By Maria Saporta
Friday, January 8, 2010
For Suzanne Sitherwood, being the first, or only, woman in a business environment is nothing new.
When she joined Atlanta Gas Light Co. in 1980, her first job was working out of one of the gas trucks doing maintenance.
“There were no women in the field,” Sitherwood said during a recent interview, adding that her strongest mentors were the “silent heroes, the men in uniform.”
Now another first awaits.
On Jan. 11, Sitherwood, president of Atlanta Gas Light Co., will become the first woman to chair the Georgia Chamber of Commerce in its nearly 100-year history.
Ironically, the person who recommended Sitherwood to become president of Atlanta Gas Light in November 2005 was Paula Rosput Reynolds, then CEO of its parent company, AGL Resources Inc.
Reynolds had been slated to be the first woman to chair the Georgia Chamber in January 2006, but just a month before she was to take office, she was named CEO of SafeCo., a Fortune 500 insurance company based in Seattle.
Although she acknowledges that being the first woman to chair the Georgia Chamber is an important milestone, Sitherwood insisted that she is part of broad-based leadership team. Plus, the fact that she’s a woman is not nearly as important as helping Georgia companies weather this economic downturn.
“We collectively have to look at these issues on a statewide basis,” she said. “There are so many complicated issues right now with this economy. It’s not as important that I’m a woman. It’s more important to focus on the issues.”
But Sitherwood obviously has learned to balance being accepted in a man’s world while not ignoring her gender. “As a female voice I want my voice to be loud and clear on issues that the state is dealing with,” Sitherwood said. “It’s good for young ladies and women to have role models — that’s a powerful and positive thing.”
As soon as she was named president of Atlanta Gas Light, Sitherwood knew she wanted to get involved with the Georgia Chamber because it’s the “only statewide organization that advocates on behalf of businesses.”
Her first role was as a vice chair of the membership campaign. Then she chaired the chamber’s governmental affairs council, which includes about 400 lobbyists. Her next role was as one of the co-chairs of the Georgia Initiative, a five-year strategic effort that raised $7.5 million in about four months.
As chair-elect in 2009, Sitherwood chaired the membership campaign, which raised $1.8 million, which meant the Georgia Chamber was able to hit its campaign goal for 13 years in a row. The organization has about 3,500 members.
Sitherwood also worked closely with 2009 Chairman Mike Garrett, president and CEO of Georgia Power Co.
“Suzanne has been involved in almost every aspect of our reorganization of the chamber through the Georgia Initiative,” Garrett wrote in an e-mail. “She understands the long-term vision for the chamber and has put together a leadership team that will carry that vision forward. We are fortunate to have her leadership.”
The leadership team includes Chair-elect Doug Carter, president and broker for Don Carter Realty Co.; and 2012 Chair Edward Heys, deputy managing partner for Deloitte LLP.
Other key committee assignments include Charles Haydon Stanley, government affairs; Charles Tarbutton, education and workforce development; Greenberg Traurig LLP’s Ernest Greer, member services; engineer Tim Lowe, environment and energy; Siemens Corp.’s Ken Cornelius, existing business; AT&T Inc.’s Sylvia Russell, health care; Pendleton Consulting Group LLC’s Craig Lesser, international; and Pendleton Consulting’s Phil Jacobs, transportation.
For her year as chair, Sitherwood said she hopes to continue Garrett’s efforts of uniting Georgia’s business community so that there’s not a divide between metro Atlanta and the rest of the state. Garrett established Power Lunches across the state to connect the Georgia Chamber with local chambers of commerce.
“I would like the business community to have a stronger statewide voice,” said Sitherwood, who said she has been to virtually every corner in the state through her job and in her roles at the Georgia Chamber. “It’s also an election year, and I want the business community to engage with candidates,” Sitherwood said.
“When times are tough we need to be more engaged with these candidates.”
The Georgia Chamber also will be working closely with the Metro Atlanta Chamber on several public policy issues, such as water, transportation and education.
“Suzanne has a proven track record of leadership,” said Bill Linginfelter, chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber and area president for Regions Bank. “She’s a ball of energy. She’s got a great sense of urgency. I can’t wait to work with her in her role as chairman of the Georgia Chamber.”
For Sitherwood, Georgia has become the home she never had while growing up. Her father was in the military, and her family moved every couple of years to various military bases, finally ending up at Dobbins Air Force Base.
“I grew up around aircraft carriers and tanks,” Sitherwood said.
That’s how she ended up getting an industrial engineering degree at Southern Tech (now Southern Polytechnic State University).
Again, she often would be the only woman in her classes.
As a co-op student, that’s how she ended up at Atlanta Gas Light. Now in her role as president of the utility, she said that “at most industry meetings, I’m the only woman at the table.”
So becoming the first woman to chair the Georgia Chamber is nothing out of the ordinary for Sitherwood, who will turn 50 in 2010.
“I’m a big believer in inclusion,” she said. “We need to be have inclusion across the state.”