Beverly Robertson came to the Greater Memphis Chamber under the most tragic circumstances. Last October, she was asked to take the reins of the organization on an interim basis after Phil Trenary, the previous leader, was shot and killed on a Downtown street.
She came in to a shattered Chamber that was still grieving and yet having to continue its work. Robertson talked to everyone on the staff and assured them that the mission was still on. In April, the Chamber named her permanent CEO.
Robertson is a native Memphian. She worked for 19 years at Holiday Inn Worldwide. Later, she was asked to be the National Civil Rights Museum’s interim executive director and, ultimately, spent 17 years in the position. During her tenure there, she raised more than $43 million.
Her existence now is focused on economic development in Memphis and she is pursuing it with the singular determination that she brought to the NCRM. To get as close as possible to making the most of her goal, she is practicing the fine art of collaboration. She wants partnering and unity of purpose in the big picture.
Her thoughts come out rapidly. “What I’m really happy about is that the regional alliance was established between city government, county government, the Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE), and the Chamber, so it’s a partnership.”
Crucial to that is having clearly stated roles and responsibilities. The Chamber, for example, is responsible for working with site planners and other businesses to identify companies interested in coming to Memphis and helping existing businesses expand their marketplace.
“EDGE is actually the group that provides the incentives and the tax abatements based on specific and direct conversations with those businesses that are interested in coming,” she says. “And that is a huge, wonderful step forward. It used to be that everyone was pretty much siloed in their own specific areas, and talked occasionally, but now we will be talking three, four, five times a year, or more, and we’ll be talking about the development and execution of the strategy that has been established for us to be the attractors, and them to be those who close the deal by adding the incentives, and tax abatement.”
Robertson likes to say it’s about singing off the same hymn sheet since the goals are all the same. To hear her talk, she is a formidable choir director. And one of her favorite hymns is about workforce development.
“We all want to attract businesses that will help to boost employment in the marketplace,” she says, “and we actually need jobs that are from all sectors of the industry, because we have people out in the marketplace that we’re trying to embrace, and get back engaged in the marketplace. They’ll need to get some training, and for that we are creating a workforce summit in October that will allow us to be able to engage those who have been disengaged in the marketplace either because they are youth, ex-offenders, veterans, or they just don’t have the proper technical training and expertise to be able to understand what they don’t know.”
Then the idea is to connect them to training programs so they can get into existing job openings.
“If we can do this in a major way, then what we will help to do is reduce crime, and reduce poverty, and give people hope and employment,” she says.
There has long been an acknowledgement of having job vacancies without sufficient qualified candidates. Robertson says, “I think the problem isn’t that there hasn’t been interest and will. We’ve now got a concrete strategy, and you have to build a strategy that allows you to coalesce the right partnerships. You’ve got to bring the people who are responsible for executing training together. You’ve got to bring the people who are responsible for opportunity youth together. You’ve got to bring the people that are responsible, or that do programming for ex-cons, and those who did programming for veterans together to (1) identify the gaps, (2) build plans and determine how they can scale those plans, and (3) have metrics that are associated with their performance, and (4) you’ve got to inspect what you expect. If you don’t do those things, you can’t move the needle.”
Robertson says the Chamber will be doing some things differently in coming years. “You’ll be seeing some of those and hearing about some of those because I think they’re essential to meeting the demands of the businesses that are in the marketplace,” she says. “I just read a story in the Wall Street Journal that said that the unemployment rate in America is 5.3 percent, the lowest it’s been in 50 years, and it further went on to state that businesses across this country are having difficulty engaging those people who have been on the sidelines. We have a strategy for that. We know what we need to do to engage them, and you know, we’re going to involve some unconventional players as a part of our partnerships.”
Robertson puts a premium on getting brainpower together to focus on issues and to work toward a common purpose, even where there is reluctance.
“People will work together if they have a reason to,” she says, “because a lot of times organizations don’t work together because they don’t want to give away any of their trade secrets, and they don’t want individuals to necessarily discover who their funders are. Well, I don’t want them to worry about funding with this summit. This is just the beginning of this whole workforce issue. This is an ongoing thing that we’re going to do; we’re not going to lose interest or focus.”
Crucial to her vision is accountability. “If the Chamber raises the money, then we expect performance against metrics, and we will evaluate, and make people accountable,” she says. “If they’re not, there have to be consequences for that. So, that’s sort of a different kind of language; that’s a different type of strategy that I don’t think the Chamber has had in the past. They certainly have had the will, and they’ve certainly done some things, but we’re talking about a comprehensive strategy that coalesces the players in all these respective spaces.”
Robertson says the approach should make participation and results more effective. “We are not service providers, we are the conveners. Assuming that we raise the amount of money we know we can raise, then if you’re going to scale up, and you’re going to meet the expectations, and the metrics that you define, then we can fund your next phase.”
She is optimistic about her goals and that is, in part, because the situation in Memphis allows so many doors to be open, in particular the younger people in the workforce.
“We are attracting the creative class of young people who really provide the energy, and the impetus to move the city in ways that the city has not been moved before,” she says. “They have a totally different perspective of business and entrepreneurship, and they are individuals who have grown up using technology efficiently and effectively. Technology is changing the world and they’re on the leading edge of that, and I think it is important for us to embrace them, engage them, and understand how they like to operate. I mean, if you just look at the way that we as baby boomers bank traditionally, millennials don’t bank that way, they don’t even go into banks anymore. They bank on their phone, they pay their bills on their phone, you know, they look for the best interest rates. So, it’s not as much of a loyalty associated with decisions like that, but you have got to provide excellent service. You’ve gotta give them the best bang for their buck. So, they think differently, and I think having that kind of energy in the city makes Memphis prime for being the next ‘It’ city in Tennessee.”
