PROFILE: County Chief: For 26 years Alex Dudchock has painted a vision for Shelby County

Mid-afternoon for Shelby County Manager Alex Dudchock generally looks like answering emails and looking at reports, but invite him into a meeting at that time and his hands and speech will escalate in animation.

Even if, say, the purpose of your meeting is to ask him about his 26 years managing 808 square miles and more than 215,000 residents of the county, he won’t speak in first person. Instead, he’ll tell you about what the COUNTY has done and share stories of others, like recently when a building technician snaked a set of car keys out of the sewer system in the county services building after a woman flushed them down the toilet by accident. It’s moments like this he says that his dad and mom George and Betty would be proud to see—people going the extra mile when no one is watching to serve the citizens in Shelby County.

But talk to anyone who has worked with Dudchock, and they’ll say that’s just what HE has done—and that his parents sure would be proud.

First Impressions

At 6-foot-3, the former Auburn defensive lineman makes a strong first impression as he speaks intensely about any project at hand, waving his hands as he articulates detail after detail. His energy level is high, and his personality is big. And so is his heart—those around him say they see his heart in the way he interacts with anyone around him, and how he deals with difficulties. In their presence—and anyone’s presence for that matter—Dudchock is fully present, and genuinely wants to hear updates about their families too.

For Chad Scroggins, former county chief development office and Dudchock’s replacement as county manager when he retires come March 31, it was Dudchock who made him even consider coming to work for Shelby County from working in consulting back in 2003. “I realized very quickly that Alex did not manage Shelby County like a stereotypical government office,” Scroggins says. “He managed it like a business.” And the other qualities he noticed first? Dudchock’s unrelenting energy, along with his desire to do what is right.

Photo by Jon Goering

Community Services Manager Reggie Holloway started his position with the county after retiring from the military in 1999, but the way Dudchock ran things was familiar. The county manager had a goal and objectives, and he expected you to meet them and gave you what you needed to get there. Along the way, Dudchock would notice the details of any project, all of them, and store them up in his memory. He’d likely bring them up a year later in a meeting, “so you had to make sure you knew what you were doing,” Holloway says. Likewise, county department heads always had to be prepared for the moment when Dudchock would whirl his chair round in county commission meetings and gesture to one of them to ask them to share more information on the spot.

Another hallmark of Dudchock’s tenure as county manager is three letters: yes. “He will find a way to yes,” Scroggins says. “It’s not always easy, but he’ll try his very best.” Through it all, Dudchock made it his policy, and the county’s, to respond to any member of the public in 24 hours and preferably the same business day. “I love that direct contact with folks,” Dudchock says, “and everyone should know the importance of that even if the answer is no.”

Sometimes that took him to unconventional places too—even underwater in the Coosa River in scuba gear (he’s a PADI-certified diver) to check an intake screen and weld at an at a plant before he signed off on it for Shelby County Water Services. County Commission Lindsey Allison says she has seen Dudchock riding tractors and digging ditches with highway department employees. Those who know him will tell you he truly thinks he’s no better than anyone else—and won’t expect anything of you that he’s not willing to do himself.

Case in point: Harkening back to how his father-in-law, the department head of fisheries at Auburn University, taught him how to trap, Dudchock at one point trained staff in the county facilities department in the practice when structures were being inundated by beaver dams.

Also delving into the past, the Shelby County Dudchock started managing back in 1993 is a far cry from the Shelby County of today, and not just because of the growth in population numbers. At that time the county was bankrupt and had defaulted on a sewer bond of $21.5 million when a new governmental system with a county manager was adopted through state legislation. “Who would want to step into that mess?” Allison asked at the time when her tenure as county commissioner had just begun, but Dudchock, then a 29-year-old who had formerly served as the county’s personnel manager, came to mind.

“Don Armstrong, a county commissioner at the time, said we needed to hire Dudchock, and he was the best hire we ever made,” Allison recalls. “We wanted someone new, high energy and innovative to get us out of this mess, and what he had exhibited under the other commission is he stood up to bad hires.” Today, 26 years later, Dudchock is “the most go-to person in the county for anything,” Allison says. “If you want to get the pulse of something, you run it to him first because he’s everywhere.”

Photo by Keith McCoy

A County Tour

Ask Dudchock about the highlights of his three decades leading the county, and his response will once again be all that the county has done under the 32 county commissioners, four probate judges and four sheriffs during his tenure—and what you can see as you drive around the highways he knows like the back of his hand. In Columbiana there’s been two courthouse expansions, and in Pelham they built a county services building, and on Highway 70 there’s a landfill operation that will soon be producing power from capturing methane gas. On McDow Road in Columbiana, you’ll drive past a whole set of buildings the county brought to life—all built without financing because of how the county managed its money under Dudchock’s leadership—from the juvenile detention facility to the county warehouse and records management, from the community corrections dorm space (an alternative to jail) to the $17 million sheriff’s operations center and jail, and from the animal services building operated by Shelby County Humane Society to the Sheriff’s Office Training Center & Firing Range Complex.

