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Front Page - Friday, March 16, 2018

Inside track to Chamber post

Gillenwater’s research on city for national organization leads her here

Christy Gillenwater had done her due diligence, investing the time and work required to be considered for the position of president of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. But she wasn’t sure the organization’s board was going to give her the nod.

By this time, Gillenwater wanted the job. Not only that, but everyone living under her roof was ready to move from Indiana to Tennessee and start a new life.

When her husband, Brad, had seen the Chattanooga Chamber’s award-winning “CHA CHA Land” video showcasing why businesses and individuals should consider moving to Chattanooga, he was all in.

So was Gillenwater, a longtime chamber executive who’d spent countless hours researching the Chattanooga Chamber as part of the 2017 panel to select the national Chamber of the Year (which the city won). She’d dissected the local chamber in an attempt to learn what, if anything, elevated it above its very stiff competition – and what she found impressed her.

“Their ideas on where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do were fresh and innovative,” she says. “I was in awe of this team and what it had accomplished.”

Visits to Chattanooga only reinforced Gillenwater’s desire to move to the city. For starters, she and her husband had found it would be a good place to raise their family. People were exceedingly nice and the schools well-regarded. Not only that, but the local lakes and trails appealed to them, and they liked the city’s restaurants.

“When I was here for the interview, I asked everyone I met what they thought about Chattanooga,” Gillenwater recalls. “And everyone, from the servers at the restaurants to the workers at the hotel, raved about the city and told me I should move here. No one said anything negative.”

On paper, Gillenwater looked great. Two chambers – the Southwest Indiana Chapter and the Greater Bloomington (Indiana) Chapter – had been named National Chamber of the Year by the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives while under her leadership. And Gillenwater was still riding high from being named Executive of the Year by the Indiana Chamber Executives Association in 2017.

But she was concerned the very thing in her favor – her success as a Chamber executive in Indiana – would work against her. Chattanooga had already put itself on the national map with its economic development efforts, its groundbreaking advances in technology (10 gigabytes, anyone?) and its nutrient-rich philanthropic network. What could she, essentially an outsider, bring to the table?

Gillenwater thought back to her late father, who long before she became a Chamber executive encouraged her to pursue what was then her budding passion for economic development work, and to her grandmother, the most positive person she’d ever known, and tried to relax.

She had no reason to worry; the job was hers, as she eventually learned. When the Chamber announced her to the city last September, Chattanooga Chamber Chairman Larry Buie said he was pleased with the board’s selection.

“Our board is confident Christy will guide our Chamber and our business community to the next levels of accomplishment, and bring Chattanooga, Hamilton County and this region to new leading roles in the Southeast,” he said in a prepared statement.

No pressure, though.

Preparing for the future

The traits that would someday convince Buie and his fellow board members to choose Gillenwater were formed at a young age.

Gillenwater was born and raised in Cincinnati, where her father made a living as a small business owner and her mother was a social worker. Her parents provided a loving, nurturing home for Gillenwater and her younger brother, and made sure each child believed that he or she could be and do anything.

Gillenwater’s grandmother was another key figure in her early life. A strong, confident German woman, she set an example her granddaughter is still trying to live up to. “She never spoke a negative word,” Gillenwater remembers. “Someone would walk into a room, and she’d say something positive about them. I wish I could say I’ve always been the same way. I aspire to be more like her.”

Outside the home, the young Gillenwater developed a love for sports. Although soccer was her favorite, she enjoyed all things athletic – including track, which provided a pair of life lessons that have stuck with her through the years.

“We were at the state competition, and our lead runner [in the relay race] forgot the baton,” Gillenwater recalls. “I remember looking at her and wondering where it was.

“That taught me that you can be at the top of your game, and something can go wrong. But instead of letting that defeat you, you deal with it,” she adds. “I also learned that when you’re on a team, you stay unified and rally around each other, no matter what happens.”

College provided Gillenwater with the first nudge toward who she would become. She chose to attend the Indiana University, partly because she liked the school but also because it has an excellent business program. As the daughter of an entrepreneur, she felt drawn to that field.

But when Gillenwater learned at the end of her sophomore year that she’d been accepted into the college’s business school, she felt less than enthusiastic about her line of study.

