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Leaders & Legends: Phillip Beard

On an August day in 1984, a man from Memphis, Tennessee came to town. He was doing the business of the federal government, charged with selling an old post office building in the downtown Buford square.

City Commission Chairman Phillip Beard greeted him, and they walked across the street together. It was blistering hot outside. Phillip remembers the man, who wore a suit and tie, was “sweating like a bull.”

The two stepped inside the old post office. Phillip, a real estate prospector by trade, sized up the place. It was dirty. Filled with trash. Poorly ventilated. Even still, Phillip knew the building to be valued at more than $200,000.

“So, y’all interested in buying this?” the man said.

“I might be if the price is right,” Phillip replied.

“Make me an offer.”

Phillip offered the man $42,000.

Two weeks later, Phillip got a phone call from the man in Memphis, Tennessee. Would the city be willing to pay $52,000?

After procuring the property, Phillip says, the city spent $100,000 renovating it to turn it into headquarters for city operations – a purpose it would serve for the next 20 years.

When it was time for a new city hall, Buford officials sold the renovated post office building for $486,000 – netting a sizable profit for the municipality. Good property with a return on an investment. A win-win for the city.

“Everything I do has been like that,” Phillip says. “We come out ahead … I was in the real estate business … I just lowballed [the man from Memphis], and he took it.”

Phillip’s anecdote was told in response to a question asked of him: Does he think his experience as a savvy businessman helped in his role as an elected official – specifically serving on the city and school board commission since the 1970s.

So, yes. The answer is yes. And he comes by it honest.

Buford roots run deep

The family of Phillip Beard is spread far, wide and deep in the Buford community.

Family history is a topic that interests Phillip – and for good reason. He can trace the roots of his forefathers all the way back to an Irish great-great-great-great-grandfather’s arrival in Charleston, South Carolina – and each of the grandfathers’ stories is intriguing.

The Irish great-great-great-great-grandfather is buried in Athens, while the three grandfathers born after him are all buried right here in Buford at New Bethany Baptist Church Cemetery. Phillip’s father is buried in the Buford City Cemetery.

As far as living relatives go, Phillip, 81, says he can’t walk around the city of Buford and not run into somebody who’s a second or third cousin: “You go down the street saying something good or something bad, and you’re bound to be talking to somebody that’s a relative. Got a huge family background here, and a lot of them have stayed in the community.”

It all started with that “four greats” grandfather, Moses Beard, who arrived by ship. After landing in Charleston, Phillip’s forefather did some traveling. He was a spy during the Revolutionary War and fought in the battle at Hanging Rock and in the taking of Rugley’s Fort. He wound up in Athens, where he is now buried – on Jackson Street inside the University of Georgia campus.

As a result of the land lottery system, Phillip’s “three greats” grandfather – a veteran of the War of 1812 – wound up with a tract of land near the Chattahoochee River on what is now part of Lake Lanier Islands. He was buried on his property near Shoal Creek but exhumed and relocated to New Bethany Baptist Church Cemetery when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Buford Dam and the water began to back up.

His great-great-grandfather was a state senator who also fought for the Confederate Army in the Civil War in the Third Georgia Militia. On the day before Robert E. Lee surrendered, Phillip’s forefather was captured in Virginia. He was released a day after his capture and walked all the way back to Georgia with fellow prisoners of war.

Phillip’s great-grandfather bought a piece of land near the railroad track in Buford. He lived on a 188-acre farm that he paid for in increments by growing cotton and chopping and piling firewood on the side of the train, back when trains ran on wood rather than coal.

His grandfather was an elected official – serving on the city council in the 1920s. He and a relative also ran a furniture store in downtown Buford, which closed during the Great Depression. Business was in the Beard blood apparently. In 1946, Phillip’s father opened a grocery store in downtown Buford, where the young Phillip worked as a boy.

‘I’ve been busy all my life’

When Phillip was six years old, his grandfather would take him rabbit hunting. While the elder Beard, colleagues and kin tracked small mammals, an enterprising young Phillip scoured the grounds for oval-leafed peanut plants.

