Understanding What Drives the Individual: An Interview with Larry Buie

Amanda Ellis

Larry Buie, incoming board chair for the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce and Regional Director of Chattanooga Gas, sat down with me to talk about his plans for our Chamber and what he’s learned over the course of his career.

Buie spent 24 years with Southern Natural Gas Company, where he began as a junior engineer. He lived in six locations on behalf of the company, most recently Birmingham, Alabama, until he came to Chattanooga upon joining Chattanooga Gas.

“Of all the communities I’ve lived in, Chattanooga is the one I’ve felt the most a part of,” Buie says. “Ending up here 16 years ago was the best thing to have happened to me in a long time.”

When I mentioned my upcoming interview with Buie to my coworkers, they replied with comments like, “Oh, you’ll enjoy talking to him,” and “He’s the type of person who always has time for you.”

They were right. Buie met with me a few days before Memorial Day weekend. We chatted about his holiday plans to cookout with his two daughters and four grandchildren.

Buie’s one of those people who makes every person he interacts with feel equally important.

Trend: What advice do you have for young professionals?
Pay attention to how you’re perceived. It’s either a door opener or a barrier. People like doing business with those they feel connected to and comfortable with. Any salesperson will tell you that if you don’t get an audience, you don’t get a sale.

I would tell any mid-level manager to understand what that means both with superiors and the people you manage. Do they like you? I recommend “The Likeability Factor” by Tim Sanders to further explore these concepts. Some believe it doesn’t matter if the people you manage like you, but it definitely helps get the best out of those individuals.

Trend: Why are you excited about chairing our board?
I’ve been involved with the Chamber since moving to Chattanooga. Being in a leadership position will give me a better understanding of member concerns and member needs. My focus isn’t to reinvent anything, but to be a vehicle for members old and new to understand the benefits of Chamber membership.

I also hope to highlight more the Chamber’s economic development work in assisting company expansions. Of course new industry is important, but it creates more inclusion when long-standing legacy companies feel focused on and that focus is also clear to the community.

And of course workforce development is critical to any growing community. The Chamber is facilitating discussion around those needs, and working to meet them in the long term. 

Trend: What is a typical day like for you?
I have offices in Rome, Georgia and Chattanooga, and our corporate office is in Atlanta. I spend a lot of time commuting between the three, which gives me an opportunity to think through ideas and clear my head.

I get in around 6:30 a.m. and see what’s left from prior days, and what I need to take immediate action on. Around 8, I typically start checking in with different territories to see if any action items need addressing.

If I don’t have immediate meetings, there are probably enough fires cropping up to fill my day. After 8, probably 60 percent of my day is non-scheduled events — for example, third-party damage. Chattanooga is blessed to have a lot of construction and development. But sometimes damages to our system occur during construction that can negatively impact services to needed operations.

Trend: What are the unique customer service challenges of your role?
You always have to respect the property owner. It’s their property and they have rights, but regulatory requirements insist we do routine checks on certain systems. It can feel like an invasion of privacy, so we have to work with our employees to get that message across the right way.

Just because we have the right to do it, as well as the obligation, doesn’t mean we should deliver in a way that isn’t pleasing to the customer.

I have almost 65,000 customers in this area, and less than 1 percent cause any concern, but as anyone in a customer service role can attest, that 1 percent can eat up the largest chunk of time.

Trend: Do you find the unplanned nature of your job stressful?
No. I’m an adrenaline junkie, not necessarily with my hobbies, but certainly in my professional life. My wife thinks that’s the worst thing, but it calms me when I’m exhausted at the end of the day because of the fires and the rush. I like to have that feeling so I’m ready to go relax.

When I worked in employee development, my last role at my previous company, it was a typical 9 to 5, and I could not feel the energy. The phone didn’t ring after 5, no emergencies. I didn’t have that rush; everything was so planned. And that’s just not me.

Trend: What do you think is the most important aspect of managing people?
Understanding what drives the individual. Engineers like things we can measure, put into a nice box, repeat. With people, it’s anything but that. I love figuring out what drives people, and it makes me more creative to answer: How do I get that person to chime in? People are designed to be different.

In my office, we have a casual approach to our one on ones. I encourage supervisors and managers to do these with employees at least once a month.

