by Mark McGee 

If Warren Wells could survive four brushes with IEDs in Iraq, then he should have no trouble facing any obstacles which may come his way in his new role as CEO of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration.

“I was a driver of a heavily armored Humvee,” Wells said. “We called it ‘The Rat’ vehicle. I would drive a half mile or a mile ahead of a convoy to do recon. We took goods and sometimes VIPs from base to base.

“We were security. It was important that the convoy never slowed down and never stopped. Being the first one on the road at times we were more likely to hit something.”

In those four encounters with IEDs Wells was lucky to have not sustained any injuries worse than a headache.

“It was not common to get hit that many times and not get a major injury,” Wells said. “I say I was hit by them, but my buddies say I hit them. Every time I get nervous, I say, ‘you drove through Baghdad and Fallujah. You can do this.”

In order to pay for college tuition, Wells joined the Tennessee Army National Guard and went through Army basic training. He served from 2001-2010 including deployment during Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2005 2006 with the local National Guard unit.

He was awarded the Combat Action Badge and an Army Commendation Medal for his service. His time in Iraq still has a strong impact on his life, especially the attention he received from people in Bedford County.

“The local community really treated us well,” Wells said. “One of the coolest things about it was we got letters all the time from people we didn’t even know.”

While standing in line at a visitation he was approached by a stranger.

“A man came up to me and asked if I was Warren Wells and then he said that he prayed for me every day when I was in Iraq,” Wells said. “He said his church members selected five soldiers each to pray for.

“It made me cry. I firmly believe those prayers kept me from getting injured.”

His horse background
One of the misconceptions Wells has dealt with when meeting and talking with people in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry is he never has been involved with the breed. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“When I was really young, I rode a little bit up until I was about six or so,” Wells said. “I didn’t ride again until my mid-20s and that was just trail riding. I had a black Tennessee Walking Horse mare named Crockett that I rode for a while. We bought my son, Walker, a pony. He and my wife, Jessica, and I would trail ride together.
“I loved Crockett a lot. She was a sweetheart.”

His new job for the Unum Group involved extensive travel around the country for four years. He reluctantly decided to sell Crockett to someone who could spend more time with her.

Before buying Crockett, Wells rode a walking horse named J.P. owned by Jessica. It was not a great experience.

“He was a great horse that was born on my wife’s family’s property, but he would spook at nothing,” Wells said. “I took a good fall and shattered my wrist. I have two plates and eight screws in there.

“I decided I needed a little calmer horse. So, I bought Crockett. She was older and was a really good babysitter for me.”

Jessica’s family bred, raised and trained Tennessee Walking Horses. Her father, trainer Ted Lewis, owned the old Toby Green Stables on the Tullahoma Highway. Jessica currently owns a registered Paint named Anna Strong, having sold all her walking horses.

Wells was probably destined to work with horses in some manner. He was born in Lexington. Kentucky. He lived next to a Thoroughbred farm that a family friend owned until he was about two-years-old.

“Most of the industry has thought of me as not having a horse background, which is accurate compared to most in the industry,” Wells said. “I have never trained a walking horse. The only show I have ever done was when Walker showed in a lead line class once on Mini Pearl, his black pony, but horses are not foreign to me. As you can see, we like Tennessee names.”

A different approach
As only the fifth CEO in the history of The Celebration Wells knows his life experiences have been different than his predecessors. Since taking over the job in June he has spent a great deal of time meeting with trainers, owners, riders and fans of the Tennessee Walking Horse.

“I want them to know I did not come here because I had to have a job,” Wells said. “I have come here because I wanted this. I love serving the community. 

“I love the town. I love The Celebration. I love the walking horse breed.”

The opportunity to return to public service in a different way was also appealing.

“This is the most important thing in Shelbyville and Bedford County,” Wells said. “For me to be able to come back and give it all I have and help the local economy was super appealing. It was something I could not say no to.”

When the rumors started surrounding Wells taking over as CEO, he heard there were questions about how much he could appreciate and love The Celebration and the Tennessee Walking Horse.

