time. There’s this general expectation across all jurisdictions and all departments and certainly in Maryville that if I don’t work with the team, I don’t get to stay here and continue that.” That’s the goal and that falters from time to time. For us, the proof is in it, in that we have three governments with these contracts and agreements. We’ve come miles and miles down the road. You can’t find this type of arrangement in a lot of other places.

 AV: For those reading that don’t know, if you Google a map the City of Maryville, it’s tied to the hip with the City of Alcoa intersecting in many ways geographically and otherwise in your power system, how you deliver power to customers and both cities are in a very large county on the Eastern end of Tennessee. Switching gears, let’s talk about some buzzwords that are thrown out at any magazine you open or websites you go to. The latest ones tend to be a smart city, for example. What does that mean to you?

GM: I think your characterization of a buzzword is good. It’s all about marketing in everything that we do. To me, I try to cut through the marketing piece of it. What is it trying to convey when we say that? It’s making practical innovations for the people of your community. When you’re in public service, that’s got to be your focus. No matter what decision we make, how does it touch the citizen? Is it beneficial to them or not? If it’s not, we shouldn’t be doing it. Just because it’s cool, it doesn’t mean we need to be in it. Just because it’s fashionable to take this long leap, we may be fine to take these short leaps because what we need is practical.

When I see a lot of people across the country and even across Tennessee, I see some of my contemporaries. Many of them I don’t know. It’s almost like they’re getting into things to say, “We got there first.” It’s almost this badge and we want to show whether they need to be or not. They’re trying to get that on to resume or something. I have a saying that, “Pioneers get the arrows, settlers get the land.” There are a lot of times that wisdom would say, “Let’s set back a minute. It’s a new thing. It sounds great. Let some people take the arrows first. There will be failures and thank God for people that are willing to do that. Let’s wait until using public dollars. We’re sure it’s a sound direction to take, a sound path.

 AV: In many cases, you’re already smart, even in the tech definition. The City of Maryville, Alcoa, and Blount County, having MACnet and having your meters read through fiber and versa collectors and running efficient routes for your trash collection, that’s smart thinking. That’s reducing inefficiency and putting the tax dollars at best use. To me, that’s the definition of a smart city. It’s also evolved to how do you make the best use of the data you’re collecting to deliver better services. It’s evolving. To your point, sometimes it’s not about technology. Most of the time it isn’t. We’ve had this discussion a lot of times as tech will do what it’s told to do but you need to define what it needs to do for you.

GM: On the other side of that, an example of where we took a pass, we looked early on about when the telecommunications laws changed to allow electric systems to be in the business of cable television or internet provision. We spent a long time talking about that and looking at it. The premise of if the public sector can do it, why would we compete? It was one aspect of it. The other aspect of it was this technology world changes so fast that to be a public entity, to jump into something like that, sink all these millions of dollars early to be able to get into the business. Back when I started, it was to do cable television. I saw a bunch of people jump in because it was fashionable and exciting.

When they got there, their competition, the incumbents simply dropped their rates way below and crushed them because they had the cash. They had other locations where this utility had this one. They were jumping in a business they didn’t understand, and it cost them a lot of money. Looking back at all that, we have probably been wise to not jump quickly for the sake of being able to say we’re sparked or we’re innovative. It’s seductive, it can be, and we try to be wise to make it practical too. Is it practical to be smart? The two of those carry along.

 AV: One of your roles as a city manager is helping the community bring in more business and be the economic development face of the city. Is that a conflict when you say that we don’t want to be at the forefront of tech innovations and providing broadband? Things have changed but going forward, things will get better. If a company wants to come in, they want to know where we can put an office and where we can get fast internet, access to roads, and employees. How does that account into being risk-averse in your role as a city manager and being at the forefront of getting more businesses to come in?

GM: By and large, the businesses that would come to us and say, “We want fast internet,” generally, are big enough that they can get it from somebody if they want it. They have to pay pretty much penny for it, but it’s available. What the technology companies who’ve been able to do that in the past, the big guys, the AT&T, the charters of the world are beginning to see. Everybody is beginning to nip on their heels because technology is making it simpler. As you know, our small 100 miles of fiber is beginning to be linked up with fiber all around us.

Before long, we’re going to have a broad coverage. It’s one partner in this big conglomerate of partnerships that blanket Eastern Tennessee, and this could grow even beyond. Between being innovative in the practicality, we know we need that faster fiber. It’s not like we’re sitting and doing nothing. We want to look for opportunities to practically make that and bring that possible competition to those out there that will keep their pencil sharp for people we’re trying to bring here.

 AV: It’s there if someone needs it.

GM: They have to have it. Generally, the big companies that demand that the ones we’ve dealt with, they don’t have pockets. That’s a small contribution. They’re building plants, they have big budgets, and they can well afford it.

 AV: Tesla’s looking for a new home.

