James J. Powell, Sr. (’59)

Category: Awards | Distinguished Alumnus/Alumna

2013 Distinguished Alumnus Award Winner

James Powell and Sears Roebuck Company have a lot in common. Both believe in the benefit of higher education. With a $200 scholarship from the retail giant, Powell chose to attend UT and pursue a degree in agriculture. This educational experience provided the solid foundation upon which he developed an organization that generates sales of $170 million per year.

Powell’s development of Powell Construction Company provides a “case study” of how the combination of vision and ambition creates a formula for success in the construction, mining, energy, and hospitality industries. With $15,000, a used 30-ton crane, a pickup truck, a welder, and two employees, Powell Construction began in April 1969 in Greeneville, Tennessee. Over the years, Powell Construction has expanded to include construction of coal preparation plants and water and sewer facilities. In addition, he became a partner in an electrical company; opened a coal division in Beckley, West Virginia; acquired Diversified Machine Products Inc.; and in 2004, created the subsidiary DMI Australia PTY Limited. Today, Powell Companies employs more than 500 people.

In order to share the successes of the company, Powell typically contributes a percentage of corporate earnings to local organizations, including UT and East Tennessee State University, where hundreds of students have benefited from his endeavor to repay the $200 scholarship that helped fund his education. His support has positively impacted various UT programs in agriculture, veterinary medicine, 4-H, UT Athletics, and the School of Music. Powell’s continued acts of kindness and generosity led the School of Music’s $3.5 million initiative to become an All-Steinway School and establish the Sandra G. Powell Recital Hall in honor of his wife.

Powell’s time and talents continue to benefit the university, and in 1994 he chaired the Institute of Agriculture’s steering committee for the university’s bicentennial capital campaign. He has also previously been chairman of the UT Development Council.

Powell has served on numerous boards of directors, including First American Bank, Boy Scouts (Sequoyah Council), Johnson City Boys Club, Holston Home for Children, Johnson City Symphony, United Way, Munsey United Methodist Church Administrative Board, Tri-Cities Business Alliance, Tennessee Business Roundtable, and local and state contractors associations.

He and his wife, Sandy, reside on a 300-acre farm in Limestone, Tennessee, where he raises Black Angus cattle and restores Farmall tractors. They are the proud parents of three sons— James Jr., Michael, and Jeff—and grandparents to seven.