Pandemic prompts Metro Atlanta Chamber to rethink growth strategy

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

New plan focuses on green technologies, supporting skilled workforces and collaboration between region’s businesses and institutions

The Metro Atlanta Chamber, since before the Civil War a convener of civic and business muscle that also helps recruit jobs to the region, tweaks its strategy every few years, often to focus on emerging industries or to address issues like crumbling infrastructure or labor gaps.

Then came COVID-19, destabilizing the office market, disrupting education and causing upheaval throughout the economy. The turmoil prompted Katie Kirkpatrick, a longtime chamber executive who took over as CEO just months into the pandemic, to rethink operations.

How should it help make metro Atlanta attractive to startups, corporations, workers and future innovators?

“With the shift the world has seen, we needed to just start from scratch,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s editorial board last month.

The chamber asked Boston Consulting Group this year to revise its nearly 10-year-old, Great Recession-era strategic vision, into one geared for promoting and growing a region that faces new challenges — as well as opportunities.

The former strategy aimed at digging out from recession, and coupled with the state, helped land headquarters from PulteGroup and Norfolk Southern, and outposts from Google, Microsoft and other tech giants interested in the region’s diverse talent pool.

The new strategy, which Boston Consulting Group conducted for free over six months, has familiar components: broadening the region’s economy, cultivating skilled workers, fostering the region’s racially and culturally diverse workforce and startup base and keeping talent from leaving Georgia.

The chamber will continue to recruit and grow several clusters, including financial technology, life sciences, advanced manufacturing and supply chains.

Green technology — specifically electric vehicles — is being added to the list.

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Georgia currently sits at record-low unemployment. Though the region faces high inflation and an uncertain economy, the state has emerged as a leader in the electric vehicle industry through its recruitments of future Rivian and Hyundai Motor Group EV factories that will bring thousands of jobs and spinoff businesses.

“The difference between 2013 and today is we’re not coming out of the Great Recession,” Kirkpatrick said. “We’ve certainly had a shock to the market, but it’s not like it was in the recession.”

‘Keep doing what works’

From its role settling streetcar strikes in the 1920s, to pushing lawmakers to remove a Confederate battle emblem from the state flag in the late 1990s and 2000s, to helping save Grady Memorial Hospital, the business group wields outsize influence across its 29-county footprint. The chamber also had a hand in defending Georgia in the tri-state water wars.

Still, the chamber also has had some notable stumbles, such as soft-pedaling the Atlanta schools cheating scandal and pushing a regional transportation tax a decade ago that voters rejected.

But the group has proven resilient, bouncing back to help support a successful overhaul of the state’s gas tax that’s plugged billions into roads and bridges and a MARTA sales tax that will expand the region’s rapid transit system. The chamber works closely with Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s administration as well as Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, a Democrat.

On many controversial issues, chamber leadership has generally worked behind the scenes.

“Are we louder or more brash? I don’t think so,” Kirkpatrick said of the chamber’s lobbying efforts. “We just keep doing what works, which is presenting facts, building coalitions and working in partnership with our elected officials.”

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But like leaders within state and city government, Kirkpatrick said the chamber was caught off-guard by the shocking decision of Wellstar Health System, a chamber member, to close Atlanta Medical Center.

“I’ll be very clear, we were not given a heads up,” she said.

She said the fallout prompted calls with hospital CEOs across metro Atlanta. Kirkpatrick said it’s too soon to tell if Atlanta Medical Center’s closure, which leaves Grady as the region’s only Level One trauma center, will hurt recruitment of companies or events.

Atlanta’s business community has been largely silent on reproductive rights since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, allowing Georgia’s strict 2019 abortion law to take effect. But Kirkpatrick said a slow down in jobs and investment has not yet been seen in the data.

“Atlanta and Georgia have so many attractive assets that go beyond a policy decision either at the state or federal level,” Kirkpatrick said. “I think it’s fair to say that companies make decisions on a wide range of data points.”

‘A bowl of magic pixie dust’

At an Oct. 11 event kicking off the chamber’s “Atlanta Innovation Week,” a celebration of the region’s startups that stretches across 17 days, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan said the chamber’s work can seem like magic to those not in the know.

“Every time, we just assume that all the economic development just happens,” Duncan said. “You just got a bowl of magic pixie dust and you make all these people love on us from around the world, so thank you for what you guys do.”

Dickens said the chamber “is what sells the city.”

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

The chamber, which has an annual budget of about $15 million, doesn’t release its member numbers. But it touts that its member companies represent more than 1 million employees in Georgia, which Kirkpatrick said helps fuel the chamber’s three main strategic pillars: economy, talent and community.

“If you don’t have a strong community, you’re not going to have a strong economy, and you’re not going to have a strong talent pool,” she told the AJC’s editorial board. “They’re interwoven.”

In surveys for the new strategic plan, dozens of members said labor and talent were consistently listed as the top issues impacting business in Georgia.

The need for tech-savvy workers in traditionally blue-collar sectors hits across industries, said Paul Donahue, CEO and chairman of Genuine Parts and 2023 chamber chair. He said about 10% of his company’s openings in Atlanta are related to information technology, which he said is a common workforce gap.

Kirkpatrick said the chamber will turn its attention to connecting Georgia’s education system, to companies seeking specific skills. Curricula need to be focused on preparing Georgians for the industries thriving and investing in the state, she said.

Cynthia Curry, who will lead the chamber’s Clean Tech initiative, pointed to the future Rivian and Hyundai factories and said the chamber will continue to support those and other technologies and startups combating climate change.

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“Being able to upskill all of these people into these new technologies is a huge, huge need,” she said.

Raphael Bostic, the 2022 chamber chair and president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, said the strategic plan helps refocus his organization’s efforts.

“I think this approach and this plan will facilitate us to act more directly, with more purpose and (to) make decisions quicker,” Bostic said, “so that we are deploying ourselves in a more effective way.”