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VOL. 45 | NO. 16 | Friday, April 16, 2021

Gravitating toward the center of the deal

ETF’s Boyer becomes the ‘one who put all this together’

By Nancy Henderson

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Tamara Boyer was so little that her feet dangled off the chair as she sat next to her father at one of his commercial real estate closings long before “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” was a thing.

Seated around the large boardroom table were men, all men.

“I was quiet and respectful, polite like they had taught me, and I was listening although I don’t think I understood a word,” says Boyer, general counsel and vice president for advancement at the East Tennessee Foundation. “But I remember distinctly my dad leaning over to me and saying, ‘See that person at the end of the table? That’s the attorney. That’s the one who put all this together. That’s the one who’s going to make this happen.’ That resonated with me in a big way because I loved the idea that there was progress happening.”

Boyer still thrives on making things happen. After 26 years in the finance industry as a corporate attorney, business executive and wealth management director, the personable Boyer in 2018 took on her current ETF role, which allows her to use both her financial experience and her lifelong passion for volunteering to advise donors and recipients of the public charity’s scholarships and grants.

Problem-solving is in her DNA, she says. “I just gravitate toward wanting to gather all of the information together and to work with others to solve whatever the issue is. That’s really where I love to dig in. It’s never on the easy side of things – it always seems to be on the more complicated – but that’s what I really enjoy. I think that’s really why I like the law, because that puts you in a position to be able to bring in a great wealth of knowledge, and others who have great knowledge and expertise, to help you solve that problem.”

Boyer relies on the same skills as she counsels Junior Achievement of East Tennessee and other nonprofit groups. “She brings neutral insight to every situation,” says JA president Callie Archer, describing the personable Boyer as “the perfect combination of classy professional and giddy schoolgirl.”

“I often go to Tamara because she offers well-thought-out advice and because of her legal and financial background. She always keeps us in compliance and steers us away from any potential liability. There is a reason that she has the role she has at the ETF. The area’s top business leaders know, trust and respect her because of the reputation she has built throughout her career.”

Growing up on the barrier island of Siesta Key off the coast of Sarasota, Boyer pedaled her bike every day to the Out-of-Door School (now Academy). There, she and the other honor-level students attended science classes under the sprawling banyan trees and took field trips to the Gulf of Mexico to study sea anemones.

But that idyllic setting was threatened when the school’s owner died and his widow made plans to close it. Determined that wouldn’t happen, her dad, a World War II veteran and commercial developer from whom Boyer no doubt inherited her analytical side, corralled a group of concerned parents who purchased the facility and kept it going.

“No matter how little he or my mom had, education was always the most important thing to them,” Boyer points out. “They really felt like education was a key to being able to explore your potential.”

Boyer’s brother tried hard to discourage her from majoring in English (with a business minor), but she’d set her sights on law, a profession that would demand solid, articulate writing skills. “What if you don’t get accepted?” he asked. “Then what do you do with an English degree?”

Undeterred, Boyer says, “There was no Plan B.”

After graduating from Florida State University in 1988, she briefly worked for a U.S. Senator in Tallahassee, an experience she calls “a great civic education in how much need there is and how much there is to do for your state and your community.”

Within the year, she was studying at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham. From the outset, she says she felt drawn to the corporate side.

“I have sort of been this all-around person. When I was young, I played lots of tennis and swam and I was a huge volunteer. But academics was very important to me. So I didn’t go into specialties [in law school]. I stayed very broad-based and kept my options open as far as trying to learn as much as possible about different areas of the law.”

Four disparate internships in criminal, civil and bankruptcy law gave her even more clarity.

Tamara Boyer, who has worked from her home since March 2020, Boyer is generalcCounsel and vice president for advancement at the East Tennessee Foundation. Her free time is spent volunteering with the Girl Scouts of the Southern Appalachians.

