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You’ve heard about an idea locker? Well how about an idea freezer?

This post from Jeremiah Owyang talks about one of my favorite ways to enjoy time disconnected from work: The idea freezer.

For him,  it’s a notebook that allows you to jot down ideas and to-dos as they come to you. The thought is that after you write thoughts down, they are safe, frozen for you to thaw out and use later.

I agree that we need a means of cataloging our thoughts. Most days, I have more ideas than I have time to fully process, but I want to ensure I never forget anything.  I used to keep a pad next to my bed, but then I had to turn on the light, wake up and write. If I had ideas while driving, it was unsafe to note them.

Then I discovered my idea freezer: voice recording. Instead of writing the thoughts down, I record them for later reference.

Before I got a smartphone, I carried a digital recorder and a cell phone. Switching to a Blackberry with the “voice notes” application meant I had the two in one place. It also removed another business device that has to be electrically charged (and removed from my pocket in the airport or left in the hotel room by mistake.) The Blackberry simplifies my life.

When I go on vacation, I still may see something that would benefit someone in our company or a customer relationship and do not wish to let the opportunity slip away. When I put the idea in my idea freezer I can forget about it. I have better peace of mind enjoying my time off.

To me, there is confidence in knowing that you’ve preserved your thoughts.

Do you have an idea freezer?

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email
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Did you know the oldest baseball park in the country is in Birmingham, Alabama? Rickwood Field was built here in the early 1900s.

Until Legion Field was erected, Rickwood was the only major sports facility in town. The park hosted not only the Barons and Black Barons baseball teams, but college football teams from all over the state. Dizzy Dean, Babe Ruth Hank Aaron and Willie Mays all called the park home at one time or the other.

The history of Rickwood Field could fill a book, so today I will focus on the part that’s most personal to our team: the scoreboard.

Over the years, as the park was upgraded, the original scoreboard was lost.

A chance at revitalization came in the early 1990s. Because of its age and authenticity, film producers chose Rickwood as the perfect set for a movie about Ty Cobb. A vintage board was erected for historical accuracy. It stayed for a few years–and it looked great–but it was a prop. It wasn’t built to last.

As it started to wear down, an opportunity opened up for us. Stewart Perry partnered with the Friends of Rickwood Field and Davis Architects to build a high quality, authentic replacement. Cement board and high performance coatings created a vintage feel that will be enjoyed for years to come.

Today’s board has hand-operated functions, just like the original. Scores are dropped in by boys hanging out in the ballpark. And since it seemed appropriate to unite the old with the modern, the scoreboard has been updated with electronics to ensure the hard-to-reach analogue clock always shows the correct time.

Now, the Barons play a vintage-style game at Rickwood every June. Folks from our office take the afternoon off to check on our scoreboard, all while supporting the history of our city and our hometown team.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

As important as office presence may be, I’m a firm believer in pockets of downtime. A break from email and task-oriented duties, however small, always brings me back to a top priority: family and friends.

When a customer (who I also count as a good friend) invited me to join him and his wife at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, I accepted without hesitation. The plan was for an evening enjoying A Prairie Home Companion. I brought my daughter, a senior in college, as company.

Sitting three rows back from the stage was unbelievable.

I have long been a fan of Garrison Keillor and his show on National Public Radio. A Prairie Home Companion is a variety show of down-home humor and thoughtful monologues on life, with spirited musical performances sprinkled throughout. The shows are loosely set in the author’s fictional boyhood home, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.”

A few years ago, I was fortunate to meet Keillor during a trip to his real home of Minnesota, but I had never seen him on stage. It was a pleasure to attend the 1,280th show of his career.

Emmylou Harris, a Birmingham native, sang eloquently about a friend who had passed away from cancer recently. There was not a dry eye in the house. Sam Bush showed off his mastery of the mandolin, and Pat Donohue demonstrated why he is considered to be one of the world’s greatest fingerpickers. We had a wonderful time. (Images from evening on our Weekend Collection at FlickR)

Back at home, whenever I listen to A Prairie Home Companion on the radio it reminds me of that delightful evening in the company of friends and my daughter. It’s an experience that was well worth the time away from corporate duties. Definitely “above average.”

