Chamber’s new Mike focused on growing business, economy

Frank CagleOur Town Leaders, West Knoxville

Mike Odom recalls that it was Halloween, waiting for his son to get into his costume, and he was fooling around with his smartphone when he saw a headline that Mike Edwards was retiring from the Knoxville Chamber.

Knoxville was high on the list of places he and wife Monica had considered moving to if they left Round Rock, Texas – “It had to be right.” He didn’t say anything; he just showed her the page. She said, “Well?” He applied for the job last fall, survived a round of interviews with a chamber committee and started his new job heading Knoxville’s business-development efforts last week.

Monica Odom is finishing up her work in Round Rock while their son finished the semester at middle school. They have located a house out in West Knox County in “what Terry Turner (chair of the chamber board) calls ZIP code 379-too-far.” Monica works in the medical industry. She helps place medical-school graduates in hospital residencies.

Odom’s dad was an FBI agent, and after tours around the country, in California and Bucks County, Pennsylvania, went home to Baton Rouge, where Mike Odom grew up. Odom got his degree from Louisiana State University and worked for a while in the casino industry before taking the reins as chamber director for Baton Rouge. After that stint he headed the chamber at Round Rock. It’s a community near Austin, Texas, an area that’s home to tech giants such as Dell Computing. Under his leadership the chamber was named chamber of the year in 2018 by the Association of Chamber Executives. The Knoxville Chamber won the recognition in 2011.

Odom, 46, doesn’t foresee changes in the Knoxville Chamber staff, a group he lauds as a “tremendous team.” He also says the team will continue to focus on being a regional partnership with area counties to promote industrial development. Asked about high-profile homegrown businesses being sold and some headquarters functions moving out of town, he says, “We have to focus on helping our local entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and become the next Regal or Clayton or Pilot.” He says Knoxville has a track record of producing nationally recognized companies and outstanding family companies. “We need to promote our local businesses so maybe Warren Buffet comes to visit them one day.”

Knoxville Chamber’s new president and CEO says several factors have led to mergers and acquisitions of late. Cheap capital from low interest rates has made money available, and e-commerce has disrupted markets and created different opportunities in the economy. “We just have to take care of our people here and help them grow,” he says.

“We have tremendous assets in the Innovation Valley; we need to leverage them to grow the economy.”

He sees a continued push to encourage workforce development. He hopes to work with county Mayor Glenn Jacobs and schools Superintendent Bob Thomas to promote career education and prepare students for good jobs. “We had an unemployment rate of 2.2 percent in Round Rock.”

Interviewing for the chamber job wasn’t Odom’s first visit to Knoxville. He recalls being blown away by the atmosphere and the experience of visiting Neyland Stadium back in the day to watch his LSU Tigers play the Vols, and he’s still a big fan. He wore a Big Orange tie for his welcome-to-Knoxville photo. “But I had on my LSU socks.”

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