By Nicole S. Daniel
The Birmingham Times
In early November, employees at the Spire Alabama Metro Operations Center in downtown Birmingham found themselves greeted by Joe Hampton, president of Spire Alabama, Gulf Coast, and Mississippi.
Hampton carved time out of his schedule to meet with service mechanics, construction team members, supervisors, and field operators and greeted each employee with a warm smile, giving them hugs and handshakes and having personable conversations.
The reception from employees was not new for the company president. When he visits the location, Hampton usually talks to more than a dozen workers between the time he gets out of his car to the moment he enters the building — “Because I believe in handshakes and asking how families are doing,” he said.
In December 2018, Hampton was promoted to president at Spire Alabama, a public utility company headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, that provides natural gas services to millions of homes and businesses across Alabama, Mississippi, and Missouri.
“What makes Spire great is our employees,” said Hampton, who oversees about 800. “They come to work each day excited to take care of the needs of our customers to ensure that they receive great service. They show up each day ready to serve the communities where they live and represent the company with dignity and respect. Because of our employees, my job is much easier.”
Hampton, 48, said he learned something valuable about business from his mother, a hairstylist who took a job at a hair salon in Homewood, Alabama, when he was in second or third grade because she felt it was “a great place to work,” recalled Hampton, who added that his mother never met a stranger.
“She talked a lot, just like I do,” he said. “One thing I believe she did was to set a path for my siblings and me. She went into a community where she was a minority. She was the only African American stylist [in the shop], and she did white women’s hair. Because of her friendly spirit, she made a lot of friends, a lot of influential friends around the city of Birmingham, which created opportunities to expose my sisters and me to cultural things outside of our community.”
Thanks to his mother, Hampton got a chance to understand that the world is much larger than where he grew up, he said, and he learned how to be comfortable interacting with people of different races, ages, and genders.
“It was really our initial exposure to what a diverse world is all about,” Hampton said.
He doesn’t take his job lightly.
“I’m the first Black man to lead a major utility company [in Alabama],” he said. “I represent more than just myself in this role. Sometimes it feels heavy, it feels like a burden, but I wear the badge with honor. There are a lot of folks who do a lot of work to lift me up here.”
Prior to the visit to the Metro Operations Center, Hampton sat for an hour-long interview with The Birmingham Times on the fifth floor of the Plaza Building, where he spoke about his journey from Birmingham City Schools (BCS) student to historically Black college and university (HBCU) and University of Alabama (UA) grad to Spire president.
Hampton started his career at Alabama Gas Company (Alagasco) in 1992 at age 18.
“During my senior year at [Arthur Harold ‘A.H.’ Parker High School], the city of Birmingham had partnered with INROADS, an organization that tapped into underserved minority communities. They took the best and brightest from different high schools and exposed them to different companies around Birmingham [with the objective of] getting them job offers when they graduated.”
Through the program, Hampton and other students were taught how to dress and prepare for job interviews, how to use certain utensils when eating, and more.
“The program was developed to place talented young people in internships that would hopefully turn into a career in business or industry,” he recalled. “We learned from some of the best leaders in business. We met every Saturday during the summer from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. We had lessons on how to dress for success, proper interviewing skills, conflict resolution, and business etiquette. You had to maintain a 3.0 GPA to remain in the program.”
“I wouldn’t be in this position if not for INROADS,” he continued. “The program exposed me to opportunities I wouldn’t have been afforded by simply going to college.”
Hampton had an internship every summer while in college until he graduated. Asked about the internship at the then Alagasco, he said learned the company from the ground up—literally.
“It started with the basics of what [the company, now Spire], does as an organization. My first summer, [in 1992], I put on a uniform, rode on a truck with our construction employees, and used a jackhammer and a shovel,” he said, adding that he learned how to fix leaks and put pipe in the ground.
With the service technicians, Hampton learned how to ensure that appliances worked correctly. When he graduated to the engineering department in 1998, he learned how to design small-scale projects.
Hampton attended Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for three years and earned a physics degree. He then attended the UA for two years and earned an engineering degree.
It wasn’t easy. Hampton learned to persevere in his new environment. He attended UA with three other fellow physics classmates from Stillman. After a month his Stillman classmates quit the program. He didn’t.
“Before I graduated from college, I was hired to work in [Alagasco’s] Tuscaloosa office because I had one class left to graduate. When I finished that one class, I came back to Birmingham to work with the company,” he said.
Hampton’s motivation in school was the knowledge that if he maintained his grades and progressed through the INROADS program, he would have a potential career on the other side.
Throughout his time at Alagasco, Hampton’s mentor was Ken Smith, who served as the company’s president before Hampton assumed the position.
“I have the greatest respect for [Hampton] for numerous reasons,” Smith said. “Number one: I had the opportunity to hire him when he was graduating from Parker High School. He started working with us through the INROADS program and worked with us primarily in the summers while he was going to Stillman and [UA].