“You can love it without your livelihood depending on it,” Wells said. “I want them to know my background too. I have done several things that will help prepare me to run this place.

“One of the things I told the trainers is my livelihood never depended on how a horse did in the ring, but I truly believed my family’s livelihood as a kid depended on The Celebration.”

One story Wells shared with the trainers was about his mother, E.J., a bartender, and what her work meant to her family as a single parent.

“She bartended at The Celebration and the horse industry was so good to her,” Wells said. “They were nice to her, and they tipped her so well.

“I was probably 14 or 15 and I have this vivid memory of her coming back each night with cash after the show. We had natural gas for heating, and she used that cash to fill up the tank. She used that money to buy school clothes and she was so excited about it.”

A lifetime of service
With the exception of the last four years where he was assistant vice president of government affairs for the Unum Group Wells has been involved in military service or state government.

In 2017, at the urging of Governor Bill Haslam, Wells moved into the private sector with the Unum Group, a Fortune 500 company. He served as a senior strategist and lobbyist for Unum’s government affairs at the federal, state, territories and local levels.

He was also an advisor to Unum’s CEO and the leadership team regarding all legislative matters. He was elected President of the Association of Tennessee Life Insurance Companies and represented the insurance industry on Governor Bill Lee’s Economic Recovery Task Force Subgroup during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was an amazing company,” Wells said. “I learned a ton from the CEO and the fellow officers. But I really missed being fulfilled.

“I had always been called to serve and was wondering how I could get back to Shelbyville somehow. I never thought I would get to come back here and work.”

Prior to his time in the business world Wells was a key part of the administration of Haslam where he was director of legislation from 2015-2017 and deputy for legislation from 2011-2015.

As the governor’s chief lobbyist and liaison between the administration and the General Assembly Wells was responsible for managing the administration’s legislative agenda.

Wells was a leader in many pieces of legislation but the one with the most impact was the IMPROVE Act which contained the largest tax cut in Tennessee history.

He served as a legislative liaison for the Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration from February-August of 2011 where he was lead lobbyist for the 2011-2012 state budget.

From 2009-2011 he was a research analyst for the Tennessee State Senate providing detailed analysis on hundreds of bills each year for committee members and staff.

He also was responsible for tracking research and written remarks for State Senator Jim Tracy’s legislative agenda. He was deputy campaign manager for Tracy’s state senate campaign in 2008.

“I absolutely loved working in state government,” Wells said. “It was intense. Working for Governor Haslam, it was seven years of being on call almost the whole time.

“I remember working on issues through every vacation. Governor Haslam was going to veto a bill and I recall being on the phone for hours with the organization behind the bill explaining our position, all this while sitting on the beach the whole time.”

Popcorn and spotlights
Wells may have never shown a horse in The Celebration, but his exposure to the show was on a grassroots level as a student at Cascade School. He played basketball for the Champions and was active in city league softball.

He has pleasant memories of selling popcorn at the East Bedford Civic Club’s concession stand and sitting with his friend Jonathan Hutson who ran the spotlight for World Grand Championship winners for many years.
“I sold plenty of popcorn through the years,” Wells said. “Everyone from my school would buy popcorn over there because it was supporting our community.

“From the time we moved to Shelbyville until I went to basic training, I don’t think I missed The Celebration. It is always at the perfect time of the year. You went to school for a few days and then you had the break for The Celebration. 

“You started missing your friends during the break. You came to The Celebration to walk around every night and see who you could see.”

Wells had a premier seat for World Grand Championship classes sitting with Hutson. “I remember hours and hours hanging out with him when he ran the spotlight for those classes,” Wells said.

As he got older Wells attended the show on a regular basis and would sit in the box owned by Jessica’s family.

“I have spent a lot of time here,” Wells said. “I always wanted to be here.”

Community importance
Wells, in his travels with Haslam, was able to attend many events throughout the state. None of them compared with the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration.

“This is the most important thing in Shelbyville and Bedford County,” Wells said. “For me to be able to come back and give it all I have and help the local economy was super appealing. It was something I could not say no to.