-- Photo By Michael Patrick |The Ledger

“Every time, I loved all the work I got, but I kept coming back to the corporate side of the world and being a part of something that would help [businesses] grow. … The students around me [in law school] that were just such naturals at trial or appellate work and all the moot court competitions – that just never appealed to me. I think I process things a little bit differently.”

Moving to Knoxville in 1992 after earning her juris doctorate, Boyer joined Clayton Homes’ Vanderbilt Mortgage and Finance, the developer’s financial services division, as staff attorney and was later promoted to general counsel.

The job was everything she’d hoped for.

“You come out of the gate after graduation doing more hands-on legal work inside a corporate environment than you would have the opportunity to work on at a law firm because things are coming at you continually throughout the day,” she explains. “You have business matters. You have pure legal matters. You have strategic planning matters. You have human resource deployment matters. I loved learning about the whole picture.

“I think what I’m good at is being at that 30,000-foot level and that 3-inch level of strategic thinking and problem-solving that just really seems to come together in that corporate environment.”

But working at Clayton engaged more than just Boyer’s intellect. “This wasn’t just about a finance operation,” she recalls. “This was also about the creation of homes and serving needs in the community and working with planning commissions to have manufactured housing in communities. That’s not always a plus for some people, but it’s an affordable housing alternative that gives families a yard for their kids to play in and a community to walk and enjoy and live in and grow in and not be paying rent, to actually own a place.”

A strong community supporter, Clayton Homes encouraged its employees to volunteer. So Boyer stepped up her own efforts to give back by serving on various local and national nonprofit boards.

“I see my law degree and my experience as a way to be a better volunteer in the community,” she says. “It started with me as a Girl Scout [in first grade]. It started in our family home church. And it just stayed with me forever. Wherever I’ve moved, whether it was Tallahassee or Birmingham or Knoxville, I just found a way to volunteer. If you’re not going to be responsible for your community where you live, then who is going to be?”

When Citigroup moved its North American manufactured-housing finance operation to Knoxville, it began courting Clayton Homes employees, including Boyer. Upon joining Citi’s legal division in 1998, she assembled a 35-member team representing every U.S. state and every Canadian province to develop a set of best practices. She was pleased to find that her new employer prioritized volunteering too.

Two years later, the company underwent a restructuring and Boyer was asked, not once, but three times, to move into an executive position. Trained as an attorney, not as a businessperson, she kept turning down the promotion but finally relented and stayed as senior vice president of operations for eight years, until the 2008 recession hit and Citigroup sold the division to, coincidentally, Clayton Homes.

With her transition work winding down, Boyer was ready to go back to being an attorney. But it wasn’t meant to be, at least not yet. Accepting an offer from U.S. Bank, she analyzed every troubled asset in the portfolio and worked directly with individual borrowers in an effort to come to some sort of compromise in the beleaguered housing market.

“There were a lot of developers hurting. There were a lot of borrowers at that time who were in a very bad position. And my edict, my goal, my mission was to not put anyone into foreclosure or force anyone into involuntary bankruptcy. My goal was to be a true workout specialist and find a way to keep them afloat.”

Boyer also volunteers with several East Tennessee nonprofits and serves as chair of Girl Scouts of the Southern Appalachians.

-- Photo By Michael Patrick |The Ledger

More than ever, she drew from the human skills she’d learned over the years. “It’s really just working with someone, sitting down, talking face-to-face and understanding their story. Problem-solving is not a cookie cutter process. You can’t just turn to a chapter in a book and say, ‘Oh, this is the theory I’m going to use.’ … I have a lot going on in my head and in my life, but when I work with someone, my goal is really to be in the moment with that individual and what’s going on and give it my focus.”

Boyer also describes herself as steady, even-keeled and a “patient listener, asking questions to help the person I’m working with to give me the fullness of the story. In the law, the facts are very important. But you’ve got to have that dialogue. People have to feel comfortable because usually they’re talking with you because there’s something wrong. It’s not usually a happy moment.”

