Jackson — A record crowd of 1,100 people gathered for the Mississippi Economic Council’s (MEC’s) annual luncheon. Using the theme, “Mississippi Rebounding,” rebuilding from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was on everyone’s mind.
Speakers reminded the group of business and professional leaders of the abundant opportunity this disaster leaves in its wake.
Two native sons, Rickey Mathews and Clarence Otis Jr., were the keynote speakers, encouraging MEC members to lead the state to be the best it can be.
Mathews, publisher of The Sun Herald in Biloxi and vice chair of the Governor’s Commission on Recovery, is also chairing the tourism committee developed by that commission. Twenty-three years ago he began as a summer advertising and circulation intern at the daily newspaper, which was recently awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for its leadership and coverage of the hurricane.
“We were on a roll before Katrina,” Mathews said of the Gulf Coast, “and now we must rebuild. One thing the hurricane delivered is a lesson about human nature and the power of human nature; the resiliency of people.”
Mathews showed slides of coastal scenes before and after the storm, and praised the leadership of Gov. Haley Barbour whom he described as “a man on a mission.”
Otis was introduced by former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Rueben Anderson, who said the chairman and CEO of Darden Restaurants feels at home in Mississippi. Otis, who was born in Vicksburg, recognized a large contingent of family members still living in the state.
Now the top executive of the restaurant company that operates 1,400 casual dining restaurants in North America, Otis’ first job in the industry was at age 17 as a $3.50 per hour server. He is responsible for 150,000 employees who serve more than 300 million meals annually, and is one of seven African-Americans who is the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation.
He commended the MEC, saying, “You took what could have been one of Mississippi’s darkest hours and made it the finest hour. You are creating the right culture and that’s near and dear to me.”
The right culture, he said, is the single most important reason Darden Restaurants has grown from one Red Lobster to more than 1,400 restaurants today. Darden welcomed diversity in guests and employees from the beginning at a time many were struggling with those issues.
v“It’s a business imperative at Darden. We support a culture that any job is open to anyone,” he said. “Early in my career there I learned the power of inquisitiveness and that assumptions are the opposite of that.”
Otis told the group that 100% of one day’s dining proceeds and the proceeds from a Darden-sponsored gospel program have been donated to hurricane relief in Mississippi and Louisiana. To date, more than $1.5 million has been directed to the two states.
He ended his remarks with an encouraging quote from Nobel Prize winning Mississippi author William Faulkner who said, “Try to be better than yourself.” He then congratulated the MEC on the success of transforming the culture of the state.
“We see more clearly than ever how important it is to have big dreams,” he added. “We knew at Darden we wouldn’t realize dreams just by steady growth. We pioneered casual dining. It was less about that than about pioneering new trends.”
Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck briefly addressed the crowd and called for a minute of silence to honor the late state Sen. Bunky Huggins who passed away the morning of the luncheon.
Gov. Haley Barbour praised the MEC for its leadership in forming Momentum Mississippi. “I was in Greenwood yesterday for the opening of Raytech and that wouldn’t have happened without Momentum Mississippi,” he said.
He went on to challenge the group to accept the opportunities presented by Hurricane Katrina. “We’re all in this together. It wasn’t just a calamity for the Coast but the Coast took the brunt of the disaster,” he said. “But, wherever you live, this is your opportunity; if you’ve got ‘MS’ in front of your zip code.”
In his final address as MEC chairman, James Threadgill said Katrina changed the MEC and that priorities changed overnight. “The membership rallied and stepped up to the plate,” he said.
The BancorpSouth Bank vice chairman noted the MEC’s more diversified base. There are 7,100 active members representing 1,400 companies in 2,400 locations with 70% of the membership outside the metro area.
“We’ve made a concerted effort to make our table rounder and more inclusive,” he said. “We all agree on solutions to move Mississippi forward from Gulfport to Hernando.”
He passed the chairmanship on to Tom Gresham of Indianola. Gresham, chairman of Double Quick Inc., follows his dad, Bill Gresham, as MEC chair, a first in the organization’s history.
“Our job is to keep the volunteers motivated and the progression of leadership keeps our sights focused toward making a better state,” Tom Gresham said. “Our goal is to shrink the miles that separate us. Mississippi is rebounding thanks to the work of many leaders.”
Before the luncheon began, MEC members and guests learned how to use the state’s new touch screen voting machines. Secretary of State Eric Clark said 77 counties are taking the machines and that training is going well. Some 350 training sessions have been held and demonstrations are available for clubs and organizations of all kinds.
“The machines will get a statewide tryout in the June 6 primary,” he said. “That’s a good time to test them because there will be a small turnout for that election.”
Clark announced winners of Mississippi favorites from votes cast by those attending the luncheon: author, John Grisham; sports figure, Archie Manning narrowly over Brett Favre; music performer, Elvis Presley narrowly over B.B. King; food, fried catfish in a runaway vote; television personality, Morgan Freeman in a runaway vote; state park, Lefluer’s Bluff narrowly over Paul B. Johnson State Park; and event, the state fair narrowly over the Neshoba County Fair.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.