By Maria Saporta
Friday, July 1, 2011
Atlanta has in recent days taken a few steps backward at having top women executives at some of its largest companies.
First, Suzanne Sitherwood, president of Atlanta Gas Light Co. and the first (and only) woman to chair the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, announced June 22 she has accepted a job to become president and then CEO of the Laclede Group, a natural gas holding company based in St. Louis.
Then Becky Blalock, a senior vice president and chief information officer with Southern Co., who has been one of the top women executives at the utility, announced June 23 that she will be retiring from the company at the end of the summer. She has been with the company 33 years.
And then one of Atlanta’s newest corporate citizens, Newell Rubbermaid Inc., announced June 23 it selected Unilever executive Michael Polk, 50, to be its new president and CEO.
That closed the door for Penny McIntyre, group president of Newell Rubbermaid Office Products — a $1.7 billion division — who had been one of the internal candidates for the CEO job.
Had McIntyre been selected as CEO of the Fortune 500 company, she immediately would have become one of the most important women executives in Atlanta and the country.
But it may just be a matter of time before the representation of women in top corporate circles is proportional to the general population.
Sitherwood noted in an e-mail that for years, Atlanta reached greatness by being the city too busy to hate. “As a result, she has done well recruiting minorities and women in political and philanthropic areas, proving diversity creates greater value for any organization,” she said.
“As past chair of the Georgia Chamber, I can tell you that in Georgia we still have a long way to go in the corporate world,” Sitherwood continued. “But, I believe we are at the tipping point and the future is extremely bright for women as CEOs and board directors, not to mention other senior corporate positions.”
Blalock agreed, saying she plans to stay involved in the Atlanta community and is open to new opportunities.
“I’m extremely encouraged by the talent I see coming up in the pipeline,” Blalock said, adding that 60 percent of business school graduates now are women. “It’s a matter of time.”
Then she added that “if you look at the Fortune 500 companies, it’s a real struggle to get there.” Women still are significantly under-represented in the C-suites and on corporate boards. “We have got to keep their focus there. We have progress to make.”
The opportunity to become CEO was one reason the Laclede job appealed to Sitherwood.
“A quote that has guided me for the entirety of my career is this: ‘I will prepare and some day my chance will come.’ — Abraham Lincoln,” Sitherwood said.
Blalock said she has seen improvement during her career. When she joined the Southern Co. family more than three decades ago, there were no women officers. “Today, 23 percent of our officers are women,” she said.
Blalock also said that after she retires she will have more time to be involved in the community and that she is being interviewed to serve on a couple of corporate boards.
She will continue to serve on Emory University’s board of advisors. And she and SunTrust Banks Inc.’s Jenner Wood will co-chair the “Opportunity Ball” — the inaugural fundraiser for the Year Up Atlanta organization — in October.
“I’m not dead,” said Blalock, who is in her mid-50s. “I love this town. The Southern Co. has been a fabulous place to be. They made me who I am. Now I can retire, and I really would like to get some rest. And then I’m going to go do some other things.”
Meanwhile, another high-profile Atlanta woman executive is on the move as well.
In mid-June, it was announced that Roark Capital had agreed to buy a majority stake in the Arby’s Restaurant Group Inc. for $130 million.
The president of Arby’s has been one of Atlanta’s leading women executives — Hala Moddelmog, but her fate was not mentioned in several news articles announcing the sale of the company.
“I’m going to go with the company, and it was mentioned in the press release announcing the sale, so I guess it’s OK to mention even though the deal has not closed,” Moddelmog wrote in an e-mail.
Both Blalock and Sitherwood said they welcome opportunities to serve on corporate boards of Georgia companies, and it would stand to reason that both McIntyre and Moddelmog also would be open to becoming directors of public companies.
“Women must prepare plus be compelling and courageous for the entirety of their career,” said Sitherwood, who will turn 50 in August. “Preparedness is tough work. But, when opportunities materialize, it becomes obvious that the strongest candidate on the list is the woman.”