Developers learn lessons from mentors

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Published: December 8,2008

A lot of what can be learned about being a successful economic developer can’t be found, necessarily, in a textbook. So economic developers often rely on mentors in order to learn the ropes.

Focusing on project outcomes is an important skill David P. Rumbarger, president/CEO, Community Development Foundation (CDF), Tupelo, learned from mentor William K. (Bill) Ray, who was hospital administrator for the Wesley Methodist Hospital in Hattiesburg and chairman of the Area Development Partnership (ADP) when Rumbarger met him in 1990. Ray is now the executive director for the Wesley Foundation.

“He showed me how to focus on project outcomes – the Hattiesburg Convention Center and industrial park expansion,” Rumbarger said. “If you were going to do it, ‘do it right with the right motives’ and press on to the goal with relentless perseverance and hard work. Bill Ray is a charismatic leader who works as hard at play as he does in his professional life, and is a great example for me. He is a devoted family and community man who has changed the face of that Southeast Mississippi community forever.”

During his time in the 1990’s in Hattiesburg, Rumbarger got a chance to get to know Aubrey B. Patterson, chairman of BancorpSouth. In 2000, Patterson called Rumbarger looking for a replacement to longtime and very successful CDF CEO Harry A. Martin, a post Rumbarger later accepted.

“Aubrey Patterson has taught me that anything good takes patience and the right talented people,” Rumbarger said. “He teaches perseverance and that leaders must be brave to follow their visions to conclusions. They must be smart to craft legitimate and reasonable arguments, but realistic to what can be accomplished. In the many struggles to bring the Wellspring Project to a successful point, he encouraged me to make it work.”

Patterson said, “We all know it is critical to the region’s and the state’s success. It needs to be your highest priority.” Later Toyota was attracted to build a manufacturing facility on the Wellspring site.

Professional economic developers who have had a big impact on Rumbarger include Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) directors Mac Holiday, Jimmy Heidel and Gray Swoope. Another is planning and development leader Randy Kelley.

“True mentors not only expect you to do your best, but they exemplify what the best can be in themselves,” Rumbarger said. “That is why I believe they are influential in the lives they touch.”

Mitch Stennett, president of the Economic Development Authority of Jones County, has had more than one mentor at various stages in his life.

“The first one was the man who hired me on my first economic development job,” Stennett said. “That was Harry Martin, then the president of the CDF in Tupelo. He taught me the work ethic that demands “can-to-can’t” hours when a project has to be done in a timely manner, as well as the detail-oriented work that must be accomplished when trying to put a project together. He also taught me that community development must be done well before economic development can happen.”

Stennett said other mentors gave him good advice on (a) how to handle politics, (b) how to handle prospects, (c) how to effectively run a chamber of commerce organization, (d) how to administer an economic/community development program and (e) how to network and mentor others in the profession.

“Respectively, they were (a) Jim Miller, former head of the Industrial Division of the MDA (now retired), and Jack Rhodes, former head of the Electric Power Associations of Mississippi’s Economic Development division; (b) Bill Barrett, former executive director of the North Mississippi Industrial Development Association (now retired); (c) Bill Johnson, former executive director of the Meridian Chamber of Commerce (now retired); (d) Bill Hackett, former executive director of both the State of Mississippi and the State of Louisiana economic development agencies, as well as the former executive director of the Shreveport Chamber of Commerce; and (e) Robert Ingram, president of the Baldwin County (Ala.) Economic Development Alliance.

“I continue to turn to Robert Ingram for advice when I need it,” Stennis said.

Duane O’Neill, president/CEO, Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership, said those who have had the most impact on his professional career are his father, Alfred O’Neill, and Touché Terrones.

“My dad instilled the strong work ethic that still drives me today,” O’Neill said. “He also was a person of unquestioned integrity, and I learned how that character trait enabled him to be a true successful statesman and bring people on opposing sides of an issue together. If I had missed that early life lesson on integrity, my career in a people-oriented business would have been short-lived.”

Touché was a colleague from a larger neighboring city. When O’Neill was in his early 20s and accepted his first job as a chamber executive, Touché — 25 years older than O’Neill — came from the “big city” over to introduce himself.

“He wasted no time in sharing his beliefs,” O’Neill recalls. “His rule was that the least important word in our vocabulary is ‘I,’ and the most important is ‘we.’ He reached out to work with someone new, representing a small community that was outside his domain. He exhibited regionalism before we even knew what it was. For the past 30 years, I have lived regionalism. This, and those couple of small words from Touché, have defined the basic philosophy by which I strive to live and work each day.”

Angeline Godwin, president, Area Development Partnership, Hattiesburg, said her parents, Harold and Jerlon Godwin, had the most impact on her career.

“Growing up on a family-owned farm in addition to a family-owned business, I learned some invaluable lessons that continue to serve me well, especially in the work of economic development,” Godwin said. “In turning a Depression-era dirt farm into a productive operation, and a cinder-block building with a gas pump into a thriving community store, my parents took nothing and built something, over and over again. Daddy took his mechanical knowledge from fixing a tractor to doing Corps of Engineering work in the National Guard. Mother took her genius in the kitchen to a career as a child nutritionist.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at 4becky@cox.net.

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