Influential person: Bill Mays

Entrepreneur and philanthropist

Indianapolis entrepreneur and philanthropist Bill Mays spent his life blazing new trails for both himself and the African American community. The Evansville native founded Indianapolis-based Mays Chemical Co. in 1980, growing it from a one-man operation into a company ranked in 2014 (the year of Mays’ death) as the nation’s 16th-largest Black-owned business by Black Enterprise magazine. The chemical distributor’s lengthy client list grew to include Eli Lilly and Co. and Pfizer Inc., among many others. It continues to operate across the United States and in Puerto Rico.

Mays used both his financial resources and his time to give others a leg up. He donated heavily to philanthropic causes and invested in more than 100 businesses, most of which were minority- or women-owned. His grab bag of small-scale investments ranged from a barbershop to a car dealership to a restaurant at Indianapolis International Airport.

Some of his highest profile acquisitions were the 1993 purchase (with radio personality Bill Shirk) of a group of TV and radio stations, which were sold in 2000 for $40 million. And in 1990, he acquired The Indianapolis Recorder, the nation’s fourth-largest African American newspaper. During his ownership, readership grew from about 10,000 to 100,000.

Mays became the first Black to chair the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, to serve as appointed chairman of the Indiana Lottery Commission, and to chair the United Way of Central Indiana’s annual campaign. He also served on the boards of numerous companies and organizations, including the Indiana University Foundation, the National Minority Supplier Development Council and Evansville-based utility Vectren Corp. Mays said he did so much board work because so few African Americans get the chance, and also to help find ways for minorities to develop their business skills. 

On one occasion, when New York’s Goldman Sachs & Co. wanted to make a pitch to sell bonds for WellPoint Health Networks Inc. (on whose board Mays sat), he asked the firm to bring along at least one minority partner. Because it would be a great way for them to get experience in dealing with such transactions.

He also helped start Indiana’s first Black political action committee and was a strong supporter of the NAACP. And for 30 years, he donated to the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, which had helped finance his own education. He served as chairman of the consortium’s Alumni Leadership Program.

Mays also invested heavily in youth development and education. He strongly believed that, while minorities needed to make gains in the legal and civic spheres, they also needed to grow their business prowess and monetary clout by developing companies. And on numerous occasions, he helped those efforts—not just with cash, but also with his advice.

“Who hires attorneys? Who buys goods and services? It’s the businesspeople, the entrepreneurs that hire people and create jobs,” he once told IBJ.

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