October 1, 2013

EXCLUSIVE: McLeese stepping down as head of Chamber

McLeese says decision was made before his heart attack last month. He will stay on as a consultant in military affairs.

Ike McLeese, who has served as chief executive of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce since 1994, is stepping down at the end of the year.

McLeese, 69, said his decision to reduce his duties to that of a consultant in military affairs was made in the early summer prior to a major heart attack he suffered Sept. 5.

He is presently recovering at home and is scheduled for open heart surgery in two or three weeks, after he gets stronger, McLeese told The State in an extended interview at his Forest Acres home.

“After 19 years, I needed to get off the 13-hour-a-day treadmill,” said McLeese, who informed chamber officials and his staff in a conference call at 4 p.m. Tuesday.

The chamber’s new board chairman, Holt Chetwood, said the organization’s executive committee will begin a search for a new chief executive immediately, with broad input from the community.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said McLeese “has been a wonderful influence and a great guiding force for the city and the entire metropolitan area. He’s been a friend and a confidant and I’m glad the chamber will still benefit from his leadership.”

Chetwood praised McLeese as “an effective leader who gets results. And when it relates to the military, he’s got contacts all over the world. There is no bigger supporter of the soldiers and Fort Jackson than Ike McLeese.”

‘We made out like bandits’

McLeese – who put his salary at $172,500 as chamber chief – said he plans to continue with the organization as a consultant on military affairs. He serves as a civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army and is credited in large part with the successes the region had during the 2005 round of base realignment and closure, called BRAC.

That year, Fort Jackson received three new missions: the Army’s Drill Sergeant’s School, expansion of the Army Chaplain School to include all service branches and the relocation of the Army’s 81st Regional Support Command, which oversees Army reserve units in 15 states and Puerto Rico.

Also, McEntire Joint National Guard Base at the time was considered vulnerable to being absorbed by nearby Shaw Air Force Base.

“I spent an inordinate amount of time learning how (BRAC) worked and then came back and started the drumbeat that Fort Jackson and McEntire were at risk,” McLeese said.

Former Mayor Bob Coble said McLeese worked tirelessly to make the public and elected officials aware of the threats to the bases and was key in securing a lobbying firm and developing a strategy for protecting the bases. The results, however, were not certain until the Department of Defense made the announcements – ironically on a Friday the 13th.

“When the BRAC announcement came out, Ike and I were together,” Coble said. “We had worked on it together for years. Either it would be the best day in Columbia history or both of us were leaving town. We weren’t too far from the Greyhound Bus station (to make a quick exit). We thought it would take too long to get to the airport.”

“But we made out like bandits,” McLeese said. “And that was our coming out party as a chamber. It made us a major player in the community.”

The military now is facing deep budget cuts due to the end of the war in Iraq, the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan and political posturing on Capitol Hill. Automatic budget cuts stemming from last year’s debt ceiling standoff, called sequestration, could trigger another round of BRAC as soon as 2015.

McLeese, who also serves on the S.C. Military Base Task Force, said he is looking forward to continuing to work to protect and expand missions at the region’s military installations.

“I have heard two- and three-star generals who have never been stationed here say that Columbia is the most military friendly city in the country,” he said. “I’m very proud of that.”

Highs and lows

McLeese, an Anderson native and a 1966 USC graduate, served for years in the political arena, working first as a staffer for then-U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings.

“After working for Fritz, everything else was downhill,” he joked. “A very unique and interesting individual.”

In 1970, McLeese worked on the gubernatorial campaign of John C. West, a race conducted amid the controversial busing of students to achieve the racial integration of South Carolina schools.

West, a Democrat, ran on a platform vowing to rid the state government of “any vestige of discrimination.” His opponent, Albert W. Watson, a Democrat-turned-Republican, opposed busing.

“It was the last gubernatorial race in South Carolina in which race was an issue,” McLeese said.

McLeese worked in West’s administration for four years, then for two of the city’s top public relations firms – Cook & Ruef, Inc., and Newman Saylor & Gregory – as a political consultant, running high profile campaigns throughout the country and at home.

McLeese took over the helm of a struggling chamber on Sept. 15, 1994. At the time, the organization had purchased a high-priced headquarters building at 930 Richland St. As a result, the organization had a $1.8 million a year budget and was $3.2 million in debt.

“I inherited a chamber that was in financial turmoil,” McLeese said. “It took eight years to climb out.”

Lee Bussell, chief executive of Chernoff Newman public relations firm and the chamber’s past chairman, said McLeese also kept a steady hand on the helm of the region’s most influential business organization during the worst recession in a generation.

“He had an up and down roller coaster ride,” Bussell said. “But he managed it through the worst economy we’ve ever had and had an indelible impact.”

‘There is going to be a void’

One of the city’s and region’s greatest failures, however, was the loss of Southwest Airlines to Greenville-Spartanburg in 2010.

Charleston, Columbia and Spartanburg had all courted the discount carrier for years.

Charleston was considered a lock because of the announcement that Boeing was moving into the Lowcountry. So the final slot came down to the Midlands and the Upstate.

When the Southwest delegation arrived for a final tour, they were met first by Lexington County officials and business leaders in Lexington, and the next day by Richland County officials and business leaders in Columbia, McLeese said.

But when they arrived in the Upstate, McLeese said, they were met by a united delegation from 11 counties in a single ballroom

“We got our hats handed to us,” he said. “They didn’t see a united community here.”

As a result, McLeese, along with Lexington Mayor Randy Halfacre, began uniting Midlands’ chambers through the S.C. Midstate Chambers Coalition. Today, that organization boasts 18 chamber partners from 11 counties.

“Southwest was a wake-up call, a call to action,” said Halfacre, who now also serves as chief executive of the Greater Lexington Chamber and Visitors Center, as well as Lexington mayor and informal chief of the Midstate Coalition.

Halfacre said McLeese deliberately stepped into the background of the larger organization because he didn’t want the other members to view it as “big ol’ bad Columbia trying to gobble everything up.”

“He has given me too much credit and far too much center stage,” Halfacre said. “There is going to be a void, and we’re going to miss him.”

McLeese said his stepping down from the spotlight is bittersweet because there is so much work left to do. The city is still struggling with the issues of homelessness, becoming more business-friendly and establishing a strong mayor form of government.

“But I’ve had a grand opportunity over the past 19 years,” he said. “And I feel like I’ve made a difference.”

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