Column: Chamber leaders ready again to oppose intolerant legislation
By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on December 5, 2014
Once again, business leaders stand ready to oppose any legislation that will send a message that Georgia would discriminate against anyone — including gays and lesbians.
If there were any question about how the business community would act on socially controversial issues, Richard Anderson, the outgoing chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the CEO of Delta Air Lines, removed any doubts during his comments at the organization’s annual meeting on Dec. 2.
“If that means we need to stand up to a legislature that wants to treat gays and lesbians in a different way, we have to stand up to that,” Anderson said.
Specifically Anderson was referring to bills introduced last session by state Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus) and state Rep. Sam Teasley (R-Marietta) known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The bills, which died in committee, would have allowed companies to discriminate against gays and lesbians based on religious freedom.
When the Arizona legislature passed a similar bill, several major conventions and sporting events — such as the Super Bowl — threatened to cancel. The governor of Arizona ended up vetoing the legislation.
The issue apparently is not dead in Georgia. Sen. McKoon has said he plans to reintroduce his proposal during the 2015 session which convenes in January.
Major companies, such as Delta, AT&T, Home Depot, UPS and The Coca-Cola Co. as well as key business and civic organizations, including the Metro Atlanta Chamber, fought hard to kill the legislation last year.
“We will still be opposed,” Anderson said of Delta. “The Chamber will be too.”
Incoming Metro Atlanta Chamber Chairman Larry Gellerstedt III, who is CEO of Cousins Properties Inc., said the top public policy priority for the business organization was going to be transportation funding, including transit. But he also said the organization would be monitoring any other issues that sent the wrong message to business.
“We also have to make sure we have a business culture in the state that is welcoming to everyone,” Gellerstedt said, adding that it included issues of immigration, education and the rights of gays and lesbians. “Businesses can’t succeed in areas that aren’t forward-thinking in those areas.”
After the meeting, Gellerstedt said the Chamber was waiting to see exactly what religious freedom bill might be introduced before taking a hard-and-fast position on a particular piece of legislation.
But he said the Chamber will not back away from its principles. Historically, the Metro Atlanta Chamber has played a pivotal role in positioning the region’s business and civic leadership as being tolerant and progressive when it comes to social issues — dating back to the 1960s when it supported racial tolerance and desegregation, or at the turn of this century when it advocated for changing the Georgia flag that included the Confederate symbol.
“We won’t be shy about taking positions on public policy issues during my tenure,” Gellerstedt said.
Meanwhile, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce already has issued a statement declaring that it will not support legislation that allows for discrimination. According to spokeswoman Joselyn Baker, the Georgia Chamber does not support practices that open the door to discrimination or create the perception that Georgia supports a discriminatory business environment that would threaten the state’s competitiveness.
New chamber leader
At the Dec. 2 annual luncheon meeting of the Metro Atlanta Chamber held at the Delta Flight Museum, Delta’s Richard Anderson that the business organization’s leadership was set for the next three years.
With Anderson stepping down as the 2014 chairman, Larry Gellerstedt of Cousins will be chairing the influential business organization in 2015.
Following Gellerstedt will be Jenner Wood, who is president and CEO of SunTrust Bank’s Central Group, which includes the Atlanta division.
The new addition to the leadership line-up is Jeff Sprecher, chairman and CEO of Intercontinental Exchange Inc., the Atlanta-based owner of the New York Stock Exchange.
Anderson jokingly said that by the time Sprecher will be chairing the Metro Atlanta Chamber in 2017, the NYSE will have changed its name to the Atlanta Stock Exchange.
When passing the gavel over to his successor, Anderson mentioned that Gellerstedt’s grandfather and father had both chaired the Metro Atlanta Chamber (then the title was president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce).
And then to show what a small town Atlanta was (and still is), Anderson said: “His grandfather was the first banker for Delta, and he lent money — probably to build these hangars.”
Gellerstedt said his grandfather worked for C&S Bank. Recently, when some folks were going through some old files, they came across a photo of Gellerstedt’s grandfather and Delta founder C.E. Woolman with a check for what he remembered as being $70,000. At the time, it was described as the biggest bank loan in Georgia’s history.
Laura Turner Seydel
In addition to hosting the annual Captain Planet Foundation Gala on Dec. 5, environmental philanthropist Laura Turner Seydel is being recognized in her own right.
On Dec. 6, she will be receiving the Claes Nobel World Betterment Award for her contributions to the environment, both locally and nationally.
The National Society of High School Scholars, an international organization dedicated to recognizing top academic talent, will recognize Seydel along with two other honorees — Dr. William E. Evans, former president and CEO of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, at an event at the Carter Center.
The award was established in 2013 by Claes Nobel, a senior member of the Nobel family – known for the annual awards given for peace, the arts and the sciences.
As founder of the Atlanta-based NSHSS, Claes Nobel has sought to recognize individuals who have dedicated their lives to ethics, inclusion and empowering those around them.
Seydel is chair of the Captain Planet Foundation, co-founder of Mothers and Others for Clean Air, co-founder of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper; and she serves on the boards of the Jane Smith Turner Foundation, the Turner Foundation and the Turner Endangered Species Fund.
Claes Nobel has had ties to Atlanta dating back to 2000. He established an international nonprofit, called United Earth, and based it in Atlanta.
At the time, Nobel said: “There’s an incredible legacy here. There are qualities in Atlanta that you don’t find in Washington and New York, and that is its dynamic business leadership.”
Claes Nobel is a grandnephew of Alfred Nobel, who endowed the Nobel Peace Prize and five other international awards.
Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans Award
Every year, OnBoard and KPMG LLP give a woman serving on the board of a Georgia public company an award that carries tremendous symbolism in Atlanta — the Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans Award.
It is named in honor of one of the first women to serve as a director of a major American corporation — our own The Coca-Cola Co. She was appointed to the board in 1934, and she served in that position for nearly 20 years.
The recipient of the 12th annual Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans award on Nov. 13 was Betsy Camp, a director of Columbus-based Synovus Financial Corp.
OnBoard is the leading authority of women in boardrooms and in C-suites in Georgia’s public companies, and it is a catalyst for increasing the presence of women in corporate America.
Camp has served on the Synovus board since 2003. She chairs its Audit committee and serves on its Executive, Risk and Compensation committees. She was nominated by Kessel Stelling, chairman and CEO of Synovus.
“There is no one who better epitomizes the spirit of this award than Betsy,” Stelling wrote in his nomination.
“As the first female to chair the board’s Audit Committee, she is one of the most highly respected members of Synovus’ Board of Directors, serving as an advocate for effective corporate governance and risk oversight,” Stelling continued. “She inspires others through her own stories of success, including her leadership over the modernization of a family business that resulted in remarkable revenue growth, the creation of hundreds of jobs, and the naming of several women to key leadership positions.”