Dudchock pauses amidst this list to speak specifically to how the county had farmed out juvenile inmates to beds all over the state until 21 years ago they built a facility in the county to keep these youth in the same area where their family and guardians are. And because of it, they’ve seen much lower recidivism. It’s part of a culture of always re-evaluating things that Dudchock has fostered. “We are always looking at process improvement,” he says. “That’s what you do when you have strong staff members who are not being complacent. We are always at how we can do this differently, better, more efficient.”

Over in Calera you’ll see a Fire and Emergency Medical Training complex with the same five-story fire tower used for in the largest cities in the country on either coast. Because of his dad, a volunteer firefighter in Graysville on top of his job with what today is U.S. Steel, Dudchock knew what it takes for a firefighter to be trained and vetted.

Another thing he learned from his dad: To be successful, you’d better surround yourself with people smarter than yourself, and that you had better be resourceful too. So resourceful Dudchock was, and is, ever-learning and ever-researching. According to Allison, he’s “smart as a whip and he will master a topic”—even when it comes to legal matters that Allison, a lawyer, specializes in.

For instance, for a period of time Dudchock found himself immersed in department of revenue standards and interfacing with controllers employees. “It always amazed me how he could move from ease from intricacies of putting in the water main to discussing asphalt to the needs of an animal shelter,” Holloway says. “From topic to topic he knew all the details. Man, that was powerful for me.”

Although there are many cities within the county that technically have borders, Dudchock’s philosophy was that the only boundary to be worried about is the county boundary. “Alex is clear on every issue that you may have city boundaries but we are all in one county and all in this together,” Allison says. And as the cities have grown in the past 20 years and much of the county’s population has shifted into their boundaries, the population has shifted from looking to the county government to looking at not just city government but to the county-city partnerships, Allison says.  

Photo by Keith McCoy

Montevallo Mayor Hollie Cost has seen that mindset in action in her work with Dudchock in city-county collaboration too. “As project proposals have arisen in our community, I’ve reached out to Alex for input or potential partnership opportunities,” she says. “Each time, I am hopeful he will just give us a pat on the back or the green light instantly. What actually ensues is that he responds with an inquiry for much more detailed information, engaging many others from his team. The result has been that we typically end up with a much more impactful project than I had originally envisioned. Alex sees potential around every corner.”

Dudchock also has a “knack for addressing issues before anyone else could see them coming” Allison says, which is exactly how Compact 2020 was formed. It was Dudchock’s idea after seeing an increase in drug-related deaths in the county and thinking,We’ve got to be better than this.” And he wanted to start at the front end with drug prevention efforts prior to becoming justice-involved cases, taking intel from dealers and purchasers and then going to the parents first before it becomes a law enforcement matter. Another idea of his? The Falcon Scholars at Montevallo, who get partial scholarships to work for nonprofits in the county, was something he approached the commission with 12 years ago.

Under Dudchock’s leadership, the county has provided annual funding for regional players like the McWane Center, Birmingham Zoo and Alabama Symphony Orchestra, since after all, Dudchock believes, “We are only as strong as our region.” Along those lines he knows much of the county commutes into Birmingham for work, and the area is an “exporter of talent”—including his own sons, at least for now. Davis, 27, works for SAP in San Mateo, California, and his younger brother Russell, 22, is in school in San Jose, California.

Alex Dudchock and his wife Natalie.

The Heart of it All

Even when Dudchock had to be firm with employees over the years, there’s always a heart beneath it. “People that I know that he’s had to be tough with even tell me they respect him and would do anything for him,” Allison says. “He has that toughness but he genuinely cares about people and knows he will do right by people.”

And that was true even when the recession hit in 2008 and the county saw almost a $5 million reduction in its revenue, but Dudchock was there, steered his ship steadily through the murky waters. He didn’t cut jobs. He didn’t cut services. He just led the county to manage its finances well, just as he’s always done. It took eight years for the county to recover, but, regarding this, Dudchock speaks in first person for once. “I am very proud of that,” he says. 

Speaking of priorities, Dudchock also learned what the calls the “human side of decision making” from his parents, and the importance of trying to be personal in an impersonal world. In fact, for him, it’s the most important thing he can do.

It’s that mindset that he brings to his work on the board of Chilton-Shelby Behavioral Health and other entities. He and his wife Natalie lost their middle son, Blake, when he was 18, and Dudchock’s mom suffered from Alzheimer’s the last six years of her life. “I have experienced tragedy so I can connect with people who have had tragedies,” Dudchock says. “I understand how people wo are grieving and every aspect of their life changes when they have a trauma. All of those life experiences no matter how tragic and still raw they are mold who you are and who you can be empathetic with.”

Through all of his work Dudchock is more than humble and doesn’t want any recognition, but since his retirement is coming up, “we told him he had to suck it up and take it,” Allison says. “He earned it. He‘s just doing what he’s called to do.”

Dudchock’s legacy can in some ways be summed up in an eight-page Word document listing the capital projects the county has accomplished during his tenure, but it’s perhaps best seen by looking at those around him—the management structure he built, all the staff members he has mentored, and the countless others who serve the county like he’s served the county. All in, as if no one is looking.