By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Jan. 11, 2019
Every eight years, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce – the leading statewide business organization – has an especially important task. And 2019 is such a year.
Thanks to the November general election and the December run-off, the Chamber now has to build relationships with a whole new set of political leaders – a new governor, a new lieutenant governor and a host of new constitutional officers as well as new committee chairs in the General Assembly and many new legislators.
On Jan. 14, Brian Kemp will be inaugurated as Georgia’s new governor – succeeding Gov. Nathan Deal, who served in that role for eight years. Georgia also will have a new lieutenant governor – Geoff Duncan.
“We want to help the new governor and the new lieutenant governor make Georgia the best place to work, the best place to start a business and to continue to be a place where the film industry wants to be,” said Sonny Deriso, chairman of Atlantic Capital Bank, who will become the Georgia Chamber’s 2019 chairman at its annual Eggs & Issues Breakfast on Jan. 16 at the Georgia World Congress Center. “I think there’s always opportunity when you have a change in leadership, and I’m excited to be part of it.”
Deriso was asked to be the 2019 chairman only a few months ago. William “Bill” Leahy was supposed to have filled that role, but he ended up taking early retirement as president of AT&T Georgia, and the Georgia Chamber asked Deriso to fill in.
“The fact that I’ve been around for so many years and had been engaged, it was easy for me to step into the role,” he said.
Deriso will succeed Kessel Stelling, CEO of Synovus Financial Corp., as the Georgia Chamber’s chair. Coincidentally, Deriso used to be an executive at Synovus, and he was instrumental in luring Stelling to the bank in 2006.
When asked about the transition, Deriso said the Georgia Chamber has “a fantastic staff and team,” and the organization has a good relationship with the Legislature as well as Kemp and Duncan.
Chris Clark, president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber, said the priorities of Kemp and Duncan align well with those of the business organization. “Brian is focused on small business and rural Georgia; and Geoff is focused on tort reform and rural health care,” Clark said.
Over the past couple of years, the Georgia Chamber has focused on rural economic development. In 2017, it opened the Center for Rural Prosperity in Tifton in south Georgia, and it has developed a list of about 100 recommendations on how to help the rural economy – helping get 18 bills passed last year. That work is expected to continue in the coming session.
Also Clark and Deriso anticipate that the Legislature will consider health-care initiatives, including plans to apply for a waiver to be able to receive federal Medicaid dollars. Clark said there are three different waiver models that would work in “red-state, conservative” areas. Clark said the Chamber stands ready to share data and analysis to help the Legislature figure out the best solution for Georgia.
“We are going to be there to provide support,” Clark said. “If we lose a rural hospital, there’s no way we can get a company to move in that area. It’s an economic development issues as well as a health-care issue.”
As much as there’s a focus on rural economic development, Deriso said the Georgia Chamber also is focused on development in urban areas, including the Atlanta region.
“Atlanta has to prosper for the rest of the state to prosper,” Deriso said. “There’s a balance, and that’s the way it should be.”
At its Eggs & Issues Breakfast, the Georgia Chamber will be unveiling a new strategic plan titled the “New Georgia Economy.” It will highlight entrepreneurship and innovation, research and development, global commerce and competitiveness, data and security as well as talent and leadership.
A potential area of conflict could be if the Legislature passes a religious liberty bill. The controversial issue is being closely watched in economic development circles because of fears that it could discriminate against gays, lesbians and other groups.
“Our position hasn’t changed,” Clark said. “We support religious liberty, but we don’t support anything that is discriminatory. It would be wonderful if we didn’t have to have that debate.”
Transportation will continue to be an important issue.
Clark said the state expects to see the amount of freight in Georgia increase by 65 percent in the next decade. It is working on a freight study to figure out how best to handle that growth through expanded rail and auxiliary roads.
Deriso also has a keen interest in transportation, having served as chairman of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority since May 2001.
“I’m delighted that transportation and transit have gotten the attention of the Legislature in the last few years,” Deriso said. Both Clark and Deriso said they are optimistic Gwinnett County voters will approve joining MARTA in the upcoming March 2019 referendum.
Meanwhile, the Georgia Chamber has several new initiatives.
On Jan. 1, it began offering insurance to almost 800 small businesses in Georgia. It also has developed a relationship with the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, a move that “diversifies our Chamber family,” Clark said.
It also is diversifying its leadership line up.
The chairman in 2020 will be Peter Carter, who is executive vice president, chief legal officer and corporate secretary for Delta Air Lines Inc.
And the chair for 2021 will be Teresa White, president of Columbus-based AFLAC U.S. She will be the second woman and third African-American to serve as head of the Chamber in the organization, which is more than 100 years old.