New Chamber CEO Prepares for Role
06/02/2016 04:28 PM
The Odessa Chamber of Commerce’s incoming CEO and president, Reneé Earls, said she hopes to keep the organization going in the right direction, with a resumé of longtime community involvement and no immediate plans to make drastic changes to the organization.

The CEO and president of the Odessa Chamber of Commerce serves as the public face of the organization, promoting business in Odessa, its chief marketer and the liaison between the various governmental bodies the organization relies on.

The officer also oversees the chamber’s three departments — operations, economic development and the convention and visitors bureau, with functions that range from events to luring new companies and people to the city. For the last 23 years, Mike George helmed the chamber. He retires June 30.

In July, Earls will take over.The lifelong Odessan has been a member for decades, since her time as a spokesperson for a blood bank run by Midland and Odessa hospitals in the early 1990s that followed a stint as a broadcast news reporter. In the past, she worked in publishing and for 15 years in marketing and communications for MCH before leaving in 2007.
Chamber officials announced her appointment last week.

Today, Earls runs The Odessan, a community magazine that she bought in 1999, which covers topics from new babies to the medical community and area nonprofits. She volunteers for several of the latter, having been a past board president of the United Way and the present-day president of the Odessa College Foundation, among others.

Earls plans to shadow George for about a week at the end of this month to sharpen her sense of the organization’s internal workings. For now, Earls said she has no big changes in mind.

“My vision right now is still unknown,” Earls said. “He’s done just great work and the staff is really rocking along, and I just want to continue that. And there will be new challenges.”

Still, her near-term duties will include naming a new director of economic development, after Scott Jones resigned from the role last month citing a “general lack of satisfaction.” Plans call for a selection committee, but the hire would ultimately fall to Earls. She said she has no timeline yet for filling the spot, what she described as her priority No. 1. But she said she would like to hire someone “very soon” and preferably someone local.

She will take the reins of an organization during an oil bust that shows no signs of relief on the horizon.

“Things are harder right now in our community,” Earls said. “And when you’re in a boom, everybody is busy — too busy really to get involved in different things. But the money is flowing and everyone is happy and everybody wants to be here. Then you have a bust, and people are losing their jobs, and money is much tighter. But isn’t that, too, when you need to utilize your chamber and let them help you?”

Earls said she also sees the function of a chamber of commerce as different than when she first joined Odessa’s — less of a source for general business information with an age of Internet, but still a source for helping businesses establish themselves or grow in a community and an opportunity to strengthen the network of business owners and employees.

Earls said she decided to apply for the position in January, after hearing an announcement of George’s pending retirement at a hospital event.
In part, she said she decided to seek a job that is more structured and full-time than her work publishing the magazine because her son is graduating from high school this week. But for now she said she plans to keep publishing the magazine after she becomes the chamber president.

Earls said she interviewed with a chamber selection committee for the position in April.

Austin Keith, the owner of Pinkie’s and chair-elect of the chamber who also headed the selection committee, said they chose Earls out of a pool of more than 50 applicants.

“She’s basically just a great ambassador for Odessa,” Keith said. “She served on so many organizations and still does. She has been a board president for the chamber of commerce before. She’s local. She’s got a real sense of pride and love for Odessa.”

Earls received the chamber’s “Outstanding Citizen of the Year” award in 2013, three years after serving as the organization’s chairwoman and after a series of other positions on the board.
Keith said it was clear she could coordinate and balance managing multiple departments.

George, for his part, described the public facing duties of the CEO as some of the most important for the CEO. He said much of Earls’ career focused on such work and the advantages of choosing a local meant she has existing relationships with the business community and some of the public figures she will have to report to.

“If I had been a one-person search committee and Reneé had applied, I would have picked her for the job,” George said. “I think she fits all criteria that this job requires. She loves Odessa. She’s been a wonderful volunteer for many organizations. She knows the business community because of The Odessan magazine. And she is well respected throughout the community.”

MCH CEO Bill Webster, a former boss of Earls, recommended her for the role to the chamber board. He said he cited her knowledge of the community including its leaders, her communication skill and her wide involvement in nonprofits and civic groups as qualifications.

The job requires the same skill set in booms or busts, Webster said. He said any changes Earls makes to the organization and how she ultimately leaves her mark on the group will likely play out over time.

“I would imagine that she would probably get her bearings first,” Webster said. “She’ll be new in that position. She’s a very good listener. I think she’ll probably take her time and really assess the situation first.”
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