And I typically don’t bring people to my office to talk about a specific agenda. I’ll meet them out on a job, or in their office –somewhere that isn’t my office.

Typically, I don’t ask a lot of pointed questions about work – it’s all about the individual, their likes and dislikes. I do that in interviews as well. I’d rather know the person. I can read a resume, but knowing the person helps me figure out what the right fit is.

Trend: What’s been your proudest career moment?
The proudest moment I’ve had career-wise happened about seven years ago when our Chattanooga employees voted to decertify the union. This was a huge compliment to me that they trusted my management and that I would consider their best interests without them having to go through a formal process. I’m still proud of that. I like living up to it.

Trend: What professional experience has taught you the most? 
About 10 years into my career, I was a new superintendent of operations. The company sent me to a remote area in Louisiana. Everything was duplicate, with people not being very efficient, and when factoring in increased automation, the push was to reduce the headcount by a third.

Without any directions or collaboration as to how that should take place, we made those decisions based on tenure. It was a painful process. We’d never had a layoff in the history of the company.

Fast forward a couple years, and the tenured people who were still there started retiring. We ended up on the opposite end of the spectrum – we didn’t have the resources to maintain operation.

So guess what? I had to go back and rehire people and retrain the workforce. This was my first position that involved managing people, and to get into a predicament like that was not comforting from a career standpoint. 

The second location I worked on went more smoothly, because they allowed me to keep some of our more senior employees, train some of the younger and newer ones and offer an enhanced retirement package to some.

As bad as that situation was, I learned more from it than possibly anything else during my career.

Larry Buie at a Glance 

Buie grew up one of six children in southern Mississippi in a small town called Brookhaven. 

“I got used to dealing with a large group early on and didn’t know it,” Buie says.

College was expected – Buie’s father worked as a school principal and assistant superintendent, while his mother taught math and science.

Confident he wanted to be an engineer, Buie attended Mississippi State University for its engineering program, with scholarships for football and track. He also met his wife there. They’ve now been married for 40 years and share two children and four grandchildren.

Favorite quote: It’s more of a mantra, but I prefer doing things right the first time to redoing them later. Some people operate more as: “We’ve got enough information, let’s go ahead and make a decision and get out there.” Trying to get everything right on the front end can seem to cause paralysis around making a decision, but I’d rather do it right the first time and then we go on. 

Book recommendations: “True North” by Bill George and Peter Sims. It’s about really being clear on your goals. If everybody is clear about the direction you wish to proceed, it’s easy to get the support to move it in that direction. But when everyone has different ideas of what they think you want, it’s hard.

Hobbies: Relaxing, for me, is watching Westerns. I love spending time with my grandkids. I enjoy my family and traveling, we’ve done Alaska and Hawaii. Montana is on my bucket list.

I also like getting outside – I love fishing and the woods. My power down is a weekend where I cut grass — I can see instant gratification when I cut my grass.

The Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce welcomes new and returning board members for 2017-18:

Rebecca Ashford, Chattanooga State Community College

Rick Bishop, Food City

James Brantley, Chattanooga Zoo

Christi Broom, Hullco

Shelton Chambers, Elliott Davis Decosimo

Colleen Combs, Alexian Brothers PACE

Allison Darras, Alzheimer’s Association

Kenny Dyer, Pinnacle Financial Partners

Amanda Elmendorf, Mantra Mats

Matt Ferguson, Regions Bank

Justin Furrow, Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel, PC

Graham Harrell, MediTract

Susan Harris, See Rock City, Inc.

Deanna Jeffreys, Loan Simple

Bryan Johnson, Hamilton County Department of Education

Tim Kelly, Kelly Subaru Mitsubishi

Ginny Kincer, Tennessee Solar Solutions, LLC

Jeana Lee, UNUM

Nick Macco, Southtree Digital Media

Chanda Maldonado, Chambers Welding and Fabrication

Jaime Melton, Baylor School

Jessica Oliva, Calderin & Oliva P.A.

Thomas Ozburn, Parkridge Health System

Reggie Piercy, Vision Hospitality Group, Inc.

Janelle Reilly, CHI Memorial

Bess Steverson, McCallie School

Chris Topel, Northside Neighborhood House

Donna Van Natten, Accountability Measures

Darnell Walker, Command Center

Tom White, UNUM 

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