A Village Made to Raise the Children
Tall Trees' director, William Key, said he first recognized Lawler's tenacity when he coached him on the football field. "He was a tall, skinny kid. But he was extremely eager to get an opportunity to move himself along," says Key, now the criminal court clerk for Shelby County. "He is a go-getter. He would be the first on the pileup."
While earning degrees in criminal justice and counseling from the University of Memphis, Lawler worked at various jobs, including as a probation counselor at the Shelby County Juvenile Court. When county officials considered shutting down a poorly performing residential treatment center, Key recommended that Lawler, then just 24, be hired to try to save it.
Lawler was the third director to take a stab at the job that year. He soon realized the enormity of his task. "I knew nothing about administration, had never seen a balance sheet, and didn't know we needed a license," he says. "We started with a $150,000 budget and one typewriter. And the "K" key stuck. My dream was a copy machine. I could tell you how many rolls of toilet paper we gave to each dormitory."
Under Lawler's leadership, however, the program, Dogwood Villages, thrived. Operating on just a few hours of sleep per night, he worked weekends and holidays. He often mowed the grass himself. In 1986, Dogwood Villages merged with Memphis Boys Town to become Youth Villages.
Along the way, Lawler learned some important lessons about the business world. "I thought we were supposed to be a charity," he says. "We ran on a shoestring. But a board member explained that we needed to have money and a reserve."
The organization's annual revenues have risen from $900,000 in 1986 to more than $90 million in 2006, thanks in large part to government contracts. Today, about half of its revenue comes from the state of Tennessee. The nonprofit now has more than 1,300 employees in 40 locations across Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C.
A significant ingredient in Lawler's success attracting millions of dollars each year in private contributions, his colleagues say, is his personality. "He oozes charisma," said Ken May, president and CEO of FedEx Kinko's and a member of the Youth Villages board. "He has the ability to reach inside someone and make them feel comfortable." Several of Lawler's colleagues added that he has an uncanny ability to hire the right people for the right jobs, listen to them, and implement their ideas.
To be sure, Lawler gets some ribbing for his abundant energy and attention to detail. A sometime triathlete with an impossibly healthy diet, Lawler tried to institute a strict nutritional plan in the centers, focusing on low-fat food and limited second helpings. "At one point, I had only skim milk" at the facilities, says Lawler, a married father of two. "But the staff got on me about it. ... We went to 2 percent."
Lawler also has a tendency to see potential where others might see trouble. That was the case for former foster child Melanie Jackson, who entered Youth Villages at age 12. "People tend to think that with so many odds against you, you will fall into the category of negative outcomes," said Jackson, now 26. "[Lawler] looked at me as more than a foster child-as a young person who could have a bright future ahead of herself." Jackson just earned a master's degree in public administration; Youth Villages paid her way. "For him to believe in me," she said, "it just kind of blew me away."