Business

Bill Russell celebrates 25 years with LKN Chamber

RUSSELL

Feb. 12. By Dave Yochum. A quarter century ago Bill Russell was the new president of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce. He had a full head of dark hair and resembled Richard Gere.

He still looks like the movie star but a lot has changed. He, and Lake Norman have grown up.

Russell is an authority in the world of chambers of commerce where you have to work with a wide variety of constituents and still keep the organization moving forward.

That he has. While other chambers have faded—the Great Recession hobbled many similar organizations—the Lake Norman Chamber under Russell’s leadership has made a name for itself with special events like a successful business expo, diversity events and countless educational opportunities.

Back 1995, when Russell attended his first Lake Norman Chamber leadership retreat, there was no social media, no internet. You didn’t search out friends on LinkedIn or Facebook. Relationships were made in person.

Nowadays the chamber board and staff create programs that are hyper-relevant and beneficial to members.

Twenty-five years ago, the Lake Norman Chamber was virtually the only networking group.

“Now there is literally a niche group out there to meet your needs…if you think about it, rarely a day that goes by that there is not a networking group meeting somewhere,” Russell said.

Promote, serve, represent

The chamber has always served three functions: Promote, Serve, and Represent the Member. That hasn’t changed but how he carries out those objectives has changed.

“In 1996, we were much more reliant on printed materials, telephone, and personal interaction,” Russell said.

“We still promote the membership and serve as an information conduit but now consumers, newcomers, etc can get that information at the touch of a finger through Google or Yahoo.”

Russell was 34 when he took over as the first executive director of the Tri County Regional Chamber of Commerce in the Low Country of South Carolina.

He recalled how a young student asked if there would be a job for her in the Tri County region after graduation. Russell knew a lack of water and sewer lines prevented growth, and that didn’t seem likely to change.

During a recent interview, Russell choked up remembering the conversation.

RUSSELL WITH THE LATE MAYOR WES SOUTHERN

At 37 he was named president and CEO of the Lake Norman Chamber, and went on to work with two dozen chamber chairs and countless members and volunteers.

Advocacy

Memorable moments include opening Ramsey Creek beach to public swimming after two decades of lobbying.

Local kids—and tourists—had nowhere to swim in the lake. The day it finally opened to the public, Russell stood at water’s edge in his blue seersucker suit for what seemed an eternity, apparently lost in thought. At long last there was a public beach.

“It took 13 years of lobbying,” Russell said.

Under Russell’s leadership over the past 25 years, the chamber created the Lake Norman Economic Development Corp. and Visit Lake Norman—both of which play a vital role in regional business development.

The chamber has also lobbied for new schools, Hwy. 73 planning and  improvements, keeping local hospitality monies in Lake Norman and getting funding for improvements to West Catawba Avenue 15 years ago.

But it opposed the purchase by Davidson and Mooresville of the old Adelphia Cable system. Cornelius stepped back, avoiding millions of dollars in losses.

The 900-plus member chamber also won “Outstanding Chamber of the Year” from the Carolinas Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives in 2015.

The award came at a signal moment in the chamber’s history, after it came out strong—but late—against the I-77 toll plan. Russell takes in stride criticism that the chamber was late to the anti-toll movement. Indeed, the volunteer leadership was divided.

Nevertheless, the chamber helped peel back the onion that was the I-77 toll plan and worked hard to fight it and modify it. “We made a mistake. We corrected ourselves,” Russell said.

Looking back, Russell said Lake Norman was largely rural and undeveloped in 1995.

“We didn’t have to follow a trail. We could make our own and the only limitations we had were those we imposed upon ourselves,” Russell said.

The lake was wide open and ready for business.

“Still is!” he said.

 

Snapshot: Bill Russell

Grew up in: Rock Hill

Very First Job: Bag boy in Community Cash Grocery

Cool Technology Way Back When: IBM Selectric II

First Official Job: 100% commission sales person

Volunteer Work: Boards of Visit Lake Norman, Hugh Torance House & Store, Our Towns Habitat for Humanity, Lake Norman EDC, the Ada Jenkins Center, US Jaycee Foundation, Lake Norman Kiwanis Club.

What struck you about the business community when you arrived 25 years ago? “Potential.”

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