A century after its founding, the Georgia Chamber continues to be a strong voice for the state’s economic interests.
Lindsay Thomas says he remembers the first time he became aware of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s existence. It was early 1983 and Thomas, then a Wayne County banker, had just been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
A contingent of state business leaders trekked to Washington, D.C., exclusively to visit with Thomas and his Georgia colleagues at the Capitol. They were there to ensure that ample consideration was given to the state’s businesses and industries as federal legislators chewed over policy and appropriations.
Thomas later learned that the organization has been advocating on behalf of Georgia’s economic interests since 16 businessmen got together in 1915 and formed what would become the Georgia Chamber.
After a 10-year stint in Congress and helping to lead the Atlanta Olympics, Thomas served as the chamber’s president and CEO from 1996 to 2002.
“I was fresh off the farm and had never served elective office and had just gotten to Washington, and it was explained to me that the Georgia Chamber was coming,” Thomas says of the organization, which is celebrating its centennial this year. “I’ll never forget walking into that big banquet room and seeing all of those people from Georgia, including some of the guys I had run against when I ran for Congress. It was like a homecoming.”
Particularly inspiring were the diversity of the group and the members’ united front to enhance Georgia commerce.
“When I saw that they represented every aspect of business in Georgia – from rural to suburban, agriculture to tourism, military to civilian, you name it, and they had one voice, I was impressed,” he says. “It really helped me as I was becoming aware of what a diverse state we were and how diverse our economic interests are.”
Thus, Thomas was sold on the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. In six-plus years under his leadership, the organization grew from 1,800 to 3,100 members.
“Anything that lasts for 100 years has got to have some solid footing and a solid foundation,” he says.
Track Record of Success
The chamber celebrated its centennial on April 25, with a black-tie gala at the state Capitol featuring a performance by Christian music superstar Amy Grant, an Augusta native. The celebration continues with an August reception in Macon in conjunction with the organization’s annual Congressional luncheon, and an October reception at the site of the organization’s first board meeting in Savannah.
A 100th-anniversary documentary film debuted at the gala and will be shown at Power Lunch Series stops around the state this year.
“After 100 years, the Georgia Chamber is still relevant, working for the business community and the state of Georgia,” says Paul Bowers, the organization’s 2015 chair and chairman, president and CEO of Georgia Power. “We want people to recognize and honor that – and now we’ve got to make sure we plan for the next 100 years.”
An excerpt from the charter for incorporation filed at the first Georgia Manufacturers Association meeting, held in Macon, reads that the organization that would become the Georgia Chamber was formed “to promote the general welfare of productive industry in the state; to advocate a public safety policy favorable to the development of such industries and oppose propositions that would tend to restrain such development; [and] to create a medium that would facilitate the exchange of information relating to matters of mutual interest.”
While what is known today as the Georgia Chamber of Commerce has been through many evolutions over a century, its founding mission is intact and its impact is more significant than ever, says Bowers.
“I think the chamber’s track record of success and working with local chambers is why the chamber is still here and why it will still be here 100 years from now,” he says.
The organization became the Associated Industries of Georgia in 1939 and the Georgia Business and Industry Association in 1968. That group and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, which was formed in 1930 and revived in 1950, were consolidated in 1983 to form the Business Council of Georgia.
In 1992, the organization rebranded and reinvigorated itself as the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. In doing so, the advocacy group revived the goals from the visionaries who founded the organization.
The chamber now has more than 25,000 members, who the chamber prefers to call “investors.” The membership represents more than 500 types of businesses.
“We are still focused on the same critical things as we always have been: transportation, economic development, growing business and serving as a watchdog and lead advocate for the entire chamber membership,” says Chris Clark, the chamber’s current president and CEO. “What’s allowed us to do that for 100 years is strong leadership, companies that have invested in the organization, and members who care about the future of Georgia.”
Pillars of Advocacy
Anecdotal evidence of the Georgia Chamber’s momentous impact through the years is abundant. Indeed, the state’s largest advocacy agency has influenced far-reaching legislative and regulatory decisions, including the HOPE Scholarship, the Savannah Harbor deepening, healthcare cost management, protection of Georgia’s right-to-work status, and lower energy and water costs.
In 1916, the organization concluded that a strong economy is dependent upon the skills and talents of an educated and well-trained workforce, and its members agreed to advocate for statewide vocational training. Ninety-nine years later, that endeavor continues in an expanded role – addressing needs ranging from early education to training laid-off workers – through the efforts of the Georgia Chamber’s Education and Workforce Development Committee.
The Georgia Chamber has always had a key role in economic development by sharing the stories of Georgia’s businesses and supporting policies and legislation to make the state more attractive for job creation and investment.
Its signature economic development program – the Red Carpet Tour, which has been inviting business leaders from around the world to Georgia since 1959 – is even trademarked. Leaders tour the state learning about the advantages of doing business in Georgia and then take in the ultimate advantage when they attend the Masters.
Thomas says that during his first six months as chamber CEO, he toured the state, learning what he could about the state’s business assets and needs.
“I had one guy say, ‘You need to get rid of the Red Carpet Tour. That thing is a dinosaur,’” Thomas says. “I went on the tour, saw the economic outreach of the program, saw the people who came to the Masters and invested in Georgia and quickly decided that this was no dinosaur. The Red Carpet Tour was and still is very important to the state.”
The Georgia Chamber’s efforts over the years have a common denominator: increasing the state’s economic competitiveness. In pursuing its objectives, the organization’s forte has continually been its effectiveness working with elected officials and local chambers, support of local chambers in Georgia’s 159 counties and ability to form partnerships that produce successful results, Thomas says.
“I know of no better source to help guide a decision that is statewide in concept and basic to the business community than the Georgia Chamber,” he says. “In Congress, I always knew where the chamber was in terms of workers and industry, and that if I listened to the chamber, I’d have pretty good footing because all of the competing voices were coming together.”
As the Georgia General Assembly labored this winter over increasing funding for transportation, legislators had already received mounds of data and perspective from the Georgia Chamber.
“What we do when we go around the state is we listen to members, we survey, we cull … and when we see that there is a clear consensus behind an action, we make that a priority,” Clark says. “It’s our job and responsibility to get the voices of small business and large companies in front of those legislators, and then give them support and backing when they need to make tough choices.”
The Georgia Chamber has been on the transportation mantra since at least 1914, when – according to meeting minutes – the organization concluded that “prosperity in every channel is based primarily upon transportation facilities.”
Over the decades, the chamber supported funding for railroads, highway development and harbor expansion, which pinnacled in 2014 when the Port of Savannah officially received the state and federal funding it needed to be deepened.
“There’s nothing in Georgia that has happened just because of the business community and nothing that’s happened just because of government. It’s a unique partnership,” Clark says.
That’s where the Georgia Chamber comes in.
As they commemorate the organization’s centennial, the Georgia Chamber’s leaders are simultaneously focused on the future.
In conjunction with the 100th anniversary, the chamber and the University of Georgia’s J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development are embarking on a new program to address workforce gaps such as the need for soft skills and communications training.
GeorgiaLEADS will work with community leaders to tailor programs, including youth development, to meet the needs of individual communities and strengthen local workforce development efforts. The program’s thrust is the belief that leadership is among the key components to economic success, Clark says.
“The idea is that there’s no one-size-fits all answer,” he says. “Every community is unique, and every region is unique. It’s a long-term commitment for us to do a better job of growing the economy.”