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Top Georgia CEOs hope to stop social legislation that hurts business

By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on April 4, 2014

At the March board meeting of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, 2014 Chairman Richard Anderson issued a call to action.

“We are going to have to step up as a business community and take a much more active role in stopping this social legislation that doesn’t help us in the global marketplace,” Anderson, the CEO of Delta Air Lines Inc., told the top- tier group of business leaders meeting behind closed doors.

Specifically, Anderson was addressing attempts by the Georgia General Assembly to pass “religious freedom” bills that could have allowed business owners to refuse service to gay customers if owners claimed that doing so would violate their religious beliefs.

The Metro Atlanta Chamber board was meeting on March 20, the last day of the 2014 session, and even then, some executives were concerned a religious bill could resurface at the 11th hour.

Anderson’s decision to take a more visible stance against social legislation could place the business community at the forefront of a political firestorm.

Anderson took a leadership role when the Arizona legislature passed similar legislation earlier this year.

“A number of us — Coca-Cola, Home Depot, AT&T — the very large employers, we did the same thing in Arizona,” Anderson said in an interview at Delta’s headquarters on March 27. “Companies that are transferring people here want to be in a community that respects the diversity of people’s views universally. That’s the standard now. Even the governor of Arizona vetoed that legislation.”

Anderson said the Georgia Chamber of Commerce also has joined in. The Georgia Chamber’s 2014 chairman, Ernest Greer, who is Atlanta managing shareholder of law firm Greenberg Traurig LLP, echoed that in an email.

“In this day and age of constant news and social media, ideas can unfortunately become movements all too quickly,” Greer wrote. “If we want to keep our elected officials from ceding to extremist political views, we as a business community must be equally vocal in opposition to those measures that could be harmful to our state’s economy.”

Several business leaders said it all comes down to sustaining a friendly climate for companies to invest in Georgia.

Paul Bowers, president and CEO of Georgia Power Co. and a past chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber and chair-elect of the Georgia Chamber, said it was a matter of sustaining the state’s reputation as the best place to do business, as declared by Site Selection magazine.

“We can’t do anything to detract from that,” said Bowers, who did not want to comment on specific legislation. “How do we keep that momentum going?”

Carol Tomé, chief financial officer for The Home Depot Inc. and a past chair of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said in an interview that the “religious freedom” bill that could have refused service to gays goes counter to what her company stands for. “One of our core values is respect for all people,” she said. “For us it’s very simple. If it doesn’t fit within our values, and if it’s bad for business, it’s not a good thing.”

Greer took it one step further: “We cannot afford to send anyone to the state Capitol or Washington, D.C., who will not do their part to support continued investment and job creation.”

The metro business community did work behind the scenes against restrictive anti-immigration legislation that several CEOs grumbled privately hurt their ability to operate out of Georgia because they couldn’t hire the people they needed to do specific jobs. It also sent out the wrong message to companies around the world.

Anderson acknowledged Delta has moved its Latin American operations out of Atlanta partly because of that legislation. “It was a factor,” Anderson said. “We were better off moving it to Latin America. Atlanta, by all rights, should be one of the key gateways to Latin America.”

Friendly immigration legislation also is vital to Georgia’s desire to become an international logistics and distribution hub for the Southeast. “From an economic development perspective, companies have choices of where to locate or where to grow,” Tomé said. “If we have legislation that’s going to stifle economic development, companies may choose another state.” Tomé also made a point to say: “We stand by Richard Anderson” – removing any doubt about whether Anderson was a lone wolf or part of a more vocal and courageous business community.

Anderson said he is only continuing Atlanta’s rich tradition of having an enlightened business community that called for racial tolerance during the volatile days of integration in the South.

“That’s been one of the secrets to the success of Atlanta,” he said. “The business community gets out in front of issues. The only altruism is about creating a better place for business and people in the community so we can become more attractive globally.”

Anderson, who travels around the planet for his job, said Atlanta is now competing against the greatest cities in the world. Atlanta is connected to the world through the airport and the banking and global payments network.

“The world has become smaller,” Anderson said, adding that Delta’s headquarters alone reflects Atlanta’s international profile. “We have a widely diverse group of people in these buildings from all over the world who have moved to Atlanta, and they want to be part of a big global company. Atlanta needs to view itself not as a provincial city in the South, but as a global city.”

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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