New CEO of State Chamber Targets Business Climate

New CEO of State Chamber Targets Business Climate
Randy Zook: "The business climate includes everything from the work force to taxes to insurance costs to infrastructure availability."

Randy Zook is on the lookout for any proposed legislation or regulations that will hurt businesses in Arkansas.

"Our primary role is to monitor and influence those legislative and regulatory activities that affect the business climate," said Zook, who in July became president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries of Arkansas, which has 1,100 members.

Improving the business climate will help attract businesses to the state and keep those companies already in Arkansas from leaving, he said.

"We know that when companies or investors are looking for places to create new businesses, that business climate is one of the most important considerations for them," Zook said. "The business climate includes everything from the work force to taxes to insurance costs to infrastructure availability."

In June, after a four-month search for a new CEO, the State Chamber and AIA named Zook to replace Paul Harvel, who left to become president and CEO of the Economic Development Corp. of Clark County in Arkadelphia on July 1.

Zook's strong points include his experience managing a company and in economic development, said Hugh McDonald, chairman of the Arkansas State Chamber.

Zook started in sales and worked his way up to president and CEO of Atlantic Envelope Co. of Atlanta, which had about 1,400 employees and revenue of $200 million under Zook.

"He's run a business. He's met payroll," McDonald said. "He understands the economics associated with running a business. And he also understands the impact of regulation and taxes, [which] ultimately can support the growth of business or can inhibit the growth of business."

Zook said his experience heading Atlantic Envelope gives him perspective from the members' point of view. "I understand what business executives face in terms of leading their businesses and keeping them healthy," Zook said.

Zook also worked for a year and a half as deputy director for finance and administration at the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, where he was involved in luring companies to Arkansas and helping businesses add 10,000 jobs.

"I hated to leave," the 63-year-old Zook said. "But this was too good an opportunity to pass up. I'm healthy and have no desire to consider retirement."

Adding to Harvel's Success

Zook said he would build on Harvel's tenure at the State Chamber/AIA, which began in 2006.

In his two-and-a-half years leading the State Chamber and AIA, Harvel increased the membership by 55 percent and raised revenue by about the same amount to about $1.8 million, McDonald said.

"Paul did a great job in terms of re-establishing really strong relationships across the state at the local chamber level and with local economic developers," McDonald said.

Some of the highlights of Harvel's tenure include starting the Leadership Arkansas program, which builds a diverse statewide network of leaders who have a commitment to connect communities and improve Arkansas. The third leadership program will start on Sept. 14.

"The main thing that Paul was able to do, and he did it very beautifully, was to excite our membership base," said Randy Wilbourn, who will become the chairman of the State Chamber in October.

Harvel was unavailable for comment last week. But he said in a statement in February that, "I greatly appreciate the opportunity given to me by the Executive Committee and the Board of Directors to accomplish what we have done together over the previous two years. Our partnership has been the most satisfying work in my entire 40-year professional career."

Zook said his goal as CEO is to build the membership by targeting manufacturing companies outside of central Arkansas.

His strategy is to meet with the executives of the companies and make his case that joining the State Chamber and AIA is in their best interest.

As a member, companies can participate in the policy committees of the State Chamber/AIA and vote on policy statements. In addition, members have access to state and national elected officials, the State Chamber/AIA said on its Web site.

The dues depend on how many employees the company has, but they typically run about $500 annually, Zook said.

Upcoming Session

Zook said one of the items on the agenda for the 87th General Assembly would be to further reduce the taxes manufacturers pay for their utilities.

In the last session held in 2007, the Chamber/AIA successfully lobbied to reduce manufacturers' taxes on utilities from 6 percent to 4 percent, Zook said.

The key, though, in the upcoming session will be to understand what's being proposed and the implications those bills will have on businesses, he said, and then give the State Chamber/AIA members a chance to weigh in on those issues.

"We want an environment in Arkansas that's healthy and conducive to not only new businesses coming in, but to existing businesses," Zook said. "We know that when business succeeds that the people who work in those businesses have an opportunity to succeed, and that's what it's all about."

Kenny Hall, executive vice president of the State Chamber/AIA, said the organization is developing its agenda, which should be ready for its annual meeting on Oct. 15.

"We have already been negotiating the workers' comp and unemployment insurance issues with labor," Hall said. "We don't have an agreement yet, so there's some concerns we may have a bill filed and ... battle on those issues. But, hopefully, we can get an agreement."

Hall declined to say what the sticking points on the issues were.

Wilbourn said he believes that in the upcoming session Zook will be able to work with the government relations staff of the State Chamber/AIA and its members to determine the issues that need to be addressed.

Wilbourn said he then expects Zook to move forward with those items, "remembering every day that economic development of the state of Arkansas is the reason for the existence of the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce/AIA."