The Chatter Class: Chamber, Science Center leadership tightly woven

Monday, July 14, 2008 at 3:07am

One of the chief endeavors with a job, especially a top-level position, is ensuring job security.

Ralph Schulz seems to have a pretty good grasp of that at the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.

President and CEO Schulz has made sure to stack his organization’s board with friendlies since taking over the reins from Mike Neal two years ago. On the flip side, the volunteer leaders who selected him for the job feel more comfortable with their man at the helm.

It’s an incestuous business, these nonprofit boards. Half the people who were on the chamber committee that selected Schulz were and are on the Adventure Science Center board.

Chief among those is Ron Samuels, chairman and CEO of Avenue Bank and new chamber chairman. He’s also chairman of the Adventure Science Center’s board.

There’s plenty more crossover between those two boards. Bert Mathews, president of The Mathews Co., is the chamber’s vice chairman and a board member at the center.

Two-term chairman Darrell Freeman is on the center’s board. Keith Herron, president of Regions Bank, sits on both boards. And Schulz’s buddy Uzi Yemin, president and CEO of Delek Holdings, Mapco Express’ parent company, also sits on the two boards.

With so much crossover, it almost looks like the science center is a chamber affiliate.

To recap Schulz’s history with getting the job, he landed it on the second attempt. Louisiana boy Mike Neal edged him out six years ago.

So Schulz bided his time by continuing to improve the Adventure Science Center. He showed his fund-raising prowess in putting the place on footing solid enough to build the new $20 million Sudekum Planetarium.

He also took the time to politick and become involved elsewhere, serving on the board of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau, for example.

Meanwhile, Neal spent nearly four years putting his foot — sometimes both — in his mouth.

His off-color remarks offended many of the city’s leaders, even those who use off-color language themselves. It was just about place and timing of the comments. Additionally, Neal built a reputation for meeting for the sake of meeting, rarely pushing the ball forward on anything.

Neal did bring more diversity into the chamber leadership and staff. But when Freeman became chamber chairman, it was the beginning of the end of Neal’s tenure. He just flat rubbed Freeman the wrong way and is now on Tulsa time.

Schulz has maintained the minority diversity on the board. As for business diversity, the board still leans heavily toward big business.

One of the new board members is Tom Oreck, president of vacuum maker Oreck, one of Nashville most recent corporate relocations. That’s a clear indication the very recognizable Oreck will play a role in helping recruit more companies to Nashville.

In another move, Schulz ran off the lobbyists for hire as part of reducing the board size. But that doesn’t mean all the lobbyists are gone. Dennis Alpert, senior manager of public affairs/government relations for Wal-Mart Stores, also is new to the board.

Perhaps, in remembrance of former Mayor Bill Purcell’s tenure, Schulz should at least hint toward some balance by bringing in someone from a neighborhood organization. John Stern, executive director of the Nashville Neighborhood Alliance, probably wouldn’t mind being there to persuade them with his softer, gentler approach.

But would that be good for long-term job security?

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