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

A few weeks ago I asked my nearly grown children, ages 25, 20 and 17 to accompany their dad to a rustic Inn that has been welcoming guests since 1922 – High Hampton. This is a place where you will not find TV, Internet or even air conditioning in the rooms. Instead, you will find yourself in the middle of a mountainous estate – and at 3,600 feet elevation, removed from the chaos of work and everyday living. A special place to connect with your family.

Our days have been made up of hiking, swimming, canoeing and conversation. Evenings that begin with dinner – where coats and ties are still required –moved effortlessly into the main Lodge room where we gathered with other guests for  lively rounds of bingo, followed by more laughs and conversations. Yesterday we visited nearby Rainbow Falls where the water cascades down a 150’ tall rock face, as we swam in the swimming hole at the base of the falls.

High Hampton is nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains near Cashiers, North Carolina. Tall hemlocks and mountain laurel accent the mixed hardwoods of this 1,400-acre setting which also includes a 35-acre lake, gardens surround and a mix of majestic mountains. Rock Mountain and Chimney Top are the two you can hike. I recommend them both.

The lodge itself is of a classic shingle style with poplar and chestnut exteriors that reflect the mountain setting, bringing to mind the Great Camps of the Adirondacks. Our rooms were woodsy featuring hand-hewn twig, yet elegant with tasteful mountain crafted furnishings.

As we left this morning we all agreed this was a great vacation spot to be together and wish to do it again next year. Maybe you might give it a try as well.  Enjoy.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

We at Stewart Perry like where we live, and we like our neighbors. Donna Sue Groves believes you can express those feelings through her relatively newfound art—barn quilts.

“The barn quilts are public art that celebrates the place people call home. They make people feel good about themselves and where they live.” – Donna Sue Groves

We decided to give it a shot on our woodworking barn. We plan to paint several quilts over the coming year to reveal the unique diversity within our small community.

Ms. Groves originated the barn quilt project in Adams County, Ohio in 2001. Almost ten years later, this simplistic concept of painting a quilt square on an eight foot square piece of plywood and hanging it on a barn for others to enjoy is now called the National Quilt Barn Trail, spanning more than 20 states and British Columbia.

She feels this phenomenon sweeping the nation reveals something about our communities. “When we all become part of a team, we actually weave the fiber that brings people together,” she says. I agree wholeheartedly.

Our first effort could not be a better illustration of how teamwork builds a better community. Mitchell’s Place, our across the street neighbor, is a center specializing in services for children, young adults, and families affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).  This past Saturday, several Stewart Perry and Mitchell’s Place families joined together to paint our first barn quilt. As I watched everyone, especially the children, painting the 128 triangles that would make up 64 squares to finally form one large quilt, I could not help but be reminded of how rewarding it is when everyone comes together to accomplish a common goal. Even more rewarding was the laughter of the children, the smiles from the parents and the fun had by all as we got to know our neighbors better.

The geometric design, created by our own Lynn Wilkins, symbolizes the colors representative of autism awareness. All of the pieces, painted by several and pulled together as one, reveal our individual perspectives with collective aspirations. Our hope, like Ms. Groves, is simply for all to enjoy.

The barn quilt will be hung this week end. Please let me know if you happen to drive by. We’d like to hear your thoughts.


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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

I have been involved with the Boy Scouts of America for about 35 years. It’s a wonderful organization—I would encourage you to find a troop for your sons or grandsons if they are not already active. BSA teaches many essential skills that help children as they grow. I’ve found the basic principles they learn as Scouts carry over well into adulthood.

One of the Scouting merit badges is Communications. It’s required to earn the Eagle Scout rank, and that’s for a good reason. They emphasize conversation, listening, writing, persuasion and public speaking—all things that if mastered, comprise good communication. Honing this valuable skill at a young age can give Scouts a tremendous leg up. That’s because communicating effectively is a key to success at all stages of life, whether it’s interaction with your teacher, your boss, your employees or especially your clients.