GM: I know this and I’m trying to get through to Elon.

 AV: He’s busy sending spaceships. It’s an aborted attempt. The next one I’m throwing out is not a buzzword, but it tends to be sometimes. It’s cybersecurity. What are your general thoughts on where we’re headed and strategies to combat armies of robots?

GM: If there’s something that keeps me awake at night, it is that and that we’re all in the same boat, whether you’re private or public. We’ve become so dependent on our technology. It’s afforded lots of opportunities for people who want to do harm and real harm. I was reading about Baltimore where they were hijacked and ransomed. What they were asking for in ransom was a remittance compared to what they spent to get past it and restore it.

That’s where they have you. The temptation is to spin that ransom and get by it. Baltimore, what they spent in getting out of it, they probably should have better spent that early. There’s no better learning curve than going through this and how real it is. It’s a huge threat. It worries us. Cybersecurity and how important that is. I don’t understand all of it. I’m very dependent on those to do. Any entity, whether you’re public or private, you’ve got to have your in-house people and consultants outside, working in tandem to do the very best they can do to keep you safe.

 AV: It comes down to education too. You could have the best piece of software keeping you safe, the best IT guys, and the best consultants. If someone opens an email that they shouldn’t be or they get a phishing scam or they get a PDF that looks like it’s from Greg McClain, but it’s not.

GM: It’s not a, “Get yourself safe and then rest.” It’s a daily thing that you get to a place where you feel safe and they’re already working on breaking into that firewall or whatever it is. Technology has given people who want to do harm lots of a platform to do that very thing.

 AV: That brings me to how virtual we are. Overnight, we went from “I’m now going to have a virtual meeting” to all virtual meetings over the last few months. How did you transition that to your Council meetings, Commission meetings? How adaptive was your Council for a new way of doing business?

GM: As you know, we’ve got a couple of bodies. We have Council, we have Planning Commission, and Board of Zoning Appeals. We have a great number of these bodies that have to meet. Some of them went ahead and met collectively. We kept them safe. When you’ve got five Councilman and you have to have three for a quorum, we said, “Which three of you want to come to the building and we’ll keep your way away from one another?” Because the legislature allowed us to push that out but not letting the public, it was easy to make those three people safe. When you have a body that’s got 7 to 9 on it, it was hard to get a quorum because there were a number of people that didn’t want to come in. We did go to using teams and Zoom, and all of that.

As you can imagine some people embraced. Some weren’t crazy about it. What I want to make sure we don’t do in the public sector though is to try to move to the virtual Council meeting. The whole notion of a public meeting is that the public is in there. Whether you do the very best you can or not, it’s going to be easy to accuse somebody of, “I tried to put a comment in and I couldn’t,” or “I even tried to sign on and you wouldn’t let me.” Maybe it’s the technology or maybe they just didn’t understand it. Our desire is to get back to normal and we’re already back in the normal mode, but you’ve got all these things to worry about keeping people separate and overflow rooms in case you get too many.

I would say internally with staff, it’s shown that there’s a great number of things we can do without the laborious pack all your stuff up and drive to another building and sit in a meeting up there or jump in your car and drive to the next town and have a meeting. There are benefits too. It’s forced into the hands of people that otherwise would have never gotten there, “How this works?” Before I came over here, I was on teams in a meeting, and it was great. They brought up PowerPoints, everybody’s able to speak and even a place to click and wave your hand. I think that’s going to continue to grow and get better and better.

 AV: I spent the last few months working in my basement. There are few things I enjoy while I was away from the office like sitting in pointless meetings didn’t happen as much. I got so much done, but it’s good to be back in resurface back at my desk here.

GM: I will say though the social component. I would hate to see us go 100% to that because it goes back to relationships and dealing with people and it’s very impersonal to do that.

 AV: I missed hanging out and talking about worldly things and work stuff. It’s good to be back. The role of the CIO, IT director, whatever you call it in your organization, historically has been something to the point where we’re keeping the lights on, make sure the computers are backed up and you’re good. It’s evolved and it’s likely evolving faster given the COVID situation where suddenly, our guys had to scramble one evening when the Supreme Court of Tennessee said, “On Monday morning, we’re going to go virtual.” How do you think the role of the CIO/CTO is going to evolve going forward?

GM: What I have seen when you have an organization, I don’t care what it is, and you bring in your IT leadership probably all the way down through all the levels from the top to the tech. Over time, you wind up becoming very tunnel-visioned because the demands of what the organization needs are what drives you. It’s the squeaky wheel. If you’re not careful as an organization, the world will pass you by as you’re down here working on the squeaky wheels, backing up your systems and taking on the projects within the organization. What we’ve gone through has made it even worse.

