‘Fundamental shift’ in strategy underway at Metro Atlanta Chamber

By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Friday, November 30, 2012

Looking forward, the Metro Atlanta Chamber is rewriting its game plan in more ways than one.

For more than 15 years, the influential business organization has been focusing its efforts on three issues — water, education and transportation. Of the three, improving metro Atlanta’s transportation issues was the chamber’s top priority.

But after the regional transportation sales tax referendum failed on July 31 — despite the business community’s investment of $8 million to try to get it passed, the Metro Atlanta Chamber has been surprisingly silent about how the region should address its transportation issues.

Instead, the chamber has redirected its focus to its latest five-year strategic economic development plan that is part of the latest Forward Atlanta marketing campaign.

“We are making a fundamental shift in the way we are doing business,” said Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, which held its annual luncheon meeting on Nov. 28 at the Hyatt Regency downtown. “It is a bolder change than anything we’ve done since I’ve been here. We’re focusing on growing the companies that are here and supporting startups.”

For Carol Tomé, the outgoing chair of the Metro Atlanta Chamber and chief financial officer of The Home Depot Inc., 2012 has been the best of times and the worst of times.

“As for the year, there were two significant efforts — developing a new five-year strategic plan under the Forward Atlanta banner, and supporting the transportation referendum,” Tomé wrote in an email.
“The transportation referendum was the low point because it didn’t pass, but something good came out of the effort as I think we all have a better idea of the challenges, opportunities and issues that need to be addressed going forward.

“As for the high point, I call out the Forward Atlanta strategic plan,” she added. “Through our research, we know that regional job growth can no longer come from just recruiting companies to Atlanta. We need to help existing businesses expand and new businesses get started.”

As the chamber shifts its focus away from recruiting out-of-state companies, it also is recalibrating how much of its energy will be spent on public policy issues.

“The only reason we did anything on those was because they got in the way of job growth,” Williams said. “Our fundamental purpose is to grow the economy. That’s why we got into the policy issues.”

In an interview, Paul Bowers, president and CEO of Georgia Power Co., who is coming in as the 2013 chair of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, shared where he will focus his energy — jobs, collaboration and education.

For Bowers, collaboration is key — collaboration between regional business organizations, between various metro companies, between the Atlanta region and the state, and between business and higher education — all working together to grow the economy and create new jobs.

“There’s a need for us to show how we can make things better through collaboration without worrying about who gets the credit,” Bowers said. “It’s about making it better for all of us.”

Bowers would like to help reignite the region’s spirit — to rise above the disappointments from the referendum and the sour economy — by accentuating the positive aspects in metro Atlanta.

When asked, the leaders do acknowledge that the transportation problems have not gone away. But they quickly add that they are taking a time out on pushing for solutions.

“We are taking a breather,” Williams said. “I don’t think anybody is giving up on it. But there’s no political appetite for it. We’ve got to give it a year.”

The business community put so much energy and money behind the referendum — an effort that took nearly five years — only to put forward a plan that was rejected by the public. Now it is holding back waiting on Gov. Nathan Deal, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and other political leaders to set the agenda.

“You’ve got to start where there is consensus, and when the leaders are ready to do something, the business community will be there,” Williams said. “But the business community has no appetite to jump back into the transportation arena right now. We will wait until we see some more clarity from elected officials in the region and the state. Right now there’s no consensus on a Plan B.”

That is a change of pace for the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

Traditionally, the influential business organization has played a progressive role in the region — dating back to the 1960s, when it encouraged a nonviolent and moderating role on integration and civil rights.

Over the years, it has taken on some of the toughest public policy issues in the region — with mixed results.

It has pushed transportation initiatives, such as the creation of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority. It has promoted quality growth initiatives by helping establish the Livable Communities Coalition.

It has sought to improve the Atlanta Public Schools by helping put together the Atlanta Education Fund and a blue ribbon commission to investigate the cheating scandal.

And one of its most successful efforts has been in the restructuring of the Grady Health System’s governance and galvanizing community support to help solve its financial problems.

The chamber also has been a major player on most of the major milestones that have put Atlanta on the world map — most notably the 1996 Summer Olympic Games and actively working on getting more international airlines and more Atlanta flights serving destinations across the globe.

Williams has served as the chamber’s president since January 1997 — nearly 16 years. After the referendum failed, there was speculation in the business community about whether Williams would retire in the near future.

While that speculation has died down, the chamber’s executive committee is taking a more active role in succession planning and leadership development.

“From a governance perspective, the executive committee takes leadership development and succession planning very seriously,” Tomé wrote in the email.

Bowers agreed. “Part of the responsibility we have as a board is succession and development of the team,” he said. “We are focused on leadership development and assessment to make sure we have qualified leaders for the future.”

When asked about his plans, Williams responded that he would serve as president “until they get rid of me or until I get tired of the job. I don’t have any specific plan to retire any time soon.”

Meanwhile, the chamber is busy trying to raise more than $30 million for its new Forward Atlanta campaign, and Bowers said that it already has more than$20 million in commitments.

The chamber also is reviving its educational efforts — especially EduPAC, which is seeking top candidates to run for the Atlanta Board of Education next year. Chamber leaders said the new Atlanta school board will be in charge of finding the system’s new superintendent.

It has been a roller-coaster era for the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the business community, but it hasn’t stopped top executives from getting engaged with the organization. A key signal occurred a couple of months ago when Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta Air Lines Inc., agreed to serve as the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s 2014 chair.

“This business community doesn’t quit,” Williams said. “If it gets knocked down, it gets back up. We shake the dust off and get back to work.”

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