Why this investment firm has a stake in building the culture of Memphis

For 50 years, Memphis-based bond investment firm Duncan Williams has underwritten projects throughout the city and across the nation. With an eye towards changing markets, the institution expanded its wheelhouse four years ago by offering personal asset management for clients like foundations, nonprofits, individuals and businesses apart from its traditional bond brokerage.

The new firm, Duncan Williams Asset Management, developed a new mantra - “Invest. Inspire.”

With its sponsorship of numerous nonprofits, organizations and events, particularly around the local arts scene, Williams helps others invest in the culture and vibrancy of the Bluff City.

“I always felt that most of the major successful cities had a really thriving art scene,” said Gary Lendermon, Duncan Williams, chief marketing and corporate social responsibility officer.

This social investment for Williams has included the Germantown Performing Arts Center (GPAC), the Levitt Shell, Live at the Garden, Ronald McDonald House and the Dragon Boat Races put on by St. Jude, for example.

They were one of the first title sponsors for Live at the Garden, a series of five concerts beginning in June and continuing through fall each year, starting in 2010 and has helped the venue with capital fundraising. At GPAC, the Duncan Williams Performance Hall, with a capacity of 864, books five different series annually and hosts programming from IRIS Orchestra, Memphis Symphony Orchestra and Opera Memphis.

Indie Memphis, which hosts an eponymous film festival, also makes the list. Duncan Williams has sponsored the event for the past eight years.

“It [Indie Memphis] has just grown and grown. When we started there was just - we were the main sponsor and that was about it. Now, you look at it and it has built such a positive brand. You’ve got the FedEx’s of the world and Autozone. There are a lot of brands you’re proud to be associated with. We helped start that."

Duncan Williams has been a sponsor of the Indie Memphis film festival for the past eight years. (Courtesy Indie Memphis)

On May 10, Indie Memphis announced their inaugural Black Filmmaker Fellowship for Screenwriting. The honor went to Memphian Jamey Hatley to develop her screenplay "The Eureka Hotel." Hatley receives a $7,500 cash grant and a two-month fellowship. 

Related: "Indie Memphis Film Festival grows beyond a regional event"

In addition, Indie Memphis was selected as a FilmCraft grant recipient from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to grow their existing Black Creators Forum. The 2019 forum will run October 31 to November 1 during the Indie Memphis Film Festival. It's a two-day event that includes workshops and speakers led by black filmmakers and critics. The goal is to highlight ways black filmmakers can pursue creativity and sustainability, all while easing barriers for black artists who plant to work in film.

Last year’s festival showcased 281 films over the course of a week. It also featured the oscar-winning “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Nine venues across the city held accumulated crowds of over 12,000. More to the bottom line, revenue for the event has doubled in the last five years.

“The sponsorship has been huge for Indie Memphis, it started shortly after we matured from a volunteer-only organization to year-round staff. The support from DW Inc. provides a stable foundation each year for the growing festival, and in turn more and more sponsors have come on-board each year,” said Ryan Watt, Indie Memphis executive director.

This year’s festival, now in its 22nd year, will run from October 30 through November 4.

In addition to the festival, Indie Memphis offers “Indie Memphis Nights.” The weekly film series features critically acclaimed films and special events at Malco theaters around town, as well as Crosstown Arts Theater. It also helps develop local talent by offering filmmaker grants and residencies. There is also a Youth Film Program opens to students grades 7-12.

“The impact has been tremendous, we have added programs throughout the year that connect with the festival, and our organization budget has tripled over the past five years,” said Watt.

Although money usually plays a role, the firm also invests in many of the nonprofits by having members, like Lendermon, serve on their boards. This commitment allows them to offer their advice and guidance, particularly when it comes to branding.

“That is how we really helped a lot of these nonprofits, whether it’s the Neighborhood Christian Center, where instead of giving them money I worked with my ad agency. We developed their marketing. These sponsorships really have to showcase our brand in connections to theirs,” said Lendermon. “We took the approach that we weren’t going to just write checks. If we got involve we were going to be really involved.”

The effect of promoting these brands via access to marketing expertise, conversely, cycles back and helps Duncan Williams burnish their image and reputation. Together, they help the city build its brand.

“Sponsorships should always be a win-win balance, we seek to build upon the cultural landscape of the city and provide entertainment, while showing our appreciation to our sponsors at each film so that they can grow their businesses,” said Watt.

This growth has also extended to many of the nonprofits. The festival, for its part, has grown from a all-hands-on-deck affair put on by a group of pitch-ins to an annual revenue-generating event that has gained international recognition.

“It is really satisfying when you look at the report. You look at that revenue and how that went from just volunteers to full-time employees. They now have a small reserve fund. It’s just an amazing history. It shows how much a company can be a good corporate citizen and actually help someone. It actually helped the community, too,” said Lendermon.

Support for this story was provided in part by Duncan Williams Asset Management, which underwrites High Ground News' coverage of economic development and entrepreneurship.

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