They’ve had to jump from keeping the things over here to educate people on how to use Zoom and set up cameras in our Council meeting. There is even ultra-tunnel vision down here. That’s where I’m a big advocate of having a consultant that is on the outside of any one entity. They’re going to spend a whole lot more time understanding what’s happening in the world and where are things going and, how’s this thing evolving, but you can’t just bring in anybody.

You’ve got to have somebody that is going to work well with your IT people where they don’t feel threatened. I don’t know any human being that’s not going to run through their mind, “What’s the administration trying to do here? Do they get rid of me or bring in these other people?” That’s the furthest thing from the truth. We were trying to put armor around our internal people. Is that the question you were looking at? Is that the answer you’re looking for?

 AV: It is and what I hear you saying is the role of the IT department isn’t changing much. They’re not making new systems for you anymore. The key functions are keeping the network always lit up and secure. Because the time has been freed up from creating systems from the ground up, building databases, there is room to be more strategic. Keep working with an external consultant or even internally. I forgot which city manager it was who said to me, “I can see in the next five years some IT managers and CIOs becoming city managers because of how involved IT is in every realm of the city.” It’s a little scary but I can see it.

GM: I think that’s true. Technically, if you look at the technical work that they’ve been doing all these many years, most of these people start out writing code and programming. Now, it’s contract management because they have so much stuff and all that. That aspect of it has changed dramatically in what their roles are. Fortunate is the manager of a city that has IT people that are willing to try to stay current in bringing themselves to that. That’s a hard job, unlike any other job we have in the city. It used to be like every three years, everything’s different. It’s every year now in the tech world. It’s tough for those people who have these day-to-day obligations to keep everything running and support everybody, “By the way, stay current, know everything is changing and stay with it.” Get up on your surfboard and ride the crest of it and they’ll be left behind. That’s hard. That’s a big call.

 AV: In 2007, we did an IT strategic plan for the City of Akron, Ohio. It was a ten-year plan. I don’t think they did anything with it. These days our clients, like for you, did a three-year plan. We’ve looked at it because we worked so closely. We look at every year and say, “Is this still relevant?” That’s how quickly things are changing. What is the most impactful project that you and your team are taking on in terms of technology?

GM: Changing our financial software with a desire to bring everything else up with it, all the way down from how the guy is carrying out services as a code inspector, the fire department, the police department, billing, and trying to get our arms around it. You’ve been right there with us the whole time. We’ve started down the path and backed up and said, “Where’s the starting point? Can you grab this thing?” Everything else will have to fall in behind. Finally, after how many years from the time we began, every day we are thinking about this work. We probably have grabbed the longest pull and then everything will come around. That’s the biggie. It’s the manager dovetailing on everything that we talked about. We are so focused on that. There’s a lot of other stuff going on and we’ve got to be able to do this, pull this off, get in that new environment, and at the same time, not drop anything else.

 AV: A financial system that spans everything, the general ledger, purchasing, inventory control and work orders. On the utility side, it’s billing and accounting for TVA regulations and their reporting. There’s a lot that’s going on into that project. You also spend a lot of time instead of just jumping in and buying something, you studied your current processes, and you did a real deep dive into the business process and why it is the way that it is and figuring out ways to do things better regardless of what system it is. Tell us a little bit more about that.

GM: I remember the day probably very early on that I met you, I asked the question about what’s your approach? I was looking for somebody whose approach was not just, “Let me go out and find you a canned package and bring it in here and sell it to you.” What we wanted to do is to look at who’s in the market that can provide this for us. I want to start with mapping out the processes as we do it, because if you don’t understand how you’re doing it at that moment, to the person and what activity they’re doing and then they just throw it over the wall because this thing touches in many ways. We needed to understand that and then say, “In a perfect world we were starting from scratch. How would we map that workflow to be the most efficient?”

What’s the most efficient way to get from point A to point B, then you can reduce your impact on your customer’s wait time. You have fewer employees if you don’t need it. You may have a lot less infrastructure. We needed to do that work and then find the application that best fits that. Not just, “Here’s how we do it and find a system.” We’ll keep doing it inefficiently. You agreed and that was your thought process as well. That’s where the time has been invaluable. Back to what we were saying, we could have rushed through this, but we would have been unhappy if we had rushed through it.

 AV: You’re trading time for pain. Someone else said on the show, “Don’t digitize inefficiencies,” and that’s what you haven’t done. It’s been wonderful working with you and your team that understands that it’s hard to sell sometimes because, for someone who’s been doing a job for many years and doing it a certain way, it’s hard to understand that there can be something more efficient than this. It’s been a good journey to go along with you on. Greg, what has been the biggest challenge you’ve taken on and overcome in your career?

GM: I would say that work has energized me. There’s not been a challenge that I haven’t wanted to get into it and figure it out. The challenge and it may be true in all businesses are the relationships. When you are a city manager of a town our size of 30,000, and you have a city council, and you have a staff, and they have the federal government you have to deal with, the state government you have to deal with. You have the local people of Alcoa, Maryville and other jurisdictions, governmental entities. You have special interest groups. You have all these voices.

