By Rubin E. Grant
Shelley Stewart has received his share of recognition throughout the years, but his next honor is special to him because of what it represents.
“It’s business, business, business,” Stewart said. “That’s what struck me as different. This is the greatest country in the world. I know because I have traveled extensively. It’s great because of business. It’s business that improves the quality of life. It creates jobs and moves the economy.”
Stewart, 87, co-founder of o2ideas, a 54-year-old advertising agency in Birmingham, will be among the business leaders the Kiwanis Club of Birmingham is honoring for shaping the Magic City’s economy and contributing to Birmingham’s growth.
Stewart has been selected for the 2020-21 class of inductees into the Birmingham Business Hall of Fame.
“I am blessed and thankful,” Stewart said. “I am a business person.”
The other honorees are Grayson Hall Jr., Regions Financial Corp.; John A. Hand, First National Bank of Birmingham; Elmer B. Harris, Alabama Power Co.; Dr. Basil I. Hirschowitz, UAB gastroenterology; Thomas E. Jernigan, Marathon Corp.; Billy Charles Martin, Martin Advertising; William R. Pettiford, Alabama Penny Savings Bank; and W. Edgar Welden Sr, WeldenField.
The Birmingham Business Hall of Fame Committee annually selects business leaders to induct into the hall of fame who have shown strong leadership and made extraordinary contributions to the Greater Birmingham area. Inductees can be living or deceased.
The 550-plus members of the downtown Kiwanis invite the community to join them as they recognize the business leaders in a ceremony to be held at the Harbert Center on Aug. 26 at 5:30 p.m.
Since 1997, the Kiwanis Club of Birmingham, the world’s largest Kiwanis, has inducted Birmingham’s leaders into the hall of fame. It’s part of the more than 100-year-old club’s mission of building a stronger community.
Stewart, who grew up in Rosedale and is often referred to as a living legend, dedicated himself to education and entrepreneurialism to overcome homelessness, abuse and discrimination.
He graduated from Rosedale High School and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, where he served from 1952 to 1953. After his military service, Stewart returned to Birmingham and was hired by WEDR-AM as a radio personality known as “Shelley The Playboy.” He enjoyed immense popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, becoming a vocal champion for civil rights and a friend of such musical up-and-comers as Otis Redding, Gladys Knight and Isaac Hayes. He also became owner of Birmingham radio station WATV.
Stewart was on air for 55 years, becoming the longest-running radio talent in the nation and appealing to black and white audiences. All the while, he made sure to maintain the business connections he started when he was working at a grocery store as a young teenager.
“When I was 13, I got a job at Yeilding grocery store on Second Avenue and 22nd Street, stocking merchandise,” Stewart said. “I became interested in the business side and when I would make deliveries to all the other stores, I would talk to owners and managers, asking them how to do this and that.
“Even after I started in radio, I continued my relationships with business people.”
In 1967, Stewart co-founded o2ideas with a white, Jewish radio salesman, Cy Steiner. The agency was originally called Steiner Advertising, with Stewart as a silent partner because of his race.
“Cy and I formed the agency on a handshake,” Stewart said. “Cy could sell openly. I couldn’t. We decided to call the agency Steiner Advertising from the beginning to not publicly acknowledge the black and white relationship because we wanted to establish a business to serve America. Our clients knew we were partners, but they hid it for us, and we hid it within the agency itself.
“If advertising is done right, it will cross over. It’s not all black and it’s not all white.”
After Steiner died, Stewart publicly took over in 1992. He eventually amassed a majority stake in what become known as o2 Ideas, which is one of the country’s largest privately held corporate communication companies. He sold the business to his partners in 2015.
The independent agency is part of Worldwide Partners and is now run by Bill Todd, a former public relations practitioner who joined o2ideas in 2001. Its clients include world-class health care, pharmaceutical, insurance, manufacturing, construction and retail companies, including BBVA bank, Honda, UAB and Verizon.
Stewart also co-authored two books, “The Road South: A Memoir,” co-written with Nathan Hale Turner, and “Mattie C.’s Boy: The Shelley Stewart Story,” with Don Keith.
He continues to impact the community through his Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, named after his mother. It helps young people prepare for adulthood. He works from his home in Vandiver in Shelby County.
“I am thankful to be alive and do this,” Stewart said. “I hope to continue to tell many young people about education and business.”