“His ability to enter a corporate office work environment as a recent high school graduate and interact with the engineers he was working with showed that he had a lot of maturity at that early age. … He was also someone that was always looking to learn, looking to work with others, and looking improve his own abilities, while helping those around him improve. [Hampton] was an individual that was willing to take on any role we asked him to take on in the company. He always had a great attitude and work ethic.”
Smith said Hampton was able to move through the company, “not only in his work responsibilities but also geographically.”
“He was highly respected by his coworkers, supervisors, and the individuals that worked for him. He’s honest, direct with them. [He also] expects work to be completed and performed,” Smith added.
“Only Person for the Job”
Hampton was exposed to a management trainee program that allowed him to move around the state of Alabama eight times and serve in leadership roles. He worked and lived in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, Montgomery, Anniston, Selma, Auburn, then he came back to Birmingham, moved to Kansas City, Missouri, and finally returned to Birmingham as the director of operations in 2014, when Alagasco was acquired by Spire.
In Kansas City, he was given the opportunity serve as vice president of operations. It was a tough decision, though, because Hampton’s mother, Lula, had passed away in 1999, and his father, Joe, a retired coal miner with Jim Walter Resources, had developed prostate cancer.
“I didn’t want to make the move because my family is tight knit, but I remember my dad, [who passed away in 2018], telling me, ‘Dude, get your butt out of here,’” Hampton said.
After about two weeks, Hampton still had not made a decision. He was then called into a meeting with Dudley Reynolds, who was the president of Spire at the time.
“[Reynolds] turned, faced me, and said, ‘You’re taking this damn job. [Spire] … wants our most talented person to run this location. You’ve got to do this for us. We have to show them the kind of talent we have [in Alabama],’” Hampton said.
Hampton still wasn’t sold on the idea, but he was inspired to know the company’s president thought so highly of him.
“I didn’t want to have to go home and tell my wife, [Jenise], that we were moving to Kansas City,” Hampton said.
He worked in Kansas City for three years, and then received a call from his mentor, Smith.
“He said, ‘I have news for you. I talked to our CEO about retiring and the question was, ‘Who would replace and me?’ I told her, ‘There’s only one person for the job, and that’s Joe Hampton. If you don’t get him, you’re making a big mistake.’”
In December 2018, Hampton was promoted to president of Spire Alabama, Gulf Coast, and Mississippi.
Smith said it was easy to recommend Hampton as his replacement “based on everything he had done within the company, as well as what he had done in the communities he had served throughout the state. He earned his opportunity because he worked for it,” Smith said.
A.H. Parker Grad
Joseph Bernard Hampton was raised in a two-parent household alongside his older sister, Phyllis, and younger sister, Deborah, in Pratt City, Alabama. He attended Wilkerson Elementary School, transferred to Holy Family Elementary School, which he attended second through eighth grades, and attended A.H. Parker High School—“the greatest high school in the state,” he said—from 1988 to 1992.
At Parker, Hampton was known for participating in sports. “If there was a sport, I played it. Let me tell it, I was the best athlete at every sport,” he said.
Hampton’s favorite sport was football, where he played defensive end and left tackle. “I was a lineman, and I think I was pretty decent there,” he said. “I also played basketball at the forward position.”
Hampton was in the high school’s choir, too; he sang bass and a little baritone. Asked if he could rate his singing on a scale of one to 10, he laughed, “I would say a nine.”
Prior to graduating from high school, Hampton’s parents instilled in him the importance of going to college. “They told me, ‘You need to get your education. That’s the way to have opportunities, quality of life, and success as you move forward,’” Hampton recalled.
At an early age, he knew that he would attend college: “Probably back in seventh or eighth grade, I knew it was something I’d do,” he said. “At that age, I had no clue what my major or job would be.”
Hampton and his wife, Jenise, have been married for 20 years. They have two sons: Joseph II, 14, and Jonathan, 12.
“My Best Self”
Hampton and his sisters were exposed to different styles of art, and they often attended plays and visited museums, he said.
“I had the opportunity to be a participant in the governor’s summer program … for high-achieving students between their junior and senior years of high school. I still don’t know why I was picked, but I believe my mom had a connection to help me,” he said.
Hampton’s many experiences prepared him for his current role at Spire. Asked what’s kept him with the company for 30 years, he said, “Let’s take it back to my internship. Let’s think about all of the kids from Pratt City. [Alagasco] picked me at 18. I feel like I’m paying it back. Here’s a company that gave me a chance to come here and be all that I can be. The company took a chance on me, and I hope their bet paid off. I feel like it’s only fair that I give my best self because of the opportunities they have provided for me, and it’s been a blessing for my family and me.”