Probably the biggest challenge is to deal with hundreds of people, maybe thousands of people each year. What you find is that every single one of them has a different level of understanding of whatever issue it is they’re dealing with. What I’ve come to find that there’s a great number of that are very loud about what they believe and the louder they are, they generally know less, or they wouldn’t be so loud if they knew more about it. The real challenge is trying to have the patience and not just get exhausted of saying, “Let’s slow down the conversation. Let’s get to a place where we understand it correctly together,” whether it’s a councilman or a staff member or the public.

That’s the toughest thing for me because it does take a pound of flesh over time because it seems like Groundhog Day every day that you’re having to go back and say the same thing over and over, try to catch people. Quite honestly, there’s a great number of people that don’t want to know. They don’t have their opinion. They want what they want, “Don’t try to educate me or tell me different.” To me, that’s the challenge. The actual work is a pleasure. I enjoy taking on those things.

 AV: I think you have to. You wouldn’t make it to your position, or you wouldn’t be good at it. Is that what keeps you motivated that it isn’t a job for you? This is you and this is what you do.

GM: Going back to where we started this conversation, I was fortunate to work in the private sector for about 18 years. I had a lot of different jobs. I worked for a lot of different small companies and build things until I hit Alcoa. During that time, there was not a whole lot of satisfaction in what I was doing because in Alcoa, as an example, working with engineering and the environmental department is all about building things to support making aluminum cans for beer and Coke products. At the end of the day, you go home empty because there are not a lot of feed your soul there. My whole driver was I’d love to do something where it felt like I was making a difference.

Let me tell you, in government particularly the seat that I get privileged to sit in is you see that impact on people every day. If you’re doing it for the right reasons and you realize that we’re stewards and public servants of their money, the city has no money. It’s all theirs, we’re just stewards of it, and you’re working hard to make the right decisions for their benefit, that’s what drives you. That’s what keeps you there and keeps you going. That’s stabilizing to the other, having to deal with the long nights, the long days, and the tough conversations. It may sound a little corny, but that’s what drives it.

 AV: In my conversations with people in your position, that’s the common thread. You don’t get there unless you don’t think it has to be on the inside.

GM: If you’re looking to make a lot of money for yourself and it’s about you and what you want, public service is not for you because you’re not going to make a lot of money, but you’ll get a tremendous amount of satisfaction of seeing the impact that you have on people.

 AV: On that note, Greg, I thank you for coming on the show and giving us your time. I appreciate your honesty, your friendship, and being one of our premier clients.

We were very fortunate to have you and your team working with us. We look forward to many years in the future.

About Greg McClain

Greg spent fifteen years in the business of making aluminum cans. He eventually realized that although it was a good job, it provided very little personal satisfaction. What he really wanted was to make a difference in the community. Greg soon left The Aluminum Company to work for the City of Alcoa. Nine years later, an Assistant City Manager position at the City of Maryville opened. By then he knew that public service was his calling, and he began his journey at the City as Assistant to Gary Hensley.

Greg was responsible for one half of the organization for the first two years, then the other half of the organization was added to his plate for another two years. He became the City Manager when Gary retired in 2006. Knowing he is making a difference through his work is one of his favorite things about his job. For the last 10 years he has worked with a specific goal in mind…. Putting the city on a sound financial path. Under his leadership, and with the guidance of the City Council and Mayor, the city has greatly reduced the amount of debt they carry and traded volatile adjustable-rate loans for more stable fixed-rate loans. Leaving a large amount of debt for future generations to deal with is not an option in Greg’s mind. Responsible spending coupled with improvements that set Maryville up for comfortable future growth are the legacy he prefers to leave behind. Greg is an Ordained Deacon, and a Sunday School Teacher. He’s a golfer, a lover of the mountains and of the Fall. He never makes New Year’s Resolutions, has visited 49 states, and hopes to get to the only remaining state, Alaska, eventually. He loves Christmas, especially when he and Linda’s family gathers to decorate the tree with ornaments that were created by his parents long ago.

He swears he will never jump off a 40’ cliff (into a body of water) again, on account of the memories of a broken tailbone he suffered with for a year following the last time he jumped. The last movie he saw in the theater was Paddington II, the last book he read was Right Thinking in a Church Gone Astray by Nathan Busenitz, and he once tried out for the Cincinnati Reds. He loves being outdoors, his all-time favorite movie is It’s a Wonderful Life, his hero is the Apostle Paul, and the most influential person he has known is his mother. He misses the simpler times of his childhood but wouldn’t change a single thing about his life if he were given the opportunity.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future.” If that’s true, the city of Maryville is in good hands with Greg at the helm! He not only knows the past, but he understands the importance of public service too.

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