As Gillenwater sat down with her father to talk about why, she told him about the school of public and environmental affairs, which had captured her interest.

“My dad was a mechanical engineer by trade, so I had to think through things ahead of time and then walk him through them,” Gillenwater explains. “When I told him I wasn’t connecting with business the way I had anticipated, and that I loved the course work in the other school, he told me he could see me doing that work.”

Bolstered by her father’s encouragement, Gillenwater immersed herself her classes and soaked up knowledge like a sponge. Then, during her senior year, the professors in one of her classes gave her a choice between taking an exam at the end of the semester or doing an internship and writing a paper about the experience.

Without realizing how pivotal her decision was, she picked the internship, knocked on the door of the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce and asked them if she could work there for free. The rest, as Gillenwater says, is history.

The internship, during which Gillenwater did a project focused on people who wanted to improve their skills in certain areas without going to college, set Gillenwater on a path she’s never left.

After graduating with a degree in public affairs, Gillenwater sent resumes to several Chambers and landed a position running one outside of Indianapolis – the Greater Greenfield Chamber of Commerce.

Although a small organization, the demands the job placed on Gillenwater were great, so when the Muncie-Delaware County Chamber of Commerce offered her a position as director of community and public policy, she accepted.

The next step on Gillenwater’s journey took her to the SBC (now AT&T), where she served as director of external affairs. In her role with the SBC, Gillenwater worked with nine counties in East Central and Central Indiana and served on the board of directors for several chamber and economic development organizations.

When a former boss from Muncie offered Gillenwater a front row seat in his effort to create a better ecosystem there for technology companies, she accepted. Her job title was a handful for the sign on her office door: vice president of technology advancement for the Muncie-Delaware County Economic Development Alliance.

Leading the Chamber

Gillenwater’s path eventually lead her back to the world of chambers when her boss during her intern days informed her that he would soon be retiring – and that she would be applying to take his place.

She did as instructed and landed the job: president and CEO of a chamber in a progressive, university-dominated community. Accustomed to pro-business, pro-growth cities - and brandishing a still mint condition Masters of Business Administration from Ball State University – she found economic development to be a challenge.

This season in Gillenwater’s career was a time of growth for her as she learned to lead the organization, but not all of the lessons were painless. Recalling one experience immediately saddens Gillenwater.

“The hardest day for me was when I learned Morgan, one of my mentees, had died in a car wreck,” she says, her eyes welling with tears.

Gillenwater had hired Morgan to be her administrative assistant but quickly saw she had a “brilliant mind” for public policy. She developed Morgan’s skills over time, and eventually, everyone from Indiana’s congressmen to the state’s governor was singing her praises.

Then came the Sunday she was killed. “It rocked my world,” Gillenwater acknowledges. “I had watched her grow into beautiful things.”

Gillenwater didn’t realize the impact she’d had on her friend until Morgan’s parents told how much she had meant to her. “You take the things you say to people for granted without ever realizing how much you’ve affected them,” she says. “That changed my approach to co-workers.”

Challenges and her painful loss aside, Gillenwater found she not only enjoyed the work, she had an almost innate talent for the responsibilities that fell on her shoulders, including creating an enriching team environment, working productively with volunteers and forming critical ties with elected officials.

So, when the opportunity to lead a chamber with more of a trajectory was presented to Gillenwater seven years later, she seized it. Although the Southwest Indiana Chamber “suffered from a lack of confidence and swagger,” Gillenwater helped the organization make great strides forward during her five years as its president and CEO.

This period was marked by another painful loss: that of Gillenwater’s father, who died of cancer. Not only did the family have to deal with his death, they had to manage the transition at his business, which was not easy since Gillenwater and her brother, who was in medical school, were both living out of town.

Although Gillenwater’s mother tried to assume the mantle of the business, which employed nearly three dozen workers, she didn’t have the same skill set as her late husband and has since shut it down.

This experience opened Gillenwater’s eyes even wider to the difficulties small businesses face. With most chamber memberships consisting largely of small businesses, it’s also an awakening that continues to inform Gillenwater’s work to this day.

The Southwest Indiana Chamber was Gillenwater’s last stop before Chattanooga. By that time, the career which had enticed her as a college student had her fully in its captivating grip.

