By Maria Saporta and Dave Williams
Friday, September 17, 2010
The next president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce will be Chris Clark, a “public servant” who has been commissioner of the state Department of Natural Resources since November 2008.
As of Nov. 1, Clark will succeed George Israel, a former mayor of Macon who has been the business organization’s chief for the past seven years. Israel will stay on as president through the end of October.
Unlike his past two predecessors at the state chamber, Clark has never held public office. But he has had extensive economic development experience in both the public and private sectors.
Clark, 40, has served as president and CEO of both a small-town chamber of commerce in South Georgia and a chamber in the Atlanta suburbs, deputy commissioner of a state agency and the top manager of a state authority.
“His whole career seems to have been building for this position,” said Suzanne Sitherwood, president of Atlanta Gas Light Co., who is the 2010 chair of the Georgia Chamber and headed its search committee. “We are very excited about him choosing us and us choosing him.”
Michael Garrett, president and CEO of Georgia Power Co. and the past chair of the Georgia Chamber, said Clark “was absolutely the perfect candidate.”
Garrett, who served on the search committee, added that Clark already has relationships throughout the state.
“He understands the political process,” Garrett said. “Through his work at the [state] Department of Economic Development, he understands the importance of the state having a friendly business environment.”
When Clark first became a member of the Georgia Chamber 10 years ago, he wondered if he would ever get the chance to run the organization.
Once Israel announced he was leaving in May, Clark realized this could be his time.
“It was very easy to get excited about the potential,” Clark said in an exclusive interview with Atlanta Business Chronicle. ”The more I thought about it, the more excited I got about the opportunity.”
Sitherwood said of all those interviewed, Clark was the best prepared.
“He came in with a vision and he came in with a business plan,” she said.
For Clark, “it’s all about competitiveness.”
He said the Georgia Chamber, which has an annual budget of $7.2 million, can help improve the state’s quality of life, seek consensus between the urban and rural areas, provide a stronger voice at the state Capitol and in Washington, and solidify the state’s economic development efforts in trade, tourism, entertainment and traditional industrial recruitment.
Clark grew up in South Georgia in Fitzgerald and attended Georgia Southern University. He has lived in Fayette County for the past 10 years.
And in his roles at DNR, the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority and the state Department of Economic Development, Clark has traveled throughout the state.
“He will bring to the Georgia Chamber somebody who truly understands rural Georgia and metro Georgia, and how they should work together,” said state Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee.
As president of the state chamber, Clark said he will make sure there’s representation of businesses from all over Georgia.
“I think of this state as a truck,” Clark said. “The engine is Atlanta. The rest of the truck is not going to get there without an engine.”
Clark believes the chamber’s focus should be on serving existing industry and providing a pro-business environment. He would like to see the organization partner with the state on international trade missions and serve as a go-between on economic development efforts between statewide organizations and local chambers of commerce.
About 150 of the Georgia Chamber’s 3,400 members are local chambers of commerce, representing thousands of their own members.
“You need to be a member of your local chamber first,” Clark said. “That’s mom and apple pie. But a lot of businesses go over county lines and would find value in the Georgia Chamber.”
That’s why Clark believes “we have room to grow our membership.” About two-thirds of chamber members are based outside of metro Atlanta, and about two-thirds are small and midsized businesses.
Clark said it’s important to market the qualities that make communities unique.
“Every state has a spec building or an industrial park. What’s different is the workforce and the quality of life,” Clark said. “If we don’t differentiate ourselves, it doesn’t matter how many industrial parks we have.”
As Clark sees it, a big part of his new job will be to help market the state.
“It’s about telling a great story and selling our quality of life,” he said.
Craig Lesser, who served as commissioner of the Department of Economic Development when Clark was a deputy commissioner there, said Clark has the right personality to market Georgia.
“Chris is a very likable person. That’s a great starting point in relationships,” said Lesser, now an Atlanta-based consultant. “He’s always looking for what works for everybody at the table.”
In the past couple of years, the chamber has launched the Georgia Initiative focusing on nine policy areas: education, transportation, tax, health care, law and judiciary, existing business and industry, environment and energy, international and tourism.
Garrett said Israel has done a “great job” launching the Georgia Initiative and “taking the chamber to the next level.”
But he added that Clark’s passion will help reinvigorate the Georgia Chamber.
“He’ll bring energy to the position,” Garrett said. “That’s going to be required to implement all of the things that we have identified that we want to get done through the Georgia Initiative.”
Clark, who has signed a five-year agreement with the chamber, could hardly contain his excitement for his new job.
“I know what the potential is and what the chamber means to the state,” Clark said. “I’m just humbled and as happy as I can be to be part of the team. It’s a unique career opportunity.”
Lives: Peachtree City
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Georgia Southern University; master’s degree in public administration, Georgia College and State University
Professional experience: Commissioner, Georgia Department of Natural Resources; executive director, Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority; deputy commissioner for global commerce, Georgia Department of Economic Development; president and CEO, Fayette County Development Authority; president and CEO, Hawkinsville-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce and Development Association
Family: Wife, Tiffany; 4-year-old son