“The Celebration is one of those community events that is truly remarkable and special. When we were outside of legislative sessions we would travel to events throughout the state. I have seen a bunch of them.”

Wells points to the magnitude of The Celebration as one of the biggest reasons it stands out. He and his childhood friend, Luke Ashley, who also worked in state government, brought a group to The Celebration.

“We said, hey, we know we have been to every strawberry festival in Tennessee, and we have been to mule day, but our town has something that is truly special, and you are going to love it.

“And they did. We sat them in a box, and they thought it was truly amazing. I have always been an ambassador for The Celebration.”

Wells also stresses the tradition and the longevity of The Celebration. “This is the 83rd year,” Wells said. “It is a long running show. The state has only been here 225 years. That is really amazing the show has been around for more than a third of that time. There is not much that you can find that has this type of magnitude.”
Wells has quickly learned a great deal in his new role. He credits his staff for all of their help. He has also truly understood what the show means to so many people.

“What I did not know, but I learned in my first few weeks, is the love so many have for this facility,” Wells said.

“People spend their vacations here and they have been doing it since they were born.

“They buy second houses here. They buy campers. I knew that but I didn’t appreciate it.”

His goals
Wells wants to help renew the community’s appreciation of the show.

“I want the community to appreciate all of the people who come here from outside,” Wells said. “This a dear place for them. It is not only home for us, but it is a second home for them.”

Last year’s Celebration was one of the strongest in terms of fans and entries in recent years. Wells wants to build on that momentum.

“Mike Inman (former CEO) did a really good job of promoting the show and getting people out to it,” Wells said. “It was one of the first games in town after so many people had been in lockdown. They were looking for things to do.

“The momentum is still going. The excitement seems to really be up through the Fun Show and the summer shows. I think we are building up to an amazing Celebration this year. I think we got a glimpse last year of the way things used to be.”

Like many events The Celebration has been victim to the full schedules of so many people. With lengthy sports schedules and other school events for their children as well as job demands it is hard for people to find the leisure time to attend a major event.

“We have to compete with other events for the fan experience,” Wells said. “It has to be an event you want to be at and that you have to be at. That’s the way it was when I was a kid.”

He plans to meet face-to-face with many of the leaders of the community, both elected and non-elected to promote The Celebration.

“I want to get our story out a little better, not that we haven’t in the past,” Wells said. “When I was a kid business owners laid down their heads at night praying The Celebration was going to be successful because they knew the success of their businesses depended on it.

“I don’t know if our business leaders still feel that way. I know they know it is important, but I don’t think they believe it is crucial to their success.”

Wells stresses there may not be 30,000 people in the stands for the final night of the show any more, but 16,000 people watching a horse show is still special and remarkable.

“You are not going to get that anywhere else,” Wells said. “It is still a big deal. It is an industry that is not going away. It is still strong.

“We have to tell the story to business leaders and community leaders. I want to talk with the civic clubs. We have so many people who come here to ride their horses. They buy second homes. They eat and sleep here. I want to tell the story of how beneficial The Celebration is to the community.”

Pressure to succeed
The most pressure in Wells’ life comes from himself. Adding to the challenge of his new job was moving his family to a new town and the addition of a second son, Wright, in June.

“I want people to know I have been successful in everything I have done,” Wells said. “I want everything we do here at The Celebration to be successful.

“Everyone has a vision of what the CEO should be. Nine out of 10 people in this industry did not know me. I think first impressions mean a lot. I probably added a lot of pressure on myself to make a good first impression.”

Wells has ideas he would like to implement, but he doesn’t plan to completely re-invent the wheel.

“I want to build on its previous success,” Wells said. “We need to increase entries, fans in the seats and the fan experience. If we do those three things it is going to grow and grow.

“I don’t think it needs a whole lot of change. I want to build some things around it.”

Wells wants to see the grounds packed with people both day and night.

“I would like to see people on the grounds all day and every day,” Well said. “We are going to try to think of ways to draw people out to see the barns and the way they are decorated.

“There are a lot of upgrades I would like to make to make the fan experience more enjoyable. We want them to keep coming back.”