As is often the case when hiring an executive, an argument can be made to go outside and get fresh eyes on an organization, or to promote from within a person who understands the culture and has the loyalty of the staff.
As the Knoxville Chamber conducts a search for a new CEO to follow the retiring Mike Edwards, the question is whether to look far afield or just look down the hall. Rhonda Rice Clayton has spent 25 years at the Chamber in a variety of jobs and is currently the executive vice president and the chief operating officer, running the organization on a day-to-day basis.
Clayton, 51, grew up on a dairy farm in McMinn County, milking cows, hoeing tobacco and driving tractors. She came to Knoxville to get her degree in economics from the University of Tennessee and settled down to teach school in Knox County, which she did for six years. “I was a 22-year-old teaching 18-year-olds,” she says.
In 1993, her friend Linda Hammontree suggested she spend a summer working at the Chamber for her husband, Jack Hammontree. She filled in for people on vacation doing a little of everything, including answering the phones. She says she loved the work, and the summer experience turned into a full-time job. Within four months, staff turnover had her working in economic development. “It was a baptism by fire, but I learned a lot. David Swanner and Jack put me on a path” that led to being a vice president.
A few years later new Chamber CEO Tom Ingram tried to assemble all the various marketing and economic development agencies into one organization, with mixed results. At one point, though everyone was in the same building, a literal wall was erected between the county industrial offices and the Chamber, a metaphor for Knox County dysfunction.
Nowadays, it’s all about cooperation. “We have great relations with the city and with the county,” Clayton says. “And Innovation Valley includes all the surrounding counties. We market the valley as a great place to do business.” One little-noticed but significant event of late was bringing onetime competitor Morristown and Hamblen County into the fold. Innovation Valley members meet monthly to work on projects together. Edwards, who followed Ingram as CEO, promoted Clayton to executive vice president and chief operating officer in 2003.
The Knoxville Chamber has a 28-person staff to market the area but not a lot of Knox County land for industrial development. The Midway Business Park is being readied for use, and there is some land remaining in the East Bridge Industrial Park at Mascot and 100 acres in Karns Valley. But surrounding counties have land available for industrial development.
Regardless of where a plant is located, “We just want the paychecks spent in the local economy,” says Clayton.
“I’ve had the privilege to work with many wonderful people,” she says. “We have a team approach around here. While you may have specific things related to your position, we have the mindset that if needed, everybody rolls up their sleeves and works to get it done. It could be something as big as one of our marquee events, like the Pinnacle Business Awards, or something as simple as setting up a room for a luncheon. We have an amazing staff that gets the job done.
“We try to treat our members the same way. We have over 2,300 businesses that are members of the Chamber; the majority of them are small businesses. Their needs are different, so we have a variety of benefits and programs that provide value. We want to see businesses grow no matter how big or small.”
Clayton is married to Jim Clayton, the retired COO of HGTV and Scripps Interactive. She has two children, two stepchildren and one grandson. “I’m big on family and like to have everybody over for meals, watch football or just hang out. I’m a Tennessee football fan, even in the rough years. I like basketball and softball. I enjoy music and go to a lot of concerts, especially at the Tennessee Theatre. It’s my favorite place.
“But I love this job. I’ve been able to go places and do things. It’s been great.”