Jim Myers, Crown Automotive Group President and Chief Operating Officer, has a fond memory that gets right to the heart of why his company has been such a driving philanthropic supporter of the Pinellas Education Foundation.
Some 15 years ago, he was taking one of his daughters, Sara Beth, to her big day with the rest of her eighth-grade class to Finance Park, a signature program of the Pinellas Education Foundation.
“I remember driving down the street and Sara Beth said, ‘You know dad, if you have a credit card, you should really be sure to pay it off every month,’ ” recollects Myers, a former Foundation board chair and longtime board member. “I said, ‘That’s awesome, where did you hear that?’ And she said, ‘Well, we’ve been studying for our day at Finance Park and that’s what they taught us.’ ”
In its own simple way, that moment captures what Finance Park is all about – and why Crown initially became involved with the Foundation in the early 1990s, with Dwayne Hawkins, Crown’s founder and original CEO. Hawkins became a board member in the early years of the Foundation, adhering to a firm belief in the vital importance of supporting education. “He knew the education encompasses everybody,” Myers says, “not just a certain group of people geographically or demographically.”
In 2003, when Hawkins’ time on the board came to end, Myers took over and eagerly focused Crown’s
support for the Foundation in the realm of career technical educational training. It was a perfect fit for the automotive giant, because of its need for well-prepared automotive service and body technicians in its growing operations.
But Myers also knew that it wasn’t simply Crown that benefitted from the emphasis on technical training – companies throughout the community needed students who could step seamlessly into technical careers as well.
“To me it was a win-win-win situation – for Crown and other local businesses, for the students and for the Pinellas Education Foundation,” he remarks. “Kids could receive training in a field they enjoyed and were good at, whether it was automotive, electrical, medical or any number of other areas. That became my initial passion and it remains a big one, because so many kids graduate from high school and can’t get a job in their profession, or they drop out of school without a clear path forward. So that’s what led Crown to get involved.”
“We’re in our 12th year with Finance Park and it’s great to be part of it, because a big financial life decision involves purchasing a vehicle,” he explains. “What I like about Finance Park is that the kids have to examine all aspects of the decision – not just how fun a car might be to drive or how cool it looks, but what does the insurance cost and what is the maintenance?”
Since 2008, the company has pledged nearly $200,000 in support of Finance Park, while contributing almost a half-million-dollars to a multitude of other Foundation programs, such as Frances Stavros Career Education, Take Stock in Children, Classroom Grants and Walker’s Rising Stars. But the numbers that count in Myers’ view are the stellar graduation rate of students from career academies in Pinellas County high schools: 96 percent.
“It’s wonderful to see that success, because these students are doing something they find relevant and exciting,” Myers says. “They work hard at it and they graduate. To see that is just tremendously fulfilling for all of us at Crown.”
In fact, Crown has been employing students from career academies to work as automotive technicians. “Students get a good job with benefits, and it addresses our industry-wide shortage of qualified service technicians.”
The company’s support of Walker’s Rising Stars – the annual talent and scholarship competition that showcases many gifted Pinellas students in multiple disciplines – is particularly visible due to the involvement of Myers and wife Melissa as frequent emcees of the popular Mahaffey Theater show. “Crown is delighted to be a sponsor of the event,” he says. “Students have limited opportunities to display their talents and Walker’s Rising Stars gives them a wonderful way to do it, not just the finalists who take part at the Mahaffey but the many who take part leading up to the big night. It’s a great way to enhance and support this part of the education world.”
And it’s one more reason why Myers and Crown are so pleased to be associated with the Pinellas Education Foundation. “It makes you feel good when you see results and know that you are making a difference,” he says. “I’m proud to partner with the Foundation. What other cause impacts more than 100,000 lives in one county – and is a positive influence on all students?”