With a focus on balance and all parts working together, Mayor Jody McLeod has leveraged a unique skillset to take Clayton to the next level.
Mayor Jody McLeod isn’t your typical local leader, and he’ll be the first to tell you.
“I’m not the usual,” he said. “I’m the unusual.”
Ordinary or not, there’s no arguing he’s a mainstay. For more than two decades, McLeod has led Clayton, North Carolina as both Mayor and as an integral part of the community. McLeod’s presence has been felt for so long in Clayton that it can be difficult to remember the town before him. Credit that at least in part to his larger-than-life personality, constantly emanating enthusiasm and joy for his town.
It’s a trait seen not just by his fellow citizens, but by television executives too. McLeod, along with his late mother, Mavorine, were cast in a 2016 ABC commercial to promote the new television show, “The Mayor,” which follows a newly elected mayor and his mother in Chicago.
“Nothing like being upstaged by your 84-year-old mother,” said McLeod, remembering the day of filming. “She died two years ago. It’s a precious memory for me. I would trade nothing for that.”
What drives McLeod though, even beyond a passion for his hometown, is a talent for design, seen most clearly in his day job as a florist. Mixing old with new, large with small, busy with quiet, and creating a unified, single piece—McLeod works with Clayton the same way he works with a bouquet. Unusual, as he admits, but now leveraging these skills in Clayton during a time of rapid change, his successes are readily apparent.
As the owner and operator of Annie V’s Florist in downtown Clayton, McLeod started out decades ago among stiff competition. All within one block of each other were three florists. His goal, then, was to stand out—to seen as unique, to provide a high-quality product and to stand as a top-tier option among a crowded field.
The parallels to Clayton and central North Carolina write themselves.
“Oh, there are similarities all over the place,” said McLeod. “How do you become distinct, in the best way? How do you do things completely different than what everybody else is doing? Yeah. You know, customize it, make it novel.”
Among a map of attractive, growing towns in the Triangle area, McLeod has worked to elevate Clayton among the very best and to make it, like Annie V’s, a top-tier option. Five terms in, Clayton is now the fastest growing community in North Carolina’s fastest growing county.
It began with storytelling—or rather, a need to prioritize storytelling. “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will,” said McLeod. “I needed to get involved and tell this story.” McLeod first entered the local government scene in the late 1990s when he became the “first young person to the town council,” as he puts it, during the same year too that a woman joined the previously all-male council. From there, he turned his sights to the role of mayor. He saw it as an opportunity for the town and for the role to be revitalized and reshaped through proper marketing.
“I felt like it was time to redefine the role,” McLeod said, reflecting back. “It was more about economic development, marketing, and branding, all of that. The mayor could no longer be just two meetings a month and ribbon cuttings.”
He lost his first mayoral election by under 100 votes—52 as he recalls it. Four years later, he tried again and won. “Again, by 52 votes. Or thereabout,” he said.
Once mayor, the story McLeod immediately began to tell hit the high notes: prime geographic location, school quality, and affordability. Mostly, though, he pointed to the community. Telling the story now, he starts at the end. “Look at the people of Clayton and how welcoming they’ve proved to be,” McLeod said. “People continue to move here, and the people of Clayton continue to accept them. Everybody knows everybody. It’s what maintains our great sense of community through this growth.”
Things have moved slow but steady for McLeod in Clayton—a pace that can cover quite a bit of distance in the span of two decades. He’s not shy about noting the problems that faced the town at the outset, particularly inside Town Hall. These included financial issues, a lack of diversity among leadership, and an overall close-mindedness towards new ideas. As a small business owner and lifelong community member, those concerns nudged McLeod into local politics. And now, Clayton of old and Clayton today are miles apart, evidenced by not only a booming community, but also what McLeod calls, “The most progressive-minded council in my 20 years.”
Accomplishments along the way include both the magnificent and the mundane, and pieced together, there appears a cascade of positive cause-and-effects. The dominos start with McLeod’s original goal of storytelling. Knowing what to share was the easy part. How to share it was a bit more difficult. McLeod worked to develop strong relationships with the regional newspapers and community organizations, and made himself available as the town’s spokesman. With those avenues created, he then got to work making sure that the story being told was a good one. Clayton made significant investments into its Parks and Recreation department, including new facilities, organized events and other community-gathering activities. These gatherings not only bolstered a sense of community in town, but also served as an economic development recruitment tool. Clayton even adopted a slogan to accompany the investments, calling itself “the premier community for active families.”
“Business and industry want to have good, smart employees, yes, but they also want them to have something to do,” said McLeod. “They want a quality of life for them outside work. So, they enjoy relocating and investing in areas that are very committed to quality of life.” Success is in the numbers: Clayton is now home to the biopharmaceutical industry, valued locally at around $5 billion, according to McLeod.
There is also now in-town healthcare. Whereas in decades past, Clayton residents needed to travel to Raleigh or Smithfield for hospital care, UNC Health Johnston in Clayton—opened in 2009 and undergoing expansions presently—now offers quality healthcare at home. McLeod was closely involved in the relationship building, site selection, planning process that landed the facility.
Supporting it all is the routine and critical work of city leadership. Infrastructure investment, water and wastewater system projects, public works, utilities, and more. “These aren’t the flashy projects,” said McLeod. “But they are so important for setting Clayton up for the future… In order for the community to thrive and for economic development to continue, you have to have these things.”
Through the town’s evolution, his florist business has boomed, as has McLeod’s standing as a leader in the industry. McLeod has presented for the American Institute of Floral Design (AIFD) and is one of 13 nationwide education experts for Teleflora, a national florist network.
Those achievements—both civic and floral—happening concurrently aren’t surprising to McLeod. If anything, they’re complementary, paralleled in the same way as the geography of both the Triangle and his in-town florist competition. He approaches each the same. In 2018, McLeod detailed this symmetry in a presentation for AIFD on a topic titled “Discovering the Art of Leadership.”
“I blew them all away,” said McLeod. “A leader should be balanced. So should a floral design. A leader should yield to unity. So should a floral design. Harmony, all parts working together, a strong focal point, rhythm, balance, movement. Civic leadership and floral design, same thing.”
The parallel didn’t occur to McLeod at first in his public service career, he admits. But at some point, a little over a decade ago, it clicked. “It just happened in a moment one night,” McLeod said. “And it was amazing.”
“You can take the principles and elements of design anywhere. You can do it in your house. You can do it in your backyard. I sit around tables with engineers and accountants and attorneys and all these brainiacs, and I’m not them and can’t do what they do. But I can bring the creative side and the visual side.”
In his own work, through the role of Mayor, McLeod is taking the old parts of Clayton and incorporating new parts of Clayton. He’s seeing through new developments, coming into town at a rapid pace. He’s balancing the residential and industrial. And he’s doing this all while keeping center that strong focal point—that essence of Clayton.
There’s no wonder the community-focused town has come as far as it has.
“I don’t mean to brag, but keeping it real, you gotta own it,” he said. “Sometimes leaders don’t want to own the good stuff, you know?”