“I’d pick me a sackful every time they’d take me up there, and momma helped me parch them in the oven, and I’d put them in little bags, jump the railroad tracks with 40 bags on a Saturday morning,” Phillip recalls, laughing. “At a nickel a bag, I’d have 2 bucks in no time. People at that time was making 10 cents an hour for their work, so I was doing good. I started a bank account … and bought myself a brand-new suit by the time I was 10 years old.”

Phillip graduated from Buford High School in 1958. High school sweetheart, Sylvia, who he would later marry, graduated in 1960.

Phillip was accepted to attend Georgia Institute of Technology. He attended Georgia Tech for two years before losing interest.

“I wasn’t ever satisfied with being an engineer,” he says. “In 1957, Russia put the Sputnik up and from there they was herding everybody to ‘go take math and science, because we’re behind the Russians!’ you know.”

Around this time, at the age of 19, Phillip bought a dry-cleaning business (Model Cleaners) in Buford. He made the business successful, turning a profit on the investment in less than a year. He was a sophomore at the time at Georgia Tech.

“(The dry-cleaning business) was an income producer, and I had some good employees who worked there,” Phillip says. “I was five or six years old when my dad went into business, so I’d had more than 10 years dealing with the public already in my dad’s store.”

After his two years at Georgia Tech, he changed collegiate pathways, attending the University of Georgia for the next couple of years. Around this time, Sylvia graduated from Brenau University in Gainesville.

Soon thereafter, Phillip would turn to the career path that interested him most: real estate. The dry-cleaning plant was his first piece of property – and he took the profits out of it to purchase other properties around town. He got his real estate license in his 20s.

And then, he figured he’d try running for public office. After failing to secure a seat on the Buford city commission at the age of 26, he would later try again at the age of 34. He was elected in 1975 to the commission and hasn’t lost the seat since.

He says cleaning up Buford was a top priority when he first got elected.

“That’s one of the first things I said when I got in office,” he says. “I said we’re going to clean this town up. We got rid of all the kudzu down near the railroad tracks, built those nice wrought iron fences around the railroad to beautify it and landscape it. Part of my daily activities even these days is just to look at things and see how I can improve them.”

Infrastructural improvements were next on his list as a young city commissioner – and the city went to work improving electric systems, replacing water and gas lines and more to get the town up to date in its processes.

“Politics has been easy. I do my job and folks leave me alone,” he says, smiling.

Buford – then and now

Says Phillip of the state of things when he took office: “We didn’t have curbs nowhere. We had little old bitty water lines. We had to rebuild the electric system, the water lines, the sewer lines.”

The city of Buford also upgraded gas lines running around the town and beyond. Today, the gas that Buford sells to its customers is an important source of income for the municipality, with nearly 50,000 customers in the system in Buford and far beyond.

Today, he estimates the city’s utility systems to be worth than $800 million: “Maybe more than that, and it’s growing.”

It’s a far cry from the town Buford once was. One need only ride through the city limits on the main thoroughfares or take a stroll through downtown historic Buford to see it’s quite the bustling little city.

Wayne Mason, who served on the Gwinnett County Commission in the 1970s, says the city owes much of its success to Phillip.

“He has done a fantastic job. Buford has been his life. Him and his wife both. Where do you find someone like that?” Mason says, recounting a time in the 1970s when the two elected officials met to discuss law enforcement.

“(Phillip) said to me, ‘Mason, what if we do away with our police department?’ Well, I was commission chairman at the time. I said, ‘we’ll cover it. You pay taxes, same as everybody else – (Buford) is entitled to the service, we’re just not going to duplicate it.’”

Phillip recalls that decision too.

“We were losing money on electricity at the time,” Phillip says. “We had a decision to make. The county already had a well-thought-of, good, police force, so I met with them, and they said … we were paying for the county police already through taxes, so we disbanded our police. From there, we’ve done pretty good financially.”

Especially, he says, with regard to the city’s school system. Buford is the only public municipal city school system in Gwinnett County that operates independently of Gwinnett County Public Schools – and one of only 21 like it in the state.

