Column: United Way’s 2009 chair to stay on for 2010

By Maria Saporta
Friday, December 18, 2009

Finding a business executive to chair the 2010 United Way campaign has been a challenging task. Given the tough economic environment, interested CEOs have had to beg off, at least for this coming year.

So United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta Inc. is doing something it has never done before — having the same executive lead back-to-back campaigns.

John Somerhalder, CEO of AGL Resources Inc., who is chairing the 2009 campaign, will return for a repeat performance for 2010.

“John has agreed to re-enlist,” said a relieved Milton Little, president of the United Way of Metro Atlanta. “It takes a great deal of dedication, commitment, energy and leadership to run a campaign. And he’s ready to do it again.”

“I’m happy to do it,” Somerhalder said, adding that 2010 provided a “unique set of circumstances” for United Way. “It just worked out that we all thought this was a very good option, and I was willing to do it.”

Somerhalder said his decision was made easier because of the support from the volunteers and the United Way staff. He said he would like to keep as much of his campaign cabinet intact as possible.

A couple of other factors working in Somerhalder’s favor were that the natural gas industry “is in a little more stable position” than many other businesses; and that he has a civic-minded board that values service in the community.

Little said United Way leaders had a “short list of people we wanted to pursue to lead the 2010 campaign.” But for a variety of reasons, those executives declined.

One of those executives was Equifax Inc. CEO Rick Smith, who has been serving as chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber. Smith said he likely would be open to chairing a campaign in a later year.

Richard Anderson, chairman and CEO of Delta Air Lines Inc., already has agreed to chair Atlanta’s 2011 United Way campaign.

And it’s not just Somerhalder who has agreed to do double duty.

Little said United Way board chair Larry Keys, worldwide partner and Atlanta office head for the human resources firm Mercer, also has agreed to stay on for an extra year.

“Given the difficult fundraising environment we anticipate, the idea of having continuity with the board chair and the campaign chair made a lot of sense,” Little said.

Atlanta’s United Way campaign, which raises about $80 million a year for more than a hundred social service agencies in the region, is one of the most important community roles in metro Atlanta.

For 2009, Somerhalder and his campaign cabinet set the campaign goal at $80.5 million, the same amount that was raised in 2008. The 2009 campaign is still under way, and Little said it might not be until February that they know whether the goal has been reached.

“We are always skittish of making any predictions,” Little said. “This campaign is going to go down to the wire.”

According to the latest projections he’s seen, Somerhalder said the 2009 campaign is reaching about 99 percent of its goal.

“We are having to work very hard to close in on that 1 percent,” said Somerhalder, who remains motivated because all the social service agencies he has visited “really count on those dollars.”

New regional leader

The Regional Business Coalition (RBC) has a new executive director.

Terry Lawler, a seasoned professional in public policy, business and government, will head the RBC. The coalition includes participation from chambers of commerce and business organizations in the 16-county metro area, with a combined membership of more than 17,000 metro area businesses.

The coalition provides a unified voice on two of the most critical public policy areas facing our region — transportation and water.

Before joining the RBC, Lawler served 30 years in government and business circles. He was president of Georgians for Better Transportation from 2000 to 2003. Through his Blue Ridges Strategies firm, Lawler has been a lobbyist for several companies, including AT&T, Underground Atlanta, the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, CompuCredit Corp. and Augusta Newsprint. He also was executive director of government affairs for CompuCredit, and regional government affairs director for MCI Telecommunications/Verizon Communications.

Lawler also is a former state legislator who represented Cobb County. He has lived in DeKalb, Cobb and Fulton counties, both inside and outside the Perimeter.

“I think the RBC provides a valuable resource, not only for the member chambers, but for the legislature on water and transportation issues,” Lawler said.

Given the RBC’s priorities and his professional background, Lawler said the job was a good fit and a way for the coalition to be a strong business voice in the metro area.

Lawler is following Che Watkins, who served as the coalition’s interim executive director while being on a temporary loan from the Metro Atlanta Chamber. Watkins has served in that role since Stephen Loftin left nearly a year ago to become executive director of the Cable Television Association. Loftin had headed the organization for four years.

The coalition also will have a new chairman in January.

Stephen Riddell, managing partner of the Atlanta office of Troutman Sanders LLP, is the 2010 chairman. He also served as chairman of the search committee that selected Lawler. Riddell succeeds Betty Willis, Emory University’s senior associate vice president for governmental and community affairs, who has been the 2009 chair.

“Terry could not have been a more perfect candidate,” Riddell said, adding that Lawler already had a deep understanding of the issues involved.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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