Robertson cites the list of usual cultural amenities that Memphis has, but she particularly points to something the city has that not every municipality can claim: the four R’s.
“What we have as assets for business is road, river, rail, and runway. All of that comes together beautifully in Memphis, Tennessee. We’re not only a good city, but a great city, and what I think needs to happen is Memphians need to change their narrative. Those who talk about what Memphis looked like 20 years ago need to open their eyes, and see the reality of where we are now, and what we’re doing now, and the kind of energy and dynamism that is in play now in Memphis, Tennessee.”
And with all that happening, what is Robertson’s vision of the next few years?
“I already have developed a plan for the Chamber to be not only the thought leader of the Southeast, but one of the strongest Chambers in the nation,” she says, “and that’s based on some of the plans that we’re putting in place and executing right now. Certainly I see the Chamber focusing on strengthening our relationships and the work of engagement with our Chamber members, our Chairman’s Circle, and the other membership levels at the Chamber, the ambassadors, and the governors. And we are strengthening those relationships, getting them much more engaged in the work of the Chamber, taking them to Nashville, and promoting a healthy business environment.
“We are putting them on task forces, and on committees that allow us to have deeper dives into subjects that are really important to the Chamber, whether it’s economic development, or public policy, or workforce development, or even other areas involving and associated with education, because there are lots of things that we need to be doing as it relates to that kind of space. We have something to say when we work with the Downtown Commission on public safety, making sure businesses take necessary precautions, and identify the gaps that may exist so that we can also understand, and deal with that as well.”
With that plan, she sees a vibrant future for the city. “I would say that Memphis will become the number-one city in the next five, six years in the state of Tennessee, and that’s because we are beginning to capitalize on the things that are of value to Tennessee,” she says. “We don’t have to apologize to anyone, because we have a strong minority population, African American population, or growing other minorities in the country. In fact, this is the trend for the United States. If you look 20 or 30 years down the road, according to Pew Research, we are going to be a country of minorities. There will be no majority population. So, Memphis is already on that path, and as it relates to that, the Chamber is going to bring thought leaders into Memphis, both national and global thought leaders, because I don’t want the business community to be surprised by the trends that they will see. I don’t want us to be behind the eight ball as Detroit was in the automotive industry. I want us to know right now what is coming from a business standpoint, so that if businesses need to adjust their business model, they can begin to think about that now. If you’re going to be serving a population that is significantly different from who you serve today, you need to know that right now.
“If technology and digitalization is going to change the way you operate, you need to know it right now, and you need to look at your business model, and see if you need to adjust your business model in some ways that will allow you to be able to capture incremental market areas, individuals, consumers, or businesses with whom you do business with.”
And the role of public relations is one that Robertson sees as necessary and dynamic. “We’re going to take the Chamber to the streets in Memphis,” she says, “because there are too many people that don’t know the value of the Chamber, and what the Chamber does. That’s important because when we start talking about incentives, and tax abatements for business, people think that the city and county have a pot of money that they’re holding back to give to the Chamber to give to business to allow them to come, and they feel that that money could be redeployed. That’s not what this is about. That’s not what abatements and incentives are designed to do, and I think that people lose sight of the fact that we have neighbors to the west and to the south who have infrastructure, facilities, and are giving away everything to attract business to their marketplaces. So, we’ve got to remain competitive, and individuals who are our elected officials, and consumers who are in the marketplace who are citizens ought to know, and be aware of that. So, when we take it to the streets, we’re going to take reps from city government, county government, because there are grant programs that can help boost economic development in neighborhoods that neighborhoods don’t know. Why? We haven’t told them.”
Again, Robertson is reaching out to bring in people and organizations to make breakthroughs. “Having the City of Memphis at the table can promote economic development at the grassroots level,” she says, “because there’s one thing for sure, if we are driving economic development Downtown and in Midtown, a lot of times people at the grassroots level can’t feel that, don’t know that, don’t see that, don’t receive the residual benefit of that. They’ve got to feel it too, and in order for them to feel it, and to really understand it at a different level, we’ve got to be talking to them.”
There are further areas that Robertson sees as requiring the Chamber’s attention even as it reaches out to the broader community and works to develop new revenue streams to enable the goals. Those include increased attention to small and Minority & Women-Owned Business Enterprise businesses.
Meanwhile, she talks up some recent corporate moves that she says are bringing benefits to various areas in the city, including Mimeo (on-demand digital printing) relocating its headquarters from New York to Memphis near Parkway Village, Indigo AG (agriculture tech) relocating its headquarters for North American commercial operations to Downtown, FedEx Logistics also moving Downtown, and JNJ Express (transportation) putting its headquarters in the old Mall of Memphis complex.
“Memphis is really moving,” she says, “and evidence of that can be seen with all of the development that is Downtown that now is beginning to move out into some of the other pockets where there is land available that needs to be redeveloped. I’m pleased with what I have seen so far, and to see the presence of a number of developers from Nashville who are now developing in Memphis. It speaks volumes for how they feel about Memphis as a strong marketplace.”