When Leigh Hudson took the helm as president of the Clayton Rotary club in 2009, the club’s faint vital signs indicated an organization on the brink. A year later the club had more than doubled in size. Another lunchtime Rotary club – the first met at breakfast – started as well.
With that turnaround, district level leaders took notice and fast-tracked Hudson into a district-level leadership post. In July he became the Governor of District 7710, a collection of 46 clubs in a 10-county Triangle-based region.
“They were talking about closing the club down,” former district governor Rick Carnagua said of the Clayton club Hudson helped resurrect. “Basically they went back and started from zero, like they were starting a new club. His leadership caught the eye of other people in the district.”
Civic clubs and small businesses in modern times often struggle. Hudson, with strong support from his wife, Pug, ignores broader trends as he thrives leading both.
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Hudson’s parents founded Hudson’s Hardware & Outdoor Equipment, an institution in Garner for 55 years, when he was 6. He took control when his father retired in 1980 and bought out the half his brother owned in 2000. The store remains a pillar in the Garner business community despite two hardware giants moving into town. Hudson has kept the business thriving, in part by diversifying its offerings to include things like animal feed and relying on quality service.
As a business owner, he joined the Garner Rotary club in 1981.
Hudson moved his membership to Clayton (where there’s a second Hudson’s Hardware location) in 1985 and has been active there ever since. He would serve as president of the Clayton club in 1989-90, right around the time women were first admitted to the traditionally male-only clubs.
Clubs vary in the causes they support. The Clayton Rotary focuses on a variety, including work with Salvation Army, Stop Hunger Now, the YMCA and dozens of others, Hudson said.
Last March, Hudson found yet another cause that really gripped him. Carnagua, a member of the Cary-Page Rotary Club, invited other area Rotarians to join in on a mission to Santiago, Dominican Republic. Hudson signed up, and the group installed 40 latrines in the impoverished city.
It was Hudson’s first mission trip abroad and his first exposure to people who had so little. In the Triangle, he said he’s pushing clubs and their members to address hunger. But he felt bad leaving Santiago knowing they lacked something even more basic than a bathroom.
“We gave them a nice private place to go to the bathroom, but we left them with dirty water. Forty percent of diseases could be stopped (with clean water),” said Hudson, who intends to return this year to build more latrines and install nearly 400 water filters in homes. “There’s just so much we can do. I just feel so privileged being part of a Rotary organization that’s doing more and more work with poor populations around the world.”
Coming home again
Hudson, the class president of the Garner High School class of 1971, needed a couple of years at UNC-Chapel Hill to figure out what he wanted to do. In the end, he decided after two years to head right back home and follow his parents.
“I went to Chapel Hill to do anything but hardware,” Hudson said. “When I added it up, I saw a greater opportunity to go into the family business, and made a go of it.”
Since Sam and Anna Hudson founded Hudson’s Hardware in 1958, Lowes and Home Depot have moved into Garner. Hudson, the former athlete who played baseball, football and basketball for Garner High, embraces the challenge. The one-time defensive end talks about the chains’ weakness the way he might have described a hulking but slow-footed offensive tackle he intended to outwork on a Friday night.
“We offer much better service than they will ever offer,” Hudson said. “You’ve got to get more competitive on your pricing and beat them on service.”
For Hudson, the personal nature of the family business has greater appeal than anything he could have done in the corporate world. Though he’s thankful for the chance to gain experiences outside his hometown, his two years at UNC introduced him to exactly the opposite of what he wanted to do.
“It was all about big business there. I wasn’t interested in IBM, General Motors,” Hudson said. “The other thing, more importantly, my parents didn’t want to hire anyone outside the family (to run the business)… My mom and dad were killing themselves. When they saw I wasn’t going to be a master’s degree student they said, ‘Come on back.’ It worked out well.”
Reversing the tide
Rotary clubs nationwide, Hudson said, have seen stagnant membership since 1978. For every new member, at least one leaves. The pains felt by Clayton’s Rotary – membership slipped from the mid-40s to 19 – may have been acute, but were not atypical.
Hudson said traditionally, Rotarians come from the ranks of small business owners. Big businesses’ increasing market share makes that a smaller pool. Hudson also said the proliferation of various organized youth activities – from soccer to saxophone – require transport and attendance. That reduces the amount of time parents can meet in the traditional evening timeslot. Rotary clubs typically meet at lunch or breakfast now.
With slipping numbers in the Clayton club, morale and commitment also waned. Hudson said some just attended weekly meetings as a breakfast networking opportunity, doing little outside of them.
Hudson, again, bucked the macro-level trend.
He pitched and launched an aggressive recruiting effort. In two years, the club had returned to the mid-40s in membership and has become more engaged in service. In the process he found many couldn’t do breakfast so he helped start a new club in Clayton that would meet at lunch. Garner also has a morning club and a lunch club that, along with the two Clayton clubs and a club in the Cleveland community, make up a five-club area within the district.
“A lot of his recruiting ability comes from his background in sales. He meets a lot of people every day,” Carnagua said. “He’s very straightforward about talking to people about Rotary, what it means for him and what it could mean for others.”
Now, he’ll try to take that growth to the district level, where membership increased by 25 to 1,830 last year. Hudson wants to add 100, Carnagua said.
“That’s a very ambitious goal,” Carnagua said. “But if anybody can do it it’ll probably be him.”