Think of the classic vision of a Scout: a young boy helping an elderly lady cross the street. He learns early on the importance of looking both ways. The same is true in communication. It is a two-way street in which the traffic from both directions – speaking and listening – is equally important. You must not only be able to communicate your ideas clearly, but also truly take in what is being said. Listening is a huge part of communication. If something is said and it’s not heard properly, then what have you really accomplished? You’ve probably missed valuable input.

How can communication make us more effective? I think seamlessly and clearly sharing our thoughts, then listening intently in return will take us a long way as business leaders, family members and citizens.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

During his childhood breakfasts, George Barber probably saw wheels where other kids saw Cheerios. He’s had a lifelong fascination with vehicles equipped for power and speed.

The passion ran so deep that Barber, whose family built a legacy in the central Alabama dairy industry, decided to make a philanthropic investment in the community that raised him. Through his generous contributions, Barber Motorsports Park was completed just outside Birmingham in 2003.

The Barber Vintage Motorsports Park is considered the finest road course in North America. It’s also home to the Porsche Sports Driving School USA and the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. The 5-story museum elegantly displays the world’s best and largest motorcycle collection as well as the largest collection of Lotus racecars in the world.

I recently attended the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Alabama located at the Park. I was in good company. Fans poured in from 40 states and many countries to watch the races. All ages were nestled under the pines along the 2.3-mile course on this glorious Alabama Sunday afternoon. They came to watch some of the world’s finest racers running at speeds up to 200 mph. They left an estimated $30 million economic boost for the Birmingham community.

I took a few things away from my time at the track, and thought I would share them. Maybe next year I’ll see you at the races.

The Pit is arguably as exciting or more so than the race. Before the starting flag, I wandered down to watch the Target professional tech team do their last minute precise prep and install their renowned driver Scott Dixon into the bright red Target car. Whether on the track or on the job, such finely coordinated teamwork gives me a zing.

Indy Racing is green power in action. It’s the first and only motor sport to be powered by 100 percent fuel grade ethanol.

Team sports are great “team building” for your crew. Many from Stewart Perry joined in for a memorable, fun day. We had such a great time together that we decided to make The Indy Grand Prix of Alabama a springtime tradition.

Passion is contagious. Mr. Barber turned his passion into a legacy. The result has and will enhance thousands of lives and bring significant economic benefit to his hometown. George Barber challenges us to follow big dreams and make them happen.

What’s your vision? How can you make it real?

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

The British have a term for the primary business and shopping street in their towns—High Street. Similar to the fabled American “Main Street,” high streets are often named just that. As shopping has evolved, Brits have continued patronizing High Street in their own villages, while counterparts across the pond have adapted to the convenience of a supermarket and mall lifestyle.

Even in modern London, locals seem to prefer their neighborhood, where they know the shopkeepers and are looked after with personal attention. You’d think they would give up walking in frequent drizzle and noisy traffic in exchange for dry, calm tranquility under one roof. Maybe things are changing.

One property in West Kensington has me thinking consumer-minded British developers found a way to couple old school service with high tech convenience, resulting in a winning retail center. I discovered the site on a recent trip to London, when I was heading to Heathrow to pick up a friend. I had some time to kill, and stopped by the new Westfield London, a 43-acre urban shopping destination.

Westfield London has 5 anchor stores and 265 other retailers representing 15 countries, luxury stores making up a significant part of the mix. There are 40 restaurants and a vast movie theater complex. The entire place was built with the customer at heart. Here are a few of the features I thought were most innovative:

  • Valet parking with car wash and remote calling
  • Concierge service
  • Free wi-fi throughout
  • Child wi-fi tracking systems
  • Package carrying services
  • Personal stylists and shoppers
  • VIP cards and promotions

Even with all these conveniences, I thought the four concierge stations where what set the place apart. Nathan was my host. He was born in Angola, studied in Portugal and has a 5-star hotel career—a top-notch background in service. He was passionate, knowledgeable about the center and made me feel I had a new friend and ally there, much like the shopkeepers of old.

Westfield’s emphasis on customer service shows an intention to personally connect with shoppers in memorable ways. They are seeking to change traditional shopper habits and build loyalty. While customers may come to expect high tech conveniences, nothing will replace the good old-fashioned personal touch. These Brits have bridge the gap between the two.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

Last month, with little time to spare, the Senate reconfirmed Ben Bernanke as Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve. His term was set to expire just two days later. Senators were looking for a place to lay blame for our country’s current financial dilemma. Bernanke took much of their heat, even though they really wanted to point a finger at former chair Alan Greenspan.

