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Changing of the guard.

Changing of the Guard

Talk With State Chamber EVP Ron Russell On The Eve Of His Reign

When Ron Russell moved to Fort Smith as president and CEO of that city's chamber in 1988, he thought he would retire there. Now, recently selected to man the State Chamber of Commerce's top administrative post, he's got a "For Sale" sign in his front yard and is planning a move to Little Rock.

"I feel like I've had a house for sale for 10 years," says Russell, who will assume his new position Dec. 1.

In the last decade, Russell has served in city government or chamber management in Russellville, Batesville and Fort Smith. The Arkansas Tech graduate has "worked the legislature for the last 15 years" in various capacities. He also owned a small business for a short time.

His qualifications for the job are not at question.

What people are wondering is just who is Ron Russell and what does he stand for? Can he effect change -- does he want to? Will he emerge from the shadow of his predecessor Bob Lamb, chamber EVP for 22 years, as a more moderate force?

Among the state's business leaders, the subject of Bob Lamb's administration brings on debate as heated as abortion or the Spectrum's 1-900 ads.

After Lamb announced his retirement, the Arkansas Gazette ran a piece praising his service to the state while an Arkansas Business columnist claimed a great disservice.

State Sen. Ben Allen says, "(The State Chamber) has been absolutely destructive in tax equity in Arkansas. It has been absolutely destructive in the financing of education and other progressive concerns. Surely this Chamber will take a different direction."


Little Rock attorney Scott Trotter, who often butted heads with Lamb, said publicly he hoped Lamb's successor would be more moderate.

Jerry Maulden, president of the State Chamber, a part-time volunteer position, plays down the past controversy and the question marks in the future. He points out that, "Ron Russell, like Lamb, will not make policy -- the board makes policy. The EVP's role is to carry out the goals and objectives of the executive committee."

Russell agrees, saying, "the State Chamber is not a one-man band. It will continue to work with all the entities including the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, Arkansas Finance & Development Authority, Arkansas Science & Technology Authority and the local chambers." He seems to shy away from the spotlight, wanting to broaden the focus of the beam. "It's a |we' mentality," he says.

Russell's position is actually EVP of the State Chamber and Associated Industries of Arkansas, a sister organization. The AIA has its own board, but the two groups meet jointly and work together. His is the only fulltime, "professional" position.

As Russell prepares to enter the crossfire, we talked with him about the Chamber, Lamb, and what he has plotted on the state's navigational chart. His answers, while purposely noncommittal, offer an indication of his inclinations.

AB: Do you have specific goals formulated yet? Russell: I have some shotgun ideas. Broad parameters. It is extremely important that we maintain the pro-business reputation that we have nationwide. I will work to preserve the incentives that Clinton and the legislature have in place.

AB: For example? Russell: For example, Act 529, which gives a 5 percent tax credit to companies spending $5 million or more on expansion here.

AB: There's a definite anti-529 sentiment, too. Some believe it shows only a concern for the big, corporate citizens of the state. Give us an example where it worked. Russell: Arkansas Eastman in Batesville. Three years ago they were looking at expanding in Tennessee or here. They did it here because of 529. They have paid back the credit many times-fold by the payroll taxes the plant generates. And the additional investment secures them here. Now I would agree there's got to be a balance.

AB: There's contingency in the state that believes Arkansas has been sold much like a third-world country: cheap labor, tax breaks, companies make money but the state remains poor with a low tax base. How do you think the state should be sold? Russell: I think in the early years, when Gov. Rockefeller was promoting the state for the first time, a "cheap labor" sell may have been the case. But that's not so any more. Today I tell companies to expect $8-11/hour, and that's not cheap labor. If they are looking for a free lunch, they need to go to another state. We'll sell Arkansas as a right-to-work state with trainable labor. We're also targeting highly skilled service jobs. Beverly coming to Fort Smith was not an accident.

AB: What are your thoughts on Amendment 2? Russell: The business community understood its importance; the average voter did not understand the complexities. It needs to be addressed again.

AB: How do you feel about following in Lamb's footsteps? Russell: Bob Lamb is truly a legend in the state. Ron Russell is not a Bob Lamb. I have a different leadership style and different abilities.

AB: Do you plan to exert the legislative force he did? Russell: We have strong committees in place to help with that. I understand the process and would expect over the years to be very active in the legislature.

AB: 1989 was a banner year for the State Chamber: $1.6 billion in capital investments. Is there pressure to improve on that? Russell: I expect the 90s to be very good for Arkansas, and I'm excited to be a part of that. I feel very humbled to have the opportunity to do something positive for this state: to mold the lifestyles and futures of generations to come.

AB: On a personal note? Russell: I'm married with two children and two grandchildren. I like to hunt and golf. I often play with an industrial prospect.

AB: Do you ever let a prospect win? Russell: I've never had to throw a game. Put it that way.

PHOTO : PASSING THE BATON: Ron Russell (right) steps into the job of State Chamber EVP on Dec. 1, a position defined by Bob Lamb for 22 years.
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Title Annotation:Ron Russell
Author:Ford, Kelly
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:interview
Date:Nov 19, 1990
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