“I had fallen in love with this industry – with being at the confluence of the business community, the nonprofit community, the philanthropic community and the elected leadership who do so much for our community,” she points out. “I had fallen in love with being in the very fabric of everything that makes a community tick. It’s an exciting place to be.”

Chattanooga bound

Although Gillenwater had spent months studying the Chattanooga Chamber as part of her research for the national award, her first face-to-face encounter with the group came on July 20, 2017, when she announced the organization as the winner.

A YouTube video shows Gillenwater congratulating the staff attending the ceremony in Nashville as members step onto the stage to accept the award. Little did she know she was shaking the hands of her future staff, or that she would succeed the man who gave the acceptance speech – Bill Kilbride – in two months.

But Gillenwater and the Chattanooga Chamber were a perfect fit. One could say it was as though the stars had aligned to make it happen, when actually the needs of the local chamber and Gillenwater’s skills snapped together like two adjoining puzzle pieces.

“This chamber’s perspective and its ideas on where it wants to go were a good fit with my background,” Gillenwater says. “A lot of what they were planning wasn’t new territory for me. There were strategies on which I was clear, particularly in the realms of public policy and economic development.”

Although Gillenwater wasn’t initially sure if the Chattanooga Chamber would hire someone from outside the community, she threw her hat into the ring because she says she believes, like her father and mother had taught her, she could be and do anything.

Coming down the pike

Gillenwater is an animated speaker. Energetic and enthusiastic, she says as much with her hands, expressions and body movements as she does with words. But if one wants to see the truly excitable side of Gillenwater, one needs only to ask what the Chattanooga Chamber has planned for the near – and not-so-near – future.

One topic of particular interest to Gillenwater is talent development and aligning future workers with the needs of local businesses now and in the years to come. As a member of Chattanooga 2.0, a group of education, business and community leaders aiming to ensure local students are successful in school and prepared for meaningful careers, the chamber is at the forefront of this effort.

Economic development will be another strong focus for the local chamber moving forward, Gillenwater adds. “Now that we’ve grown to a certain level and are gaining more interest, how do we align our infrastructure and assets with the industries that will be the most natural for us to grow and foster?” she asks. “Economic development is a key strength of this chamber, and we will continue to focus on that space and deliver a great service to our community.”

In a related but separate focus, Gillenwater wants to see Chattanooga take its acclaimed start-up scene to the next level. “I commend everyone who’s been a part of building the start-up ecosystem,” she says, “but we have some empty buildings and storefronts to fill.”

As Gillenwater leads the Chattanooga Chamber, she intends to maximize the use of her staff to better serve its 1,900 members businesses, which together represent about 80,000 local employees.

“You can never stop thinking about the people on your bus,” she notes, referring to the staff and volunteers at the chamber. “Is everyone in the right seat? Do they have the tools they need to be successful? I love the people we have on our bus; let’s just align our skills better.”

Family is Job 1

Although Gillenwater’s to-do list is longer than her resume, she and her husband moved to Chattanooga partly because they say they believe it would be a great place to raise a family.

At this time, that family consists of mom, dad, their 2- and 8-year-old sons, and Brad’s adult-age kids from a previous marriage. As a unit, they’re looking forward to hiking, eating out and “really experiencing the essence of the city.”

“We moved here when it was cold, so we haven’t taken advantage of all the elements of the community yet, but we will once it’s spring,” she explains.

Having children changed Gillenwater’s notions about what’s important in life. “I was a complete workaholic, and I didn’t have empathy for the people who had to balance work and home,” she says. “Having kids changed how I approach work.”

Speaking about family returns Gillenwater’s thoughts to her father, whom she misses tremendously. She holds tightly to him by continuing to regard his sage advice. The impact of the wisdom he passed on to her can be seen in everything she does.

“He always told me to find my passion, and I’d never work another day my life. I’ve done that, thanks to him,” she adds. “The second thing he always said to me was be the best. Whatever I choose to be, he said to go at it as hard as I could.”

Looking at what Gillenwater has accomplished, and the work she stands poised to do in Chattanooga, one can assume Gillenwater’s father would be nothing but proud.