Many argue Greenspan, who in his last four years as Fed Chairman kept rates too low and regulation too tight, led us to a housing bubble that is causing our worst financial crisis since the Depression. But Bernanke has said regulatory problems in the mortgage markets were to blame, not the Fed’s monetary policy. All this got me thinking about the bit of personal insight I have on Greenspan’s leadership.

In 2000, I was invited to a Washington D.C. dinner attended by Mr. Greenspan and hosted by Congressman Spencer Bachus. Over the course of that meal, I learned that Greenspan is a diverse man. I’ve talked before about becoming a better business leader by indulging your passion, and it seems his is two pronged: music and data.

Although his life’s work has been centered on economics, Greenspan graduated from Juilliard in his early 20s and traveled as a professional saxophonist in a jazz band prior to earning degrees in commerce and economics. He still plays the sax occasionally, in addition to the clarinet and the piano.

As for the data side of his passion, he has long studied New York Yankees statistics. Even as a boy, he could tell you the batting average of every player. This folded logically into his career. Greenspan told me that his business life could be easily described as studying data and trying to figure out how the world works.

In an MSNBC article he said, “I love facts and figures. It’s like following a detective story, piecing together what’s going on in the economy.” Now, I imagine he’s studying data and taking his time to put this crisis into some kind of fact-based, statistical perspective—solving the mystery, so to speak.

After meeting him, I don’t believe he ever allowed the seemingly endless, often excessive praise he got in the old pre-crisis days go to his head. His data-based disciplines kept him steady as reflected in this quote about his time as Fed Chairman: “I was praised for things I didn’t do and now I’m blamed for things I didn’t do.” Powerful words.

My takeaways:

  • Don’t be a one-note song. Explore all your interests, both in your career and outside it.
  • Find a way to relate your passion to your career. Greenspan made his life’s work from his love for interpreting data.
  • Much like Greenspan’s approach to capitalism, laissez-faire leadership is often the best.
  • Make glory personal, not something others ascribe to you. If your work is grounded in data, you can stand by your decision, no matter which way the wind is blowing.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

There’s no better way to bring friends, family or client relationships together than by savoring a good meal in each other’s company. That’s made my interest in the culinary world more personal.

An opportunity to explore the field presented itself last Friday afternoon. I was traveling back from one of our Pennsylvania projects and found myself within a short drive of The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. (Many call it the CIA, but I find that’s easy to confuse with the Washington agency.)

The Institute is truly amazing. Founded in 1946, it began as a small cooking school for returning WWII veterans. It has now grown to a beautiful main campus overlooking the Hudson River and two additional campuses in Austin, Texas and the Napa Valley. Approximately 2,800 students from every state in the union and several foreign countries are attending our most respected college for chefs.

This place has earned its respected status. The Institute is supported by the likes of Marriott and Hilton. An on campus hall of fame includes Julia Child, James Beard and many other noteworthy American leaders in the field. I’m convinced the CIA put our country on the map as a world leader in culinary arts. Here’s how:

There are five 100 percent student-run restaurants on campus. The chefs, waiters and staff at American Bounty, Apple Pie Bakery, Escoffer (serving unbelievable French food, I am told), Ristorane Caterina de’Medici and the St. Andrews Café are all enrolled in the school, making for well-rounded graduates. Outside of the restaurants the public sees, there are about 40 professional kitchens and bakeshops along with computer labs, extensive culinary libraries and dormitories on campus. The result is the optimal learning environment for our future culinary artists.

What’s more, the CIA offers extensive educational short courses (2-4 days) for those of us non-professional cooks. It sounds like a great weekend getaway—the best way to enjoy the beautiful scenery overlooking the Hudson. I can’t wait to get back.

Since I know many travel to New York City for business on a regular basis, I couldn’t resist sharing the treasure I found in the CIA. Hyde Park is an hour or so north of the city, so it’s an easy side trip that I highly recommend. You can support the next generation of American all-star chefs and walk away with food for thought.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.