Once again, just as the special assets post was wrapping up at U.S. Bank and she was mentally preparing to hang her own shingle, company officials asked her to build the wealth management division from scratch, a huge challenge, but one she couldn’t resist. For the next few years, she helped entrepreneurs and other clients start their own businesses, invest and set up estate plans and trusts. She also continued advocating for nonprofit causes like the McClung Museum, arts projects for underserved youth, and the Black history mural at Beck Cultural Center.

Boyer still donates as much time as possible to East Tennessee nonprofits and currently serves as chair of Girl Scouts of the Southern Appalachians. Says Lynne Fugate, the organization’s CEO, “She is passionate about our work and is an invaluable connector, advocate and ambassador for us. … She has been a help to us using her legal knowledge as a trusted adviser on real estate matters and contracts, just to give a couple of examples.”

Archer praises Boyer as the “thought leader” behind Junior Achievement’s Miss Business Experience, created to help high school girls develop an executive mindset by pairing them with top female corporate mentors. The program has served nearly 1,000 young women so far. Boyer is also a staunch advocate for all JA K-12 programs and partnerships.

“You cannot even begin to calculate the positive impact that she has had on area youth through her work with Junior Achievement, the Girl Scouts, UT and other youth-serving organizations because the programs she has helped support and implement are so far-reaching,” Archer says.

As the years passed and Boyer followed the corporate leadership detours, she eventually set a timeline to return to practicing law once her daughter Taylor graduated from high school. “For the first time in a really long time, instead of people choosing me for the job, I was really looking for the place I wanted to be for the long term.”

In the fall of 2018, not long after Taylor started earning a business degree at UT, the job at East Tennessee Foundation opened. “The ability to be the general counsel at ETF was beyond attractive,” Boyer notes, “and just exactly what was going to marry my professional life and my volunteering, which I had done since 1992 all over Knoxville.”

ETF, she insists, is “the best-kept secret out there.” Serving 25 counties stretching through the Appalachian Highlands south to Hamilton County and west to the Cumberland Plateau, the community foundation provides scholarships, grants and valuable collaborations between area nonprofits to meet the area’s philanthropic needs. It is not affiliated with a single charity, university or issue.

When the 2016 wildfires devastated Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, ETF joined forces with the Dollywood Foundation to provide $2 million in aid. Not long after Boyer joined the nonprofit, a flood displaced eight elderly individuals with disabilities, prompting a call in the middle of the night and the subsequent matching of funds to help relocate them to temporary housing.

ETF has raised more than $1.5 million during the pandemic to ease community hardships.

“This has been a very long year,” Boyer says. “Some of my friends tell me about the great books they’re reading and I want to dream about things like that. There’s just not been enough time in the day or evening to do anything but focus on our East Tennessee region and the 25 counties the East Tennessee Foundation serves.”

One bittersweet byproduct of working from home during the coronavirus shutdown is that it saves time normally spent commuting from meeting to meeting but also takes away the chance for restorative mind-clearing that takes place in the car.

“You can schedule back-to-back-to-back Zoom calls without that drive time,” she adds. “But it’s allowed me to be more productive, and that’s just really been a silver lining to be able to help even more people, especially at this time.”

Boyer’s idea of relaxation is simple: She longs for a good night’s sleep, something she seldom gets. “People get emails from me at all hours of the day and night and on weekends. I know it’s pretty awful,” she admits. “But one of my goals for 2021 has been to learn how to shut that off and just stay as focused as I can during the daylight hours and not let them go into the evening.”

She does occasionally allow herself a bit of outdoor time. Last year, she and Taylor planted a small garden, including a lemon tree that yielded 27 fruits and provided “a very bright spot in the pandemic.” Taylor, incidentally, was accepted to both Samford and UT law schools and has chosen to go to UT to stay closer to home.

Looking back, Boyer is grateful for the times her dad let her tag along for a taste of the real world. “Growing up, I had no idea I would one day be that [attorney at the end of the table] at the various meetings,” she says. “That’s wonderfully rewarding.”

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