The Mississippi Economic Council (MEC) is the face of business, acting as a statewide chamber of commerce. And the face of MEC is president and CEO Blake Wilson, who will celebrate 15 years with MEC in January.
“Blake is like the Eveready bunny on speed when it comes to the amount of energy he expends on MEC activities,” said Jerry Host, president and CEO, Trustmark National Bank and current chair of MEC board of directors. “Blake knows more people in this state, especially business people, than anyone I’ve ever met. He has an incredible mind and remarkable memory for people. He can remember what people’s businesses are, and the involvement they have in the community in terms of economic development. He is an engaging person who can have a conversation about any topic. He is very versatile.”
MEC has three major statewide meetings each year that attract thousands of people. It is a pretty sure bet that Wilson knows more of these MEC members than anyone else at these gatherings such as Hobnob, which attracted 1,600 participants this year.
Host gets a memo from Wilson every Monday that describes what he and his staff did the previous week, and what they are planning the next week. Sometimes it takes three pages to describe all that.
“Blake is very inclusive in his approach to bringing people together from all areas of the state around this one concept of how do we improve the economy, how do we attract businesses here, and how do we incorporate a higher quality of life,” Host said. “And that is a big part of the Blueprint Mississippi design incorporating all aspects necessary to attract businesses here.”
Wilson grew up in a state with an even smaller population than Mississippi —Delaware — where he spent nine years as a newspaper reporter (starting at age 17) and editor and then 10 years with the Delaware Chamber of Commerce and before going to work for the Chamber of Commerce in Florida. He says both experiences — working in a small state like Delaware and then a rapidly growing, large state like Florida — helped him prepare for his present job.
“I worked for a really great person in Florida, Frank Ryll,” Wilson said. “His secret was really working with the volunteers, and remembering always it was a volunteer’s organization. You can always go in new directions. You can put your stamp on it. But you have to honor the history and heritage of the organization.”
The “stamp” Wilson has put on the MEC is using technology as a “secret weapon” to provide connections for members without them always having to travel to Jackson for meetings. MEC uses web conferencing to help people attend meetings such as a recent presentation by Brent Christiansen, director of the Mississippi Development Authority, “Mississippi’s Direction for Job Creation Success.” MEC members can participate at the time of the web conference, or listen to it later on the MEC website. MEC also does a lot of conference calls.
“We use web technology better than most chambers in the country,” Wilson said. “When I came here I saw the challenges of Mississippi with a small population spread over a huge geography. Miles get in the way. With the press of modern business, people don’t have time to travel all the time to meetings. We use web meetings and conference calls to do that. We have created an electronic conference table so MEC members can participate without leaving their desks. This gives them a chance to have input without having to spend a half day driving to Jackson for an hour or two meeting, and then a half day driving back home. If you only include people who have the time to do that, you won’t get a broad point of view. We create a lot larger table, and a lot rounder table. We also use a lot of e-mail communication looking for feedback.”
Another effort that increases membership involvement is the MEC “roadshows” where a larger and a smaller community in a region of the state are selected for meetings that solicit feedback from members. Results of polling during the meeting are tabulated along with written feedback that is then shared with the MEC leadership.
“We go out to communities where we reach people who will never come to Jackson,” he said. “We have a pretty clear view of where this membership is going. Our members are not always 100 percent in agreement. But we get feedback. Are we on the right track? Are we dealing with the issues?”
Going out on the road has really changed the model, and made MEC a statewide organization instead of one primarily based in Jackson.
“What a cool thing,” Wilson said. “People get to really see what is going on. They love it. This is a very rural state. Mississippi is not about the world according to Jackson.”
When asked where his office is, Wilson sometimes tells people, “in my car.” He has to travel a lot to make this inclusive model work. But you won’t hear him complaining.
“It is not a chore at all getting out and meeting with people,” he said. “It is invigorating. One of the advantages of Mississippi is that people know each other. There are a lot of interconnections. People have really deep relationships.”
Blake and his wife, Ann, who teaches music in the Rankin County School District, have three grown children.
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