“Once the sales tax hit the scene, Buford has been flush with school funds. We’ve had the finest school facilities; we’ve managed the money as well and maintained our facilities.

Buford’s award-winning school system is a particular point of pride for him.

“If you go down to city hall … you’ll find people who graduated Buford High School running it. If I can keep our people coming back home wanting to be part of Buford, it will stay Buford, and that’s my goal: bringing these kids back (after they graduate) and making them feel good and providing jobs and a future for them.”

Adds Phillip: “I want our kids to be proud of the town they grew up in. I want people to be proud to tell the world ‘I’m from Buford, Georgia. Come and see my home.’ Invite people. We try to make it where people can be proud of it.”

Former Buford City Schools Superintendent Beauty Baldwin says the school system is number one thanks in large part to all that Phillip has done.

“I mean, he has put forth every effort to make (Buford City Schools) the best … and it really is the best anywhere. And if you read the papers, Buford City Schools is the number-one school in the state of Georgia,” Baldwin says. “Buford grows its own. They grow their own, and because of that, they do really well, and it’s because of Phillip Beard … he has stood for that school system and the city. They both are what they are because of Phillip Beard. Other people, yeah, they have definitely helped a whole lot … but the main person is Phillip Beard. Just such a neat man.”

‘Buford’s number one’

Accomplishing everything he’s accomplished starts at home every morning around 4:30 a.m. He wakes up and makes his wife breakfast. He fixes her a sandwich for lunch as well. His wife, at 80 years old, still teaches piano in Buford.

Many mornings, he’s got a breakfast meeting with someone regarding city business. On the mornings he doesn’t, he’ll go ahead and fix himself something in the kitchen as well.

From there, it’s on to Buford City Schools headquarters or city hall. As chairman of the city commission, he is chairman of the school board as well – a system in place since the mid-90s.

After finishing up with city business the first half of the day, from that point on, he’ll “start working on real estate in the afternoons. I’ve acquired a good many pieces of real estate over the years. I’m like a car trader – I just trade land. Made my living like that.”

And then, it all starts again the next day at 4:30 a.m.

The early morning habit is a remnant of childhood.

Explains Phillip: “Done that most of my life. When I was a kid – this was prior to us even having gas in Buford – we didn’t have gas stoves. We had coal and wood. When I came home from school I had to chop my wood to start my fires the next morning. We worked … to take a bath. Back then they had a stove that would heat water and run it into a tank, and I had to do all that before we went to school every morning.”

His says the morning time routines also help him stay focused.

“I’ve done nothing nobody else couldn’t do – I just stay focused. And that’s what I tell these kids: stay focused. That one word if you’ll just think about it when you do something. ‘Focus.’ Don’t go to zigzagging or you’ll get taken down the detours and bumpy roads. Stay focused. Set your goals.”

He has tons of advice for anybody who wants to listen. Here’s another tidbit in regard to leadership.

“Being a good leader means doing what you tell people you’re going to do,” he says. “For instance, I say ‘I’m not going up on your taxes, I’m not going up on our utilities.’ And that’s what I mean. Water and sewer rates in Buford and garbage rates were set in 1973: $2 per month for garbage; $1 per thousand gallons for water; 50 cents per thousand gallons for sewer. And … we still charge that.”

During his decades on the board, there have been high points – building of the Buford Arena, the civic center, the new city hall “without having to go to people and burden them with debt.”

He estimates the city of Buford today to have more than $100 million in surplus funds.

“We don’t skimp on our projects, and all this stuff’s paid for. It’s about the approach you take,” he says.

Adds Phillip: “I’d have loved for some of the older to people to have been able to see what we’ve done. I’ve had good help. I’ve had good people serve with me. It’s not been just ‘Phil Beard.’ I get a lot of the credit, but it’s been everybody.”

“My success has been because of the people that we were associated with who worked for us. Luckily, we picked good people who had the same goals in life to be the best. Buford’s number one. We don’t accept anything less than being number one.”