By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
Leslie Henderson did not plan to be an economic development professional when she graduated with a Bachelor of Art’s degree in communications from Georgia State University.
Yet, that’s the way she has spent the last 16 years, first as Director of Development for the City of Knoxville and later as President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Roane Alliance. The self-admitted “driven and focused” individual retires at the end of March after a little more than 10 years leading the umbrella organization in Roane County.
“I couldn’t cutback,” Henderson says in reference to the responsibilities at the Alliance. The only option in her view was to leave the organization.
That decision doesn’t mean she will not decide on another career where she has more control over her schedule.
“I’m not ‘retiring retiring,’ just retiring from the Roane Alliance,” Henderson explains. There are trips planned with her husband, Barry, activities with the grandchildren, and she has already printed up her new business cards, offering services on a contract basis in economic development and communications.
Henderson and Roane County have arguably enjoyed considerable economic development success in recent years, particularly in light of the economic downturn. She attributes the good fortunes to available land, a good strategy, persistence, and a supportive community.
“This is a relationship game,” she says. “People have to trust that you are honest.”
Henderson says she applied this approach to everyone – from site selectors to the prospects the Alliance was recruiting and local leaders, both the Board of Directors at the Alliance and city and county officials.
“I have a great Board that understands recruiting and the needs of business,” she says, adding “I’m straight with them, giving the pros and cons of every deal.”
Henderson has used the same approach with the Roane County Commission whose members “have been very supportive.”
Her legacy project was also one that underscored the importance of those relationships and the trust that existed.
After devoting three-fourths of her time to recruiting a Volkswagen facility, Henderson says she felt Roane County’s last incentive package was “as far as we could go.” So, she pulled together key leaders from the County Commission, Alliance Board, and business community to present her case.
“They agreed with me,” Henderson said, adding that the next few days were “pretty scary” until Volkswagen agreed to the deal.
The Alliance CEO pretty much plans her work and works her plan.
“You have to make sure you’re in front of everyone when you’re a rural county, or they will forget you,” Henderson advises.
In the case of Roane County, she determined that the topography of the land was suited best to small and medium-size companies, so those became her target.
“Nobody else was going after them,” Henderson said. “We kept after it when we had the right target. We would not say no or take no for an answer.”
Such an approach is consistent with her philosophy.
“You look where the opportunity is, not where people tell you to look,” she explains.
Henderson leaves the Alliance satisfied with what she accomplished.
“I did what I set out to do,” she says. Her goals were to overcome the perception that locating in Roane County was not a serious option for companies and ensure the Alliance was viewed as a very professional and high tech organization.
Henderson would have liked to see more expansions locally, but readily admits, “I haven’t spent much time looking back.”
She describes her successor – Wade Creswell – as possessing the traits that are required to be successful. “He’s got the fire in his belly,” Henderson says.