Beginning a year-long stint as chair of the Greater Columbus Georgia Chamber of Commerce Thursday, Alan Rothschild said the organization simply cannot be content with past successes it has had — or proceed business as usual.
“As businesses have emerged from the recent recession, many of us are now facing a very different business climate,” he told those gathered at the chamber’s annual meeting, held at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center.
“We’ve got lower headcounts in our businesses, which means more responsibility shifted to the remaining employees,” he said. “And community contributions of both time and money are no longer guaranteed. They must be justified as adding value.”
In a nutshell, Rothschild and other chamber leaders acknowledged they must change with the times, become more dynamic, and come up with more ways to help their current and future members succeed and grow.
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That, and some hard work, will help the organization grow its membership, a critical goal this year, they said. The 168-year-old chamber said it represents more than 1,200 businesses in the Chattahoochee Valley.
“The lifeblood of this and every chamber is its membership,” said Rothschild, pledging to work with Chamber President and Chief Executive Officer Mike Gaymon, his staff and the organization’s board to deliver a better return on members’ investment.
Rothschild, an estate planning and tax attorney — and partner — in the Columbus law firm, Hatcher, Stubbs, Land, Hollis & Rothschild, succeeds Georgia Power executive Jacki Lowe.
She, too, said said increased new membership and retention of existing members is vital to the chamber’s financial stability. But Lowe also recounted 2013 as a year in which the city added or retained a total of 3,300 jobs, with $150 million being invested in facilities and infrastructure by companies.
Lowe pointed to last summer’s startup of the Dolly Madison Bakery on Victory Drive by Hostess Brands as one example, with insurance firm Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia expanding its local presence, and aerospace company Pratt & Whitney landing work and jobs from a closed facility in Texas.
She and Gaymon both touched on successful efforts by the city and the chamber to convince the U.S. Department of Defense not to eliminate or move Fort Benning’s 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team as part of budget cuts. It would have taken away up to 18,000 residents and 8,000 military and civilian jobs, while sucking more than $750 million out of the community.
Future military cuts in the U.S. are likely, the chamber leaders cautioned, which requires planning now, not later.
“While we don’t know exactly when it might be, one of the elements of success for this community — and we’ve proven it over and over and over — is to be fully prepared,” Lowe said. “Therefore plans are in motion to get this region once again prepared for the next (Base Realignment and Closure process), in order to continue to support our own Fort Benning as we have done for almost 100 years.”
A centerpiece of Thursday’s annual meeting was honoring a select few Columbus residents and business leaders.
The Chair’s Award was presented to Cedric Hill, owner of Hill Watson Peoples Funeral Service, a family-owned business dating to 1948 in Columbus. Hill is a tireless advocate for the chamber, having headed its fund-raising campaign in 2013, generating more than $600,000. He also is active in church missions to Africa and has been involved in Homeland Security mortuary operations through the years, including following the World Trade Center attack and Hurricane Katrina.
“I’m honored to receive this award from Jacki Lowe and the president of the chamber,” he said. “I love this chamber and I love this city.”
The Jim Woodruff Jr. Memorial Award, first given out in 1977, the year after the Columbus businessman’s death, was presented to Gardiner W. Garrard Jr., chairman of The Jordan Co. in Columbus.
Garrard has served on several boards — Synovus, Total System Services and the Columbus Water Works — through the years. He headed the successful Columbus Challenge fund-raising campaign in 1998. And he has championed economic development in the region, increased focus on white-collar recruitment and expanded military affairs involvement.
“There are many arts, cultural, recreation and city functions that go on. But the chamber’s for all of them, trying to make a better place to live and improve the lives of all the people,” he said. “It’s got a long and prestigious history and I’m honored and humbled to receive this award.”
Closing the gathering was presentation of the J.R. Allen Young Leader Award, which honors the memory of the late Columbus mayor who helped consolidate the Columbus and Muscogee County governments into a single entity in 1971 before dying in a plane crash.
The award recipient was Carla Epp, the New Life Tanning Centers entrepreneur who is a very active chamber member and works with various community causes and organizations, including Children’s Miracle Network, American Red Cross, Anne Elizabeth Shepherd Home, Columbus State University and United Way of the Chattahoochee Valley. Rothschild noted she recently began a new career at TSYS.Epp, accepting the award, recalled a passage from a book her father gave her.
“For great leaders, leadership isn’t just professional, it’s personal